We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland

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Release Date: 
March 15, 2022
Reviewed by: 

In this utterly fascinating and ultimately disturbing book about modern Ireland, Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times journalist, is at his best as a reporter and commentator. Essentially, O’Toole traces the roller coaster of modern Irish history from 1958 (the year of his birth) to the present. It’s a tale of six decades of scandals and soaring hopes, a narrative that chronicles a mind-boggling landscape of greed and delusion, suffering and violence, a tale of a society whose motto historically has been whatever you say, say nothing.

Tracking the story of modern Ireland by pinning important cultural moments to personal events in his life allows O’Toole to humanize and particularize complex historical realities. O’Toole’s cast of characters—priests and politicians, businessmen and revolutionaries, his father Sammy, a bus conductor and his mother Mary, a worker in a cigarette factory—is epic, but by employing anecdotes about his own life and the lives of Charles Haughey, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, and other catalysts in the island’s recent history and blending those anecdotes with an analysis of events that is at once lucid and nuanced, O’Toole makes this book both deeply personal and rigorously objective at the same time.

O’Toole begins his narrative with a glance at Ireland’s vanishing past—in the Blasket Islands as they were being abandoned by their dwindling population shortly before his birth. His brief stop in the Blaskets sets up the tension at the heart of his chronicle, the ever-present friction in Ireland between myth and reality, the struggle to find truth in a “culture of deliberate unknowing” that had shaped the country throughout his lifetime. Instead of Alice in Wonderland, it’s O’Toole in Ireland, and things in Irish society often seem as incomprehensible as they do down Alice’s rabbit hole.

In his walk through six decades of Irish history, O’Toole touches on a multitude of themes, a list of cultural “known unknowns,” a catalogue of subjects that the Irish tended to be reticent about over the years—sex, abortion, marriage, homosexuality, religion, women’s rights, education, the Troubles—all subjects that highlight “Irish people’s inarticulacy, embarrassment, and evasiveness” in a “culture of deliberate unknowing.”

It was the land of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” in which birth control was illegal, but doctors wrote prescriptions for condoms, art held an honored place but censorship was king, government officials mouthed platitudes about the values of family and lived openly with mistresses, priests cursed unmarried girls for getting pregnant while they hid the facts about their own children from the public eye.  It was a country where “the way of ambiguity and unknowing, of dodging and weaving around reality” was commonplace.

In the late 1950s, Ireland began the process of entering the modern world, but, as O’Toole makes clear, it wasn’t an easy process—and it isn’t over yet. “At the time of my birth,” he says, “there was a double layer of defence: the economic and the spiritual. I was to grow up in an economy protected from foreign competition and in a culture protected from moral danger.” The agrarian economy O’Toole was born into became the tech economy of his adulthood. The Ireland that made divorce and abortion and homosexuality crimes, that normalized news about kneecappings and bombings, that institutionalized child abuse and the enslavement of unwed mothers, that permitted political and economic corruption, that allowed the myth of the Celtic Tiger to become an alternate reality, became the country that found some form of peace in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, that in 2015 and 2018 voted overwhelming Yes to same sex marriage and No to the age-old ban on abortion. 

In O’Toole’s lifetime, Ireland has found itself post-economic boom and post-Catholic, the Celtic Tiger, the Irish kleptocracy, and the Magdalene Laundries gone but remembered, the silences made known. This new Ireland O’Toole sees with a cautious hope, not the deluded country of the past, accepting vast official fictions, but a country of the present with a Keatsian negative capability, able to live with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without demanding fictional certitudes. In other words, a brave new world in which history is no longer a nightmare from which its people are trying to awake.