Fintan O’Toole on Ireland’s transformation — and the reverse version now underway in America

Fintan O’Toole never puts it this directly in his new book, “We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland,” but beneath his account of the remarkable transformation of that green island nation on the western edge of Europe, there’s a clear narrative through-line. Many of the things that are the most heavily mythologized about Irish culture and Irish history, in his account — the boozing, the intense relationship with the Catholic Church, the nationalist violence, the compulsive storytelling, the attachment to a manufactured vision of the past — were profoundly destructive.

There were reasons why those phenomena existed, of course, and why they became so strongly associated with Irish nationhood and Irish identity over the course of many centuries of colonialism, intermittent rebellion and internalized repression. O’Toole would agree that none of those factors was entirely negative all the time — as he observed during our long and winding Salon Talks conversation, the fact that Ireland “punches above its weight” in literary terms has a lot to do with the national tendency toward evasion, prevarication and sublimation.

But over time those factors produced a culture that was backward, insular, fueled by tangible self-hatred and constitutionally incapable of telling the truth — about the sexual hypocrisy that made possible long-standing bans on divorce and abortion, for example, or about the rampant sexual abuse of children within the church. At just about the time O’Toole was born in 1958, Ireland began a long, slow, uneven process of integration with the modern world, which was full of tangents and detours and tragic or hilarious reversals, and which to a large extent creates the narrative arc of his book. (His title refers to a specifically Irish colloquialism: “We don’t know ourselves” is an exclamation that might accompany the purchase of a new gas cooker, the move to a new suburban house or a winter vacation to Florida or Spain.)

To break out of its self-constructed isolation and become an approximately modern, approximately European nation, Ireland had to leave some of those mythological elements behind, or at least had to deal with them in a different way and in a global context. The challenge now is how to define being “Irish” when that identity now encompasses immigrants from Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe alongside the supposedly Celtic natives, but without erasing the island’s rich and distinctive traditions. Much of my conversation with O’Toole inevitably revolved around the relationship between Ireland and the United States, which has shaped Irish history and the Irish economy since at least the late 19th century. It also defines us as individuals. He was born and raised in Dublin but knows America well: He holds a faculty position at Princeton and has written extensively about U.S. politics in his regular column for the Irish Times. I was born in California but spent portions of my childhood and young adulthood in Ireland; I witnessed parts of the dramatic transformation he describes in “We Don’t Know Ourselves,” but only halfway understood it. If we had a couple of hours and a few pints, I could go into the areas where O’Toole and I view these events differently, and why. But he wrote the book and I didn’t; fair play to him.

Fintan, your book is being published in America just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, which is certainly appropriate. Even more so considering that, as far as I know, St. Patrick’s Day was an invention of Irish America, exported very effectively back to the homeland.

Yeah, completely. I have a suspicion, historically — and this is the even worse secret — that it was invented by the British army.

Really? Surely not.

The British army were very good about sort of integrating the Scots and the Welsh, making them feel British. And I think they started off with a day for the Scots where they could parade around in their kilts. There’s a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan from the 1780s called “St. Patrick’s Day,” which is the first reference I know of anywhere. And it’s all about the British army. So what a dark secret that would be, if the British army invented St Patrick’s Day.

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There was definitely a period, right around the early 1800s, when the British made a serious effort to integrate the Irish into the Union.

Yeah. It’s sort of hard for us to get our heads around, but before the Great Famine in Ireland, Ireland was one-third of the population of the United Kingdom. So I think like a third of the British army was Irish. Wellington of course, was famously from Dublin and set off his Irish troops at the battle of Waterloo saying, “I don’t know what they’ll do to the enemy, but by God they terrify me.”

There’s so much going on in this book, and the relationship between Ireland and America is a central theme. It’s obviously a big question for Irish Americans, people in the Irish diaspora: How has Ireland changed and how do we understand that? For somebody like me, an American who spent a significant amount of time in Ireland growing up, it presents a particularly illuminating view of things that I witnessed while they were happening, but did not completely understand. To me there are three strands to this book. One is a chronicle of all the things that have changed in Ireland during your lifetime. It’s also a bit of a personal and professional memoir. And running throughout all that is a general theme, which is about the duality or contradiction or hypocrisy that has characterized so much of Irish society and Irish political life over that period.

Yeah. So I suppose the title — I don’t know whether the pun quite works in America, but you’re probably Irish enough to know that “We don’t know ourselves” is used in Ireland as, “Oh, things are just fantastic. We don’t know ourselves since we got the new lawn mower,” but also more literally. So I was trying to reflect the fact that Ireland is transformed, and by and large transformed for the better, during my lifetime.

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I’m 64, I was born in 1958, which was really when this kind of social revolution and economic revolution in Ireland began. And there’s no doubt about the fact that it’s simply a vastly better place for most people. But it also, over that period of time, has this strange capacity to not know things. Donald Rumsfeld talked about the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” He missed the Irish one, which is the “unknown known.” The thing that everybody knows but is not talked about or not addressed.

I know all societies function in that way to some extent, but I think it’s just particularly pronounced in Ireland. In the year I was born, in 1958, Ireland was doing the sort of thing you usually do with a bloody revolution, but doing it kind of pretending it wasn’t really doing it, doing it kind of peacefully and slowly. Which was essentially deciding to be modern, to undergo this process of modernity, which in many ways it had missed out on — and it was going to do that by importing it. 

So the other story — I think it’s obviously fascinating to those of us who are Irish or of Irish extraction, but it’s also interesting in terms of globalization, whatever we mean by that. You have this society which is the great outlier in Western Europe, the backwater, the place that even missed out on the 1950s postwar boom, and it rapidly becomes one of the most economically globalized places on earth. And over the course of that process, it manages to sort of hold itself together by not facing what was happening, by pretending it was still the most Catholic country in the world and that we all still lived by a certain kind of code. 

So for most of my lifetime, you could not legally buy contraceptives in Ireland. For most of my lifetime, you could not get divorced. Never mind abortion being subject to life imprisonment from the moment of conception, all that stuff. So Ireland maintained, for a very long time, this symbolic sense of itself as being exceptionally holy while at the same time desperately trying to be like everybody else and to enjoy sex and money and consumerism and all those kind of things that Irish people really wanted.

When I was reading your book, I kept flashing back to personal experiences I hadn’t really grasped at the time. I remember visiting my cousins on the north side of Dublin, at some point in the ’80s, and at first being bewildered that one of my cousins played in a cover band that only did Eagles songs. But when I went to hear them play, at some dreadful pub in a shopping mall, I understood that in some way I could not articulate as the most Irish thing ever. That kind of mixture is a lot of what your book is about.

Yeah. You know, in one way, it’s the source of Irish creativity and imagination, being able to live in two worlds at the same time is pretty good for writing. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why Ireland tends to punch above its weight in literary terms. But socially it can be very destructive. There was a lot of cruelty involved in Ireland’s self-image as the most Catholic nation on earth and all that. That was purchased at the expense of vulnerable people, particularly women and children. There had to be a kind of terror which was, we are going to maintain this facade and this fiction really over your body, not your dead body but your living body, if you step out of line.

I mentioned in the book that I knew two words for as long as I can remember, along with “mama” and “dada.” I remember Letterfrack and Daingean. These are place names in Ireland, quite far away from where I grew up in Dublin. How did I know these names? They were the names of so-called industrial schools, places where bad children were sent, and they were very real. We really only grasped the horror of what went on in these kind of institutions in the very end of the 20th century. We’re still dealing with the legacy of that: People may have heard of the Magdalene laundries, where “errant women” were locked up.

Again, for most of my lifetime, the laws in Britain that were used to prosecute Oscar Wilde in the 1890s were still enforcing Ireland. So for gay men — there were friends of mine just left Ireland quietly in the 1980s because they just couldn’t stand it anymore. They had good jobs, it wasn’t economic. They just couldn’t stand being second-class citizens anymore. So there is a price to paid for maintaining a very high opinion of yourself which is based on lying.

One of your central contentions, as you say, is that all these things — especially the widespread physical and sexual abuse of vulnerable women and children — were both known and not known. But while the hypocrisy around abortion and contraception and homosexuality was right there on the surface, the abuse scandals were a bit different. How widely do you think ordinary Irish people knew that was happening?

So I don’t think most people knew the details. If you read the reports into the industrial schools on what happened to children, some of it’s almost unimaginable. It’s so dark that you really don’t want to go there. So particularly with the sexual stuff, I mean, most people just didn’t want to think about that. They knew that the schools were violent places and places that kids were terrified of. They knew the kids were constantly running away, for example, because they were always sending them back. The social function they had was to be terrifying. And the Magdalene laundries, which were institutions in which women who were thought to be in moral danger or causing moral danger to others — very often just women who were disobedient in some way — could just be locked up in these laundries. Essentially they were slave institutions. In Dublin, from the center of the city, you could walk between five and 10 minutes to a huge Magdalene laundry. It’s not like these places were way off out in the sticks where people couldn’t know about them. They were very much part of the society and again, they couldn’t really have functioned in the way they were supposed to function if they weren’t quite visible. And then you had to be able, mentally, to send your laundry down to be done by these incarcerated young women and think that was OK.

Again, I’m not saying Ireland is unique in this. We know historically that people’s capacity to see evil around them and not comprehend it or not take it into their view of the world is very strong. But I think there’s a particular Irish thing, which is to do with mass immigration. If you’ve had generation after generation of raising your children for export, I think you have to compartmentalize. I mean, how could you raise a kid and think… For so much of our history, when it wasn’t like you could fly over to New York and do your shopping. It was like death. I mean, as you probably know, up to the 1950s, there was this thing called the “American wake.” You would more or less have somebody’s funeral before they left for America, because you’d never see them again.

So that does something to the mentality, I think, over a long time. You get used to saying, the people that are gone, that’s it. And we don’t really want to know too much about them because it’s too painful. We’ll just sell them an image of Ireland we think they would like: “Oh, it’s still nice thatched cottages and red-haired maidens and ‘The Quiet Man,’ and if you like that, that’s absolutely grand. We’ll play up to it somehow.” I think that’s one of the reasons why you have this neurosis.

I think there was a tendency through those years for that sentimental narrative or sentimental vision of Ireland to become an exportable commodity. People in Ireland really didn’t believe in it, but it was useful to cover up some of the realities that people didn’t want to talk about. I certainly became dimly aware of certain contradictions between the image of Ireland that I inherited and what I saw on the ground when I was there.

Very much so. It’s sort of on a loop, isn’t it? Which is, we reinforce your dreams of Ireland and then you come back and tell us how wonderful Ireland is because you’re living up to this. And the key moment — I wrote a chapter in the book about this — was John F Kennedy’s visit in 1963. That was really the epitome of all this because Kennedy is the Irish dream: The Catholic family who have left poor Ireland and reached the pinnacle. He’s in the White House, he’s young, he’s glamorous, he’s beautiful, he’s sexy — although we never said sexy back then — and of course it was this image of himself and Jackie and the children as the perfect Irish Catholic family. Which we all now know is completely true, of course — John was never with another woman. [Laughter.]

So he comes back to Ireland, that was really important to him and I think all his advisers thought he was completely nuts. Three days going to villages in Ireland so people can adore you — why do you need this? So there’s also the Irish American need for that validation, along with our need for him. What I describe in the book it’s not something that you find in most accounts of that visit. There was a garden party at the Irish president’s mansion in Dublin, and all the great and good of our society were invited. Every fancy hat shop in Dublin was sold out. And then they have a riot, essentially. Kennedy comes out with the Irish president, who was a very old man, a hero of the 1916 rebellion, and they rush at them, they nearly knock over the ancient Irish president just to try to get at JFK, to touch him: “Jack, Jack — look at me.” It was a bizarre moment of loss of control. 

It’s almost where all this stuff that you’re talking about kind of begins to look completely crazy, which it is. There’s some illusion here that we need you to recognize, and it’s almost personal: I want you to look at me when I look at you. Kennedy himself, in his speeches, does this stuff which, looking back on it, it’s amazing. He gives this speech in New Ross, which is where his ancestors came from. A nice small town on the south coast, but a pretty depressed kind of place back then. He does this speech which is basically saying, “If I hadn’t left, I might be working over there in that factory.”

The factory is pretty much shit. It’s really pretty terrible. And it’s sort of funny, but he’s also saying, “If I’d stayed here, I’d be just a schmuck like you, and look at me now!” It’s a funny, strange symbiotic relationship of Irish America wanting to be validated as having overcome all these terrible Irish circumstances, while Ireland wanted to be accepted as being like America and on the road to becoming properly American.

How do you reckon with the concerns over the last 40 or 50 years about whether Ireland is becoming too “Americanized”? First we have to decide what the question means: You do mention the, if I may say it, ridiculous houses that some people built in the Irish countryside. But that aside, there’s been a lot of tension around that question: Is there some important national identity that we are sacrificing in this process?

You’re absolutely right that it’s a huge concern in the 1960s and ’70s among artists and intellectuals and poets, and it’s not unreasonable. OK, we’ve opened the place up now to all of this American industry, we’ve sort of adopted JFK, particularly, of course, in death as our icon. What about all that revolutionary history? What about the Irish language, the music, the deep sense of a very localized identity, what’s going to happen to that? It wasn’t unreasonable because that traditional Irish culture was extraordinary. And it’s still thriving, by the way, this is the thing. If you hear what they call Sean-nós, unaccompanied singing in the Irish language, like, your heart stops. I mean, it’s the most beautiful thing, but it does not sound European. It doesn’t sound anything like European classical music or anything like that. And the Irish language is a very, very old language, outside of the classical languages the oldest written vernacular language we have in Europe. So there are these traditions which were held onto through oppression and colonialism and all those things, and it’s perfectly understandable to have this sense that, “Oh, this is being destroyed now by becoming Americanized.”

But I think what that misses is that actually a lot of that culture… Just to give you a simple example, if you were starting out now as an Irish traditional musician, you really want to play the fiddle, learn the tunes. You would get a book of tunes written down in Chicago by the chief of police in the 19th century. Because so much of that traditional culture — the poorer people were the bearers of traditional culture. They were the ones who had to emigrate, they were the people who were most affected by the famine. They took their music, their culture, their storytelling to America.

So when I think about something like “Riverdance,” which became this big modern symbol of Irishness around the world, a lot of people complained about it as strip-mining traditional Irish culture and all that. I loved it! I thought it was actually very truthful in a way, because it’s Broadway plus traditional Irish dancing, refashioned for an American commercial world. So this circular process of stuff coming and going, I think, is more the way to think about the way the culture really works. So I was never really hung up on it. I think if you said to people, “What is your culture?” Well, actually being able to stay in my own country would be a start, and not being locked up by some lunatic who thinks I’m a moral danger. It would be a start being able to be the person that I am and tell the story that I want to tell.

If you look at it now, I mean, there’s an astonishing flowering of Irish writing, and particularly writing by young Irish women. People think of it as the Sally Rooney phenomenon, but it’s not just Sally. I find it, as a reader, stressful in a really good way, because it’s really hard to keep up with: Who’s the new writer I need to know about? So I don’t think the culture has been in that sense weakened or adulterated, I think it’s actually kind of finding its feet, in negotiating between its own indigenous local instincts and this very globalized world.

Yeah, I think I’ve been persuaded to that point of view. A cousin of mine who is an Irish traditional musician and and an Irish speaker and lives in Connemara, tells me how diverse the scene is out there. There are Irish people and Irish Americans and people from England and Australia and all over Europe. He works with a singer who is, I believe, both of Irish and Arab ancestry and brings those musical influences together.

I mean, culture is and has always has been about exchange, doesn’t it? Writing, for example comes to Ireland quite late, comes with Christianity. And Christianity comes late, in the 5th century. And scholars can identify, almost immediately there’s an Irish way of writing. It looks like… any scholar can tell that’s Irish and of course this is true of everywhere, isn’t it? In early Christian Ireland, you find images of Christ which are clearly mixed with pre-Christian images of some other god. I mean, go back as far as you can: What was the “pure” Irish thing? When did that ever exist?

I think it’s difficult to convey to people how strange and unusual the Ireland of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was. I don’t know if there’s another example in history of a revolutionary society, which is what that was, being so fundamentally conservative after the new order takes over. 

Well, Kavanagh Higgins, who was one of the first ministers in the first Irish government a hundred years ago, said, “We’re the most conservative bunch of revolutionaries in world history.” I think there’s two good ways of identifying yourself in general. I mean, one is “us” and the other is “not them.” And the Irish thing, for all its strengths and all its power, was of course very complex because of mass migration, and also because of the Protestant-Catholic divide: Were Protestant people properly Irish? Did you have to be Catholic to be Irish? I mean, once you started asking questions about Irishness, it’s actually much more complex and fragile and ambiguous than anybody thought it was.

So the “us” stuff was a bit difficult. But “not them” was — well, we knew who they were. That was the Brits. So it was a nationalist revolution and it was all about saying, “We’re not British.” And for very good reasons. If I’d been around in those times, I would’ve probably been out with a gun or whatever. But the problem with it psychologically is that Britain is Protestant, and therefore Catholicism becomes an essential marker of Irishness. This doesn’t mix with Irish Republicanism, which was very much influenced by the American Revolution, by the French Revolution.

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But we had to be Catholic, and then because Britain was the epitome of industrial culture, we had to be rural. If, like me, you were growing up in the city, you weren’t properly Irish because the real Ireland was, as you say, out in Connemara playing Irish music and speaking Irish. So you just take what the other thing was and reverse it and it actually becomes almost as oppressive. It becomes this turning inside out of the very thing that was repressing you. I think it’s taken us a long time to get comfortable with the idea that maybe being us is OK, we don’t have to be “not them.” And maybe being us means embracing a sort of openness and plurality and multiplicity and being comfortable with that. Actually, I think Ireland is interesting right now in that it’s one of the few Western European countries that doesn’t have a far-right political party, for example an anti-immigrant political party.

That’s an excellent point. So was the breaking of the Catholic Church’s power in Ireland, which happened very recently, a necessary key to creating this possibility of a new idea of Irish identity or Irish nationality?

Yes. You had to break that idea that there was this thing called “Irish Catholicism,” which wasn’t either Catholicism or Irishness. It was this fusion of nationality and religion, which we know, again, from anywhere around the world, it’s not what you particularly want to create. It’s bad for nationality and bad for religion. The great irony in Ireland was that the reason it lasted so long and the reason it collapsed so quickly, I think, are the same reason: It had no immune system. If you were Catholic in France or Spain or Italy, there were anti-clerical traditions going back a long way. So if you were a conservative Catholic, you had to be on your toes. You had to have newspapers and artists and create a Catholic culture. In Ireland, you didn’t have to do that because it was all Catholic. So the church had this unchallenged power for a very, very long time, but it didn’t have any immune system.

Here’s a simple thing I’ll say: Try to think of a single Irish writer, one great writer, who was a practicing Catholic. I mean, isn’t it weird? You think about this incredibly Catholic culture where over 90% of its population is not just Catholic, but believing, practicing Catholic. And name me one orthodox Catholic writer or artist of any kind. It was like the whole of the Irish imagination had to migrate out of this very repressive culture, which meant that it just didn’t have these weapons, these deeper roots of having a place in the Irish imagination.

I quote the great novelist John McGahern. He lived in rural Ireland on a small farm and one of his neighbors said to him, “John, you don’t go to mass.” And he said, “No, I don’t.” And the neighbor said, “Why do you not go to mass?” And he said, “Well, I don’t believe, so I would feel I would be a hypocrite,” and the neighbor said “But you know, John, none of us believes, we just go to see all the other hypocrites.” It’s fantastic: We’re all in on the same game of ambiguity, what we’re saying, what we’re not saying.

Once that unraveled, it just unraveled very quickly. Once that starts, it becomes impossible to stop. The speed with which it went was astonishing in one way, you think about this institution which has been so powerful for 1,500 years, just gone. But the seeds of it, I think, were in that very doubleness which made it so powerful. That was also the thing that meant that once you crossed that line and people didn’t play this game anymore, it was gone.

It must be strange, given that you spend part of your life in the United States now, to see this country starting to veer back toward almost exactly the kind of hypocritical, repressive society that Ireland more or less escaped from. I mean, this year we will see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, there’s no doubt about that. They may well revisit the privacy decision that effectively overturned all the laws against contraception and homosexuality. It’s like we’re seeing an organized movement to recreate the Ireland of the early ’60s in a vast and diverse nation with a hundred times the population. It’s surreal.

It is completely surreal. I would have thought, like, if there’s anything in my book that might be a warning — I hope it’s enjoyable and pleasurable, but also it’s a warning, which is that you really don’t want to go there. You really don’t want to go back to a theocracy, which is essentially what a lot of the American right is pushing for, to redefine American citizenship as fundamentally religious, to bring those religious values there and to reconstruct a kind of white supremacy,

On the separation of church and state, and just how extraordinary that idea is — this is a great irony to so many millions of Irish people who left over the years. Because of course being Catholic was a bad thing, a disadvantage, but they were able to make a way in American society because that could be overcome, and you had the Constitution on your side. Of course it was much easier when you were white. But I think of that whole great story of Irish America — and it frankly disgusts me to see the number of Irish Americans around Donald Trump, for example, replaying the Irish story not as a story of liberation and opportunity and generosity, but as a story of, “Well, we did it, why can’t you? If you people are failing, it’s because there’s something wrong with you.” The appalling hypocrisy of it.

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But also, apart from that, all this stuff they want to do — the thing to remember is that even in its own terms, it doesn’t work. I mean, trying to control what women do with their bodies and with reproduction has never worked. It’s not going to work here and it didn’t work in Ireland. It just leads to greater and greater hypocrisy, cynicism and cruelty, and a lot of people have to pay a price in their own lives. The Irish Catholic church would have been much better off trying to separate church and state. Keep their own sense of identity, their own belief, their own passions about what motivates them, which I deeply respect. Keep those separate from cynical power politics. Because once you let cynical power politics take over, you’re destroying your own religion and you’re destroying your own set of beliefs. If I was an American conservative, I might read my own book as a kind of a warning: Don’t go there.


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