We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958  
By Fintan O’Toole. Head of Zeus, London, 2021. 616 pages

The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole argues in his new book that we have moved in Ireland in the last 60 years from a restrictive Catholic and nationalist identity to one that is much more expansive and inclusive. He critiques what he sees as a previous confusion of Catholicism and citizenship in Ireland, the spiritual and economic “protectionism” of the 1950s and the “ingenious hypocrisy” of Irish Catholics, particularly in relation to sexual morality.

Ireland, he says, in the elegant prose of his final chapter, “came to accept that its familiar self had hidden a deep estrangement — of exile, of reality, of ordinary experience.” The country allowed itself “gradually, painfully, and with relief”, he writes, “to contract, to shrink away from the stories that were too big to match the scale of its intimate decencies. We ended up, not great, maybe not even especially good, but better than either — not so bad ourselves.”

O’Toole’s endpoint does not seem, however, like a particularly impressive or even interesting outcome to 60 years of social change, still less to 1,600 years of Christian life and heritage in Ireland, and his title is telling in that respect: “We Don’t Know Ourselves”. While his book has much to say about Catholic Ireland, the casual reader might conclude that it started with the 20th Century Irish statesman, Éamon de Valera, rather than being rooted in centuries of ancient tradition.

O’Toole is an award-winning writer, a highly influential journalist and commentator in the Irish Times and well-known overseas for his work on Brexit. A graduate in English and Philosophy from UCD and the author of many books, his central place in Irish media and cultural life is assured. He is currently working on a biography of Seamus Heaney.

His book reflects on the transformations in Ireland since he was born in 1958, links his own life to wider developments and takes a chronological approach, starting with the economic despondency and mass emigration of 1950s Ireland. O’Toole ranges widely, from referendum debates to political controversies to the Troubles and the abuse scandals and his book provides a reflective, if strongly ideological, trip down Ireland’s memory lane.

As the author has been a leading commentator with the Irish Times since the late 1980s — and this is a substantial volume of 616 pages — it is somewhat surprising that he does not devote more attention to his own paper. The author’s exceptional analytical powers are applied, in other words, to every other centre of influence in Irish life but not, or at any rate not here, to the Irish “paper of record”!

A major theme of this book is the gap between pious theory and complex reality in Ireland. O’Toole argues that Catholic activists, for example, were more interested in appearances than in the messy complexities of real life. He views de Valera’s Ireland as a failed State and legitimately highlights the economic failures and mass emigration of the 1950s.

He maintains that our “crushing irrelevance” to other Western European countries became evident when we were not invited to join the new European Free Trade Association in 1959. And while we looked with disdain on pagan England, for many emigrants, in the real world, England represented both opportunity and escape: “In the subterranean reality of ordinary lives, England could be a place to escape tyranny and contempt in Ireland”.

There is much to agree with here but also a sense that the theorizing is too neat and the generalizations too sweeping. Thus, the argument about the failure of de Valera’s version of the Irish state seems unjust and unnuanced. Mass emigration was a great failure and the economic reforms of the late 1950s were hugely significant but the earlier 1950s saw important reform too.

In healthcare, for example, while there was a Church-State battle about health policy in 1951, the 1953 Health Act significantly expanded maternity and infant care and free hospital access while the introduction of the VHI board (the State-supported private health insurance system) in 1957 was an innovative reform at the time for those without free hospital care.

Three changes of Government in the 1950s would suggest that our democratic system was operating effectively and O’Toole’s critique of those Governments arguably downplays the poverty of 1950s Ireland and the economic impact of the Second World War. Fishermen in the rural coastal area from which I come, to give one example, lost valuable fish markets because of the war and never recovered them afterwards. While O’Toole presents Ireland in the 1950s as a cultural backwater, dominated by censorship and Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin, writers like Brian Fallon in An Age of Innocence (Gill and Macmillan, 1998) have depicted a lively Irish cultural life during that period.

The book considers the battle between the post-1960s cultural and sexual revolution and traditional Irish Catholicism and the gap between pious theory and “real life” is exemplified, O’Toole argues, by the issue of abortion. Thus, the proposers of the 1983 pro-life (or eighth) Constitutional amendment, which was passed by the people in 1983 and repealed in 2018, are seen in reductive terms as wanting to show that Ireland was still “holy, Catholic and a beacon to the world”.

In my memory, arguments about Catholic crusading came largely at that time from those opposed to, and seeking to discredit, the proposed amendment, rather than from its advocates. As a grassroots supporter in 1983, I, along with many others, saw the amendment as a prudent defensive step intended to give Constitutional protection to the existing legal ban on abortion.

For many years, the Amendment did protect the lives of unborn babies – in the sense that the abortion rate was significantly lower than it would have been in the context of an Irish abortion regime. This argument has been reinforced by the sharp rise in the Irish abortion rate since Repeal. On the point of alleged hypocrisy in 1983, the Irish State had no control over the abortion regime in the UK but was entitled to legislate in its own jurisdiction.

The flippant title of Mr O’Toole’s chapter on the Eighth Amendment debate in the 1980s (“Foetal Attractions”) does not do justice to an issue that has provoked huge controversy across the world, and is re-emerging internationally as a matter for debate. Irish journalists were extremely vocal on abortion while the Eighth Amendment held sway here but now that a liberal abortion regime has been achieved, their collective attitude seems to be: “Nothing to see – move on there.”

O’Toole’s passages on the North bring the reader back to the horrors and traumas of the Troubles, from Bloody Sunday to the terrible Provisional IRA car-bomb campaign to the IRA hunger strikes and loyalist killings, and to the self-sacrificing work for peace of people like John Hume.

O’Toole’s pages here are an analytical tour de force, for example, in his dissection of how the IRA justified its campaign. On the other hand, he is a Dubliner who was not generally resident in the North during this period and his Northern chapters, while analytically impressive, lack the authority that comes from deep personal experience of the Troubles. Nor does his book properly acknowledge the courageous work done, year after year, by the Catholic Church in opposing the “armed struggle” and preventing a possible slide into full-blown civil war.

A notable feature of the media narrative in Ireland in recent decades has been the endless repackaging of controversies relating to “Catholic Ireland”, and more specifically – to mention just a few examples –  to a long-deceased Dublin Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, to Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show on TV or to a well-publicised trip to Belfast in 1969 by Irish feminists for the purpose of importing contraceptives.  

No one could produce a more sophisticated version of the media narrative than the most prominent Irish commentator of recent decades, so O’Toole’s book offers an important indication of where the Church now stands in the public square.

Fintan O’Toole himself reported on, and legitimately highlights here, the grave abuse scandals that so damaged victims and the Church itself. On the other hand, his book pays little attention to the good that the Church did, and does, for example, through the outreach of countless Irish missionaries who brought the light of Christ to other nations.

Frank Duff, the Irish founder of the Legion of Mary, famously worried as far back as the 1960s about the materialism of Irish Catholics and few Catholics today would wish to paint our recent past in rose-tinted colours. One might also acknowledge a certain isolation in Catholic Ireland in the 1950s and lack of preparedness for future challenges.

The memoir of a former Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Cahal Daly (Steps on my Pilgrim Journey, Veritas, 1998) reflected on the pastoral challenges he witnessed in France in the 1950s and suggested that Ireland was then shielded from some of those challenges by a certain geographical isolation and time-lag.

Catholic Ireland in the 1950s and even more recently, now seems like another universe. By the same token, however, the constant media scolding about its iniquities may itself be running out of road. O’Toole’s analysis does provoke thought by offering well-written and extensively researched chapters on major developments since the 1950s — but one might wonder about its usefulness in contributing to reflection on where we go from here.

His somewhat vague conclusion presents the country’s uncertain identity and future, to some extent at least, as a positive phenomenon: “there need not be a single, knowable future”.

Many ordinary Irish people today, however, have an uneasy sense that things are not going well in many critical areas, both morally and economically, and that the nation is likely to face very choppy waters in the years ahead. Perhaps, while acknowledging both the positive achievements and grave scandals of the past, the time has come to fix our gaze firmly on the challenges and injustices of today!

Tim O’Sullivan taught healthcare policy at third level in Ireland and completed a PhD on the principle of subsidiarity.