Revising the past to write a new Irish history

James Mahon examines Fintan O’Toole’s new book We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958

Fintan O’Toole, in his most recent book We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958, proposes a drastic, new way of approaching Irish history. Part historical account and part personal memoir, O’Toole subverts the structured rigidity of traditional historiography, invigorating it with a unique individual and authentically emotional tone. Whilst there are some underlying issues with his methodology, for the most part it allows O’Toole to go beyond the clichéd generalities of Irish history. The initial part of the text offers a concrete illustration of the Catholic authoritarianism that informed much of the republic’s history since its creation, whilst the latter half chronicles the increasing transition to a dominant, capitalist, commodified culture of nineties and noughties Ireland, reaching its zenith with the Celtic Tiger. Intrinsically embedded in the book is the typically original, insightful criticism of O’Toole’s writing, combined with personal experiences, that create a vivid reality.

One of the most significant issues that O’Toole immediately confronts, is the sheer dominance and omnipresence of the Catholic Church in everyday Irish life for most of the 20th century. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this was the unlimited power possessed by Fr John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin from 1940-1972. O’Toole describes the enormous remit that McQuaid had to intervene in all aspects of civil society. Facilitated by the devoutly Catholic Taoiseach at the time, Éamon de Valera, McQuaid had an immense influence in the making of the first Irish constitution in 1937. Yet even more emphatically highlighted, is the supervision of all artistic or creative enterprises. In a bid to create a hegemonic Catholic culture, virtually every radio broadcast, play or novel went through a process of review and if necessary, of censorship. The level of paranoia surrounding anything that might transgress Catholic conventionality is highlighted with McQuaid’s concern of RTÉ’s radio broadcast of Cole Porter’s “Always True to You” – with Grace concerned with the “circumscribed morality of the song”. Living in what was known as the Palace, his Archbishop’s mansion in Drumcondra, McQuaid’s decadent lifestyle conflicted with the modest, humble lifestyle he encouraged of his fellow Catholic men and women. O’Toole evokes this explicit hypocrisy by recounting an interaction with McQuaid he had as a young altar boy. Before entering the Church for service, the young O’Toole found McQuaid’s driver kneeling down and polishing the archbishop’s shoes.

“Mistakenly seen as anti-religious, O’Toole’s fluid polemical prose captures the oppressive socio-cultural insularity that was a product of Catholic repression”

Mistakenly seen as anti-religious, O’Toole’s fluid polemical prose captures the oppressive socio-cultural insularity that was a product of Catholic repression, added by his depiction of his brief interaction with its strongest proponent, Fr John McQuaid. The material effects of the Church’s social policies on all demographics of society are chronicled in detail. Most strikingly is the culture of sexual abuse and exploitation of young boys within the institutions of the Catholic Church. Industrial schools for orphaned boys, were, as O’Toole states, “child slavery in workshops.”

“The outcome of such a regressive outlook reached its zealous climax in the shape of the Magdalene Laundries.”

Moreover, O’Toole depicts with forensic detail the continuous cover-up of rape and sexual assault of children by clergy at the highest level. One example amongst many given is the continual employment and even promotion of the priest Ivan Payne, by the Archbishop of Ireland at the time Desmond Connell, during which Payne continued to abuse more victims. Despite Connell’s gross deceit being uncovered in 1995, he would still be promoted to the role of cardinal. Added to this was the imprisonment of women, both figurative and literal. The primitive view of women’s role as a domesticated producer of babies was sacrosanct to Catholic culture – women’s educational opportunities were limited; they were forced to give up work when they were married and discriminated against on a daily basis. The outcome of such a regressive outlook reached its zealous climax in the shape of the Magdalene Laundries. A continuous policy, up until 1996, of putting women in prisons and selling their babies as products to foreign consumers.

It is very easy to compartmentalise this aspect of Irish history, as the Catholic Church seems to have done – yet the ramifications of what occurred less than half a century ago (when our grandparents and some of our parents were alive) still very much exists within our cultural consciousness as a nation. The narrative received by most of us in our education is of Ireland’s heroic anti-colonial resistance to British rule, that eventually led to the creation of the republic, which embodied the core ideals of Irish identity. But this republic was surely not a democratic republic. Not when actions like this were permissible and further approved by the state. In reality up until the 1980s and possibly the 1990s, Ireland was a religious authoritarian society facilitated by willing and submissive governments.

The Catholic Church did inevitably lose its iron grip on Irish society, although it still possessed a large amount of influence within the country up to and including most of the 21st century. O’Toole, though, does not paint a very enticing picture of what came after. During the 1980s, covert Catholic corruption was replaced by overt capitalist corruption. A process of Americanization was happening, leading to vast increases in multi-national companies such as Intel and Microsoft locating here, and massive flows of foreign investment. O’Toole utilises two specific people to brilliant effect as manifestations of the consumerist culture taking place. Charles Haughey was the catalyst for this new force, engaging with political cronyism for his own self-interest and greed. Journalists’ phones were tapped, private donors received special preference from the government and direct stealing occurred from the public purse. This took place during a period of an acute decline in state expenditure and high unemployment – the number of unemployed rose from 61,000 in 1971 to 230,000 by 1993 and public health spending was “slashed”. Yet it was his “protégé” Bertie Ahern that led the ship during the heady times of the Celtic Tiger. Whilst as O’Toole notes, Ahern’s self-styled image of the everyday man was in contrast with Haughey’s, their fundamental aim of money-making was the same. They replaced the mantra of religiosity with that of commodity fetishization. Free-markets, globalisation and consumerism helped you get a “job and a house and a choice about staying in your country”. This boom of productivity and excess was great, until it wasn’t, and everything collapsed. 

There is an issue with the conceptualisation of O’Toole’s reasoning as to why the Celtic Tiger materialised as it did. He points generally in the right direction, stating that it was the “ruling elites” encouraging “the belief that Ireland had captured a genie whose golden lamp need only be stroked to ensure success”. Whilst O’Toole does not explicitly say so, perhaps for fear of the connotations attached to the word, this is a variation of a Marxist argument professed by the likes of Antonio Gramsci and Noam Chomsky, that point to the ability of the elites to control spheres of influence in exploiting the masses. Although this is undoubtedly valid, O’Toole fails to provide much concrete examples or evidence of the fact, resorting to commenting on the corruption of individual politicians without explaining the mechanisms they used to induce so many to participate in this period of extreme excess. Nonetheless, he accurately pinpoints in vibrant, colourful prose, the transition from Catholicism to Capitalism as the hegemonic culture in Ireland.

“He has truly achieved his objective of writing about Irish history in a refreshing, transparent, and honest way.”

A Personal History is not solely concerned with a polemical lambasting of CiaIreland over the last century. There is an acknowledgement that we have progressed a long way from the stultifying effects of the Catholic Church and overcome the disastrous consequences of the Celtic Tiger. The landmark referendums of 2015 and 2018 legalising gay marriage and abortion are indicative that we are progressing towards a more liberal society. O’Toole has comprehensively covered this progression on a momentous scale, without ever losing his tone of intellectual acuity combined with acerbic wit. He does, on occasion, tend to psychologise and generalise cultural patterns in somewhat reductive brushstrokes. Nonetheless, he has truly achieved his objective of writing about Irish history in a refreshing, transparent, and honest way.