We Don’t Know Ourselves by Finton O’Toole – a book review

A view of the Grand Canal in Dublin. The sun is low in the sky, as at sunset, and autumnal leaves litter the towpath. There is a road bridge crossing the still water, in which the trees on the opposite bank are reflected.
A Walk Along the Grand Canal – photo by William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Nothing Was As It Seemed

We Don’t Know Ourselves, was recommended to me by an Irish friend. Echoing the title they said, “You thought you knew what was happening but now you realise nothing was as it seemed.” Here Finton O’Toole sets out to write the hidden history.

He calls this book a personal history. But what strikes one from the beginning is the lack of overt subjectivity. This is a problem one is alert to when reading Irish history. His voice draws you in with his stories of a working-class upbringing in Crumlin, Dublin. And with his easy literary allusions to, among others, James Joyce, Brian Friel, and John Keats.

He is also pretty good with the dry jokes, especially in the chapter titles: my favourite being Cathode Ni Houlihan*.

Unable to Find an Identity

 He depicts an Ireland trapped by its own mythologies, unable to find an identity in the world after partition: “at sea” between Britain and the USA. This struggle intensified by the grip of the Catholic Church and the repressive and seemingly endless regime of de Valera. The Ireland of the past he shows us is sadly, too often, a world of corruption, greed and cruelty.

Couldn’t See the Wood For the Trees

What is intriguing is the way in which the corruption of state institutions was invisible in plain sight. The epitome of this was Charlie Haughey, Taioseach, on three occasions between 1979 and 1992. In 1968 he owned “a grand Georgian house on 45 acres in north Dublin, and a 157-acre stud farm”.

He bought all his shirts hand-made from Paris, where he openly entertained his mistress in the best restaurants, drinking Chateau Petrus and Dom Perignon – all on a salary of £3 500 a year. As O’Toole writes, “Not knowing was part of the regime.”

Complicity Of the Church

It was the administrations of Haughey’s party, Fianna Fáil, which extended this “not knowing” to the operations of the Catholic Church. One of Ireland’s consoling ideas was that despite its poverty and under-development it was a shining example of Catholicism expressed in its validation of the family and protection of the foetus.

On this side of the Irish sea, many know the story of the Magdalene laundries depicted in the harrowing film “Magdalene Sisters” (2002), directed by Peter Mullen.  

We Don’t Know About the Industrial Schools

However, the story of the Industrial Schools is much less well known. O’Toole tells us, “Between 1930 and 1979, a minimum of 42 000 children were incarcerated in them”. O’Toole chose the word “incarcerated” there with care.

The fate of these children is hard to read, subject as they were to beatings, starvation, sexual abuse and emotional cruelty that beggars belief.

When the Minister of Education, Brian Lenihan, visited the notorious Artane Industrial School in 1967 a boy stepped forward and asked, “Stop them beating us”. The Minister’s response was to say to his chauffeur, “Get me out of this fucking place.”

A History Of Abuse

It is the juxtaposition of the self-righteous façade created by the government and the church with the reality of cold-blooded cruelty in the abuse – sexual, physical and emotional – dished out by priests and nuns alike which is an outrage.

Everyone knew what was going on, but they either ignored it, or more chillingly covered it up. Paedophile priests simply moved on to new parishes where they began destroying children’s lives anew. 

A Bleak Book With Lighter Moments

This can be a bleak book but there are lighter moments. The chapter on the moving statues of Ballinspittle is proof for fans of the Channel Four series, Derry Girls, that truth can be stranger than fiction. The despatch of the hapless Irish soldiers as peacekeepers to the Congo seemed to leap from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel.

A Book For Today

Everyone should read this book for the insights it gives into the way that unchallenged power corrupts and how we can be seduced by our national myths. It is clearly not necessary to lay out the connections between O’Toole’s argument and the current political situation in the UK. It is too painfully obvious. As Hugh says in Translations by Friel, “… it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.” 

O’Toole shows us that through some very hard times Ireland is emerging changed and able to accept that the future is not clear, but that it offers possibilities. It is better to accept doubt rather than clinging to comforting illusions.

*Catherine Ni Houlihan is a traditional personification of Ireland

You can buy a copy of We Don’t Know Ourselves by Finton O’Toole HERE