Cover Image: We Don't Know Ourselves

We Don't Know Ourselves

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Member Reviews

This is a blistering, insightful look at the last 60 years of Ireland-Fintan O’Toole starts with the year he was born, 1958 and chronicles his country through the tumultuous years of the 2nd half of the 20th century and up until now. The book is structured as a chronological series of essays, some covering a year, some covering a period of 2-3 years, all of which combine to form a lucid, coherent narrative that manages to give you a fascinating overview of a country changing. O’ Toole uses a combination of memoir, news reports, incidents to illustrate the forces that control the country-the political parties, (Fianna Fail for most of the time) and the Catholic Church. He uses anecdotes, personal, and otherwise,and explores what that has to say about the society as a whole. The philosophy underpinning this book is that a culture of silences, false confidence and hypocrisy prevailed over the country as he was growing up, fostered by the Catholic Church, and aided by the politicians. Since being shown to be supported by the Church was such an easy way to gain popularity, no politician opposed any of their strictures, and in fact invoked their attitudes towards the electorate. The country had an uneasy relationship with America, so many of their people having migrated there, but also a sense of wanting to prove that Ireland was the mother country and America an offshoot-excellently described in his chapter on JFK’s visit to Ireland, where he was treated fawningly like a demi-god, but also as a “local boy done good”-an attitude that elides the fairly desperate circumstances of many Irish emigrants, and seems to ignore that he had to leave Ireland to succeed. There are harrowing chapters that deal with the Magdalen laundries,
the seminal cases that led to incremental changes in women’s rights. O’Toole presents a take on the
Troubles that I haven’t come across before, and he doesn’t look too kindly on the IRA, accusing them of adopting a hardline stance and of harbouring fairly regressive and deeply Catholic attitudes ( ironic,given that the Catholic Church completely supported Fianna Fail). He doesn’t really give you their side of the story-so I didn’t get an entire picture of what it was like in Northern Ireland, living in what must have been like a police state. O’Toole mentions several times that the IRA as well seemed to select civilian targets for their bombings, and while they claim that advance warnings were phoned in, it wasn’t always possible for everyone to hastily evacuate a crowded marketplace well in time to prevent casualties. His chapters on the prison strike of 1981 were illuminating for the perspective he brings to it-the intransigence and cruelty of the British jailers and the Thatcher government, but also the missteps of the strikers themselves. The accepted narrative of the prison strikes is that though some of the strikers died,they got what they wanted and conditions improved-O’Toole points out that wasn’t entirely true, with the prison authorities having imposed far harsher measures during the strike, and merely rolling those back to restore status quo with no additional improvements, however the fallout and reprisals that occurred across Ireland led to more civilian deaths. It makes for harrowing reading, to think of the lengths the Thatcher government was willing to go to, to not accede-if a government like this had been in power during the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movements in India, I wonder what theoutcome would have been-would they have let Gandhi starve himself to death? An historical what-if I would rather not contemplate too deeply!
O’Toole recounts the peace process as occurring gradually, with members of the IRA deciding to take a democratic route towards what they wanted, and contesting local body elections, and giving up their campaign of violence. He seems to feel that the ultimate peace agreements that were hammered out did not have such radical changes to justify nearly 3 decades of violence and civilian deaths-put that way, however, nothing would justify a loss of life, and decolonization has always been accompanied by a loss of lives ( easy to say, of course, when you’re not the one in the line of fire!). The last third of the book deals with Ireland’s economic growth-after the Good Friday Agreement and the decrease in unrest, several companies started flocking to Ireland due to their favourable tax rates, proximity to Europe and a young, educated, and relatively less expensive workforce. O’Toole leads up to the reasons for the recession Ireland experiences because of the subprime crisis, that makes for very interesting reading.
Why should people around the world read this book, however, given its specificity to Ireland? For me,personally, this book felt deeply personal-the circumstances he describes are extremely similar to those that prevail in my country, right down to the religiosity, misogyny, elision of past injustices and adoption of grand narratives with very little basis in fact, and the economic situation. This was deeply relatable for me, and I could identify with everything he wrote about. The book presents a very hopeful narrative of a country moving slowly from one controlled by religion to a younger population that’s more openminded and governments that move with the times as well. I liked the book as much as I did because I’m hoping for a similar situation here!
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This is an outstanding account of Ireland´s recent history. The author describes in great detail and with great clarity the social, economic and political issues affecting Ireland from the time of his childhood in 1950´s Dublin up to the present time.  The book includes the main characters, political, cultural and religious in a country trying to find it´s place in the world, and struggling to contain a decades-long mass migration of its youth in search a brighter future. 
Well worth reading.
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As the sub-title tells us, this is a personal history of Ireland by Irish intellectual Fintan O’Toole, in which he examines and explores events, people and changes in the country since 1958. He interweaves his own life and experiences into the narrative, making the book a wonderfully engaging combination of the personal, the political and the historical. O’Toole writes fluently, accessibly and persuasively, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history and culture of Ireland, and anyone seeking to know more about its past and its trajectory to today. Superb piece of non-fiction writing.
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Fintan O'toole is such an excellent historian. He leaves no stone unturned during his research. Anyone wanting to learn more about the recent history of Ireland this is a definite book for you. It covers our recent conflicts and the strong hold the Catholic church held over all of us. It deals comprehensively with the control the had of our educational system as well as the Magdalene laundry regime and the prohibition of sex before marriage before revealing so much of the ugly truths of the clerical sex scandals and how so many young children suffered at their hands. This is an excellent read, truly excellent and I highly recommend it.
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All I knew of the author was his rather intense pieces against Brexit in the Guardian, and like many people in England, my knowledge of Ireland was a little murky. This book was just superb, telling the story of a sudden shift in Ireland’s history, a surge into what might be called modernity. 

The intensity of Catholic life and culture is seen against a historically low rate of marriage. The love of family and nation is seen against the reality of emigration, with three out of five once moving abroad (of which my own grandmother was one - I suddenly realised that a small portion of this distant history was perhaps mine.) Traditional rural Irish life in contrast to the changing cities. An independent nation, yet one with relationships of trade and people and history with England and the United States. A question of the book is how to build a nation and a culture when the people, the world and times are constantly moving under your feet - at one stage, there was a palpable fear that the demographic future of Ireland was under threat. 

Corruption, Catholicism and political violence feature in this book, but it is a strangely beautiful read, the rise of country music, and the preoccupation with American Western culture, trying to transplant it into a wet and windy Ireland standing against the Atlantic - few cities, many towns, and lots of cattle. 

The importance of a generation who had been formed by ‘Catholic faith, strict discipline, social mobility,’ and alongside this, the Irish diaspora, those who had gone from the nation for a new life, or for the mission field - and for those who stayed the same formation formed a new generation entering the nationalist cause. 
The book details the passing of the 1916 generation, the rise of the middle class, and how this was formed by ‘contacts, influence, advancement.’ A shift from a country divided into land and cattle to that of the salary. The end of primitive, rural cottages to the growth of new-build housing (again, with names taken from the Wild West.) “The new generation in the countryside would rather own an American homestead in Ireland than pine for an Irish homestead in America.”

The text also deals with a larger, more existential question - of what it was like to be in a time and a place formed by arcing narratives, of Catholicism, of nationalism, of conflict, of martyrdom sacred, secular and political - and how these narratives existed at the same time as normal, day to day life. 
The book examines what it meant to be a country of deep history, but now one with huge housing estates named after martyrs, ‘engineering works, its own airline, its own TV station.’ How can the narrative of romantic rebellion, martyrdom and sacrifice be held together with the visible and tangible results of violence and the loss of life? I was quite moved at the importance of the shift in politics when a generation who had sought armed conflict began to have children, and a new way of thinking and being began to emerge - with the prospect of another generation caught up in conflict.

The shift in culture is a key point of the book - the anxiety that the old Ireland of poets and storytellers is lost in the new, electronic culture, which at the same time is loosened from control by church and state, a new liberation with new voices being able to speak of new truths. Alongside cultural shifts are the economic transformations, the watershed of its  entry into the EEC, and the potency of foreign investment - and at the same time, corruption, tax evasion and the new industry - information technology, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.’

As the author shows us, this is no straightforward narrative, and the slightly obscure title might be the key to this - how much of the last sixty years of Ireland was made possible by people seeing and not realising, not asking questions, holding various things in tension, old Ireland and modern Ireland existing in the same place and the same time? A ‘society that had developed an extraordinary capacity for cognitive disjunction, a genius for knowing and not knowing at the same time…. the maintenance of an acceptable gap between what we knew and what we acknowledged…our unique way of life – the way of ambiguity and unknowing, of dodging and weaving around reality.’

The book is the story of the ending of one way of life and the beginning of the new, but it is almost impossible to draw straight lines as to where these occurred - and what happens when such questions are drawn finally into the light. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will buy a copy as a gift.
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My background is that of a second generation Irish woman born and brought up in London and fairly close in age to Fintan O'Toole. I found this to be a well written and persuasive account of Ireland from the late 50s to the present day. It covered all of the issues that have characterised life in Ireland including the all pervading power and hypocrisy of the church and the institional corruption of the Republic's political leaders. As such, it is actually a terrible indictment of the period. By the end, O' Toole has adopted a slightly more jaunty and optimistic view as though his editor has told him to cheer things up a bit but the overwhelming memory is of the exploitation of the people, particularly the poor  and powerless and most particularly women. Powerful and moving, it was a book that also made me angry .
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I didn't read a lot about the history of contemporary Ireland and this book was an excellent and fascinating way to learn something.
The author is a good storyteller and mixes his personal story with the history and what meant living in Ireland.
It talks about life but also about the influx of the Church, the scandals.
The storytelling is excellent and it's an intriguing read.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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This was an interesting book. Before picking it up I only knew a little of Irish history. My favourite parts were the family history of the writer, when it was interwoven with the history of the countries. I also enjoyed how the book was formatted into small chapters, with slight overlapping of time periods.
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