Fintan O’Toole and modern Ireland


WHICH of our European neighbors do you think you know the least? I’m afraid to start to think that in my case it’s the Republic of Ireland.

The reason is that I am currently reading Fintan O’Toole’s new book, his personal history of Ireland from the year he was born, 1958. I only have a hundred pages and it seems like every page reveals something I did not know the country next door. The book is called We Don’t Know Each Other. In my case, it becomes obvious that it is more about We Don’t Know Our Neighbors.

Some of the details revealed by the Irish Times columnist and author are wild, some of them biting and funny. When Edna O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, was banned by Ireland’s Censorship of Publications Board in June 1960, it was just one of 35 books targeted on the same day. Others included novels by Alberto Moravia and James T Farrell. Oh, and a book called Diana Dors in 3D.

And Ireland didn’t have its own TV channel until 1961. “It was very late,” writes O’Toole. “Albania had its own TV channel before Ireland.”

But it’s the big picture that keeps you reading. O’Toole analyzes the theocratic nature of the state in its early years (I guess the Catholic Church won’t fare well from the rest of the book) and its relationship with the UK and Northern Ireland in particular.

Basically, however, it is an investigation into the arrival of modernity in Ireland and the upheavals it has caused.

Read more: Northern Ireland at 100 For Scottish readers, O’Toole’s account of the economic issues of starting independence may be particularly interesting given our own ongoing conversation on the same topic , although it is also possible to note that for O’Toole (and most Irish people, I imagine) the pros and cons of independence are not even a thing to think about anymore. Independence is only a fact of life.

Fintan O’Toole

Reading the book also made me think a bit about our knowledge deficit regarding the countries with which we share the continent. It’s a truism to say that in the UK we’re much more interested in what’s going on in Ohio than in Oslo, say, or Los Angeles than in Lisbon.

This is partly the symptom of a shared language of course. It is also a reflection of the UK’s obsession with the political “special relationship” that speaks to our desire to hang on to the tail of world power. (Because once upon a time …) It would be wrong to suggest that the British media are ignoring our European neighbors. Last weekend’s coverage of the German elections proves otherwise. And, without a doubt, the French presidential election next year will also have a good boost, if only for the Brexity possibilities of the argy-bargy Paris-London.

But that’s the danger. Too often we see what is happening in Europe through our own prism. On Monday morning’s Today program, Nick Robinson spoke with German Christian Democrat David McAllister. Robinson was particularly concerned that the proximity of the vote meant that formulating a new German coalition government could take months. For McAllister, this was just the reality of the German system.

In Scotland, we’re used to how proportional representation adds complexity to election results, but to those who have followed the teaching of Westminster’s first past the post system, it may seem foreign.

Yet, given that decentralized governments in the UK are coalitions (or, in the case of Wales, require cooperation), should this really still be the case?

Sometimes we have to look up and look around. News from elsewhere helps us.

Anyway, I’m leaving to read about Thin Lizzy and the GAA.

We Don’t Know Each Other: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958 by Fintain O’Toole, Head of Zeus, £ 25

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