Fintan O’Toole’s ‘personal history’ is suffused with moral authority
We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958
Head of Zeus, £25
In 1975 Fintan O’Toole was studying English and history at UCD and had no clear idea about a career. He knew what he didn’t want to do – which was more or less everything – and ideally he would somehow make a living from writing. And since he didn’t write fiction this probably meant some form of journalism.
His mother worked as a cleaner at the Irish Press, and she mentioned him to Vincent Jennings, editor of the Sunday Press, who agreed to see the young “wordsmith”, as he called him.
Fintan recalls that Jennings was very nice, but that soon there was sadness in his eyes. He was saying: “I’m afraid it’s too late” – that Fintan should have gone to the College of Commerce in Rathmines rather than UCD, to learn proper journalistic skills, like shorthand and typing.
Sure enough, Fintan did not become a proper journalist in the Vincent Jennings sense – but soon it would be shown by young “wordsmiths” in Hot Press and In Dublin that in transcribing their interviews with important people such as Charlie Haughey, the proper journalists had had this strange tendency to leave out the best bits.
So it turned out you could have too much shorthand – but eventually it turned out too that Vincent Jennings was not entirely wrong.
Fintan really wasn’t meant to be some old school reporter; his latest book We Don’t Know Ourselves is almost 600 pages long, and it is “a personal history of Ireland since 1958” – not journalism; history, baby! And Fintan is now routinely described as “Ireland’s leading public intellectual”. Which was a hard thing to imagine in 1975, when even private intellectuals were keeping pretty quiet about it.
But in any game I guess the top players make their own categories, that Fintan himself didn’t see his journalism as some kind of stepping stone to “real” writing – he would know the old line about journalists being failed novelists, but would also know that many novelists are failed journalists. Because he knows everything.
Whatever you want to call it, from the start, it was clear that Fintan was never going to fail at it. A picture of himself as a 10-year-old is captioned “a good boy” – by lightly mocking himself here, he gets in ahead of the blackguards who will jeer that he’s always been the best boy in every class.
Indeed it was as a top altar-boy that he had one of his first Zelig-like encounters with the great and notorious figures of the age – he served at a solemn requiem mass celebrated by Archbishop McQuaid, just as he would later receive a terrifying lift from Bishop Eamonn Casey in a Lancia; or be wheeling rails loaded with dresses down George’s Street with the young Ben Dunne; or hearing Sean Ó Riada and his choir at the church in Cúil Aodha.
Being there or thereabouts at these crucial times may be the hook for this “personal history”, but the most significant of all these situations was the fact that his father was a bus conductor, and he was raised in Crumlin.
And from this all else flows – the moral authority of one who did not have access to Ireland’s labyrinth of inside tracks, whose only “connection” got him an audience with Vincent Jennings because his mother was a cleaner.
And through all the mad adventures of Charlie Haughey and the Catholic Church and the Provos and the bankers and the builders and the beef barons, there is one Great Theme – that in Ireland we had this twin-track approach to life, whereby everything was known, but also officially unknown.
“Charlie” defined it perfectly with his “Irish solution to an Irish problem”, his way of pretendiing to deal with contraception. Though “Fintan” himself , in seeing through all these Byzantine illusions, has now reached that peculiar stage whereby he is instantly recognised by his first name.
Like a Shakespearean actor “giving” his Richard III, Fintan “gives” his Haughey magnificently – Haughey borne on the shoulders of Fianna Fáil and the Church, that weird coupling which turned the “Irish solution to an Irish problem” into a kind of fetish which solved nothing but the terrible needs of those parties. .With his books on Brexit bringing Fintan to an international audience, no doubt they love this too in the publishing houses of London – that old Catholic kitsch in all its mesmerising awfulness, that incorrigible Irish roguery.
Hell, I guess we’re all partial to it, though Irish readers may already know Dickie Rock was “the Irish equivalent of Elvis Presley or Cliff Richard”. And in any sort of history of modern Ireland we’d expect a section on Denis O’Brien, and we mourn its absence. But we trust that Fintan won’t let us down out there, on the big stage.
And yes, I know all that boring stuff about the liberal hegemony, about newspaper columnists preaching “progressive” sermons like the Missioners of old. But really, if we must have a hegemony, the best by a long way is the liberal kind. And to know how it happened here, this is the bible.