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We don't know ourselves: A personal history of Ireland

  • 07 July 2023
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus 2021)   Fintan O’Toole is an Irish writer who writes books and also publishes pieces in The Guardian, The New York Times and other British and American journals. As well, he is a columnist for The Irish Times and is the Milberg Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. He divides his time between Princeton and Dublin and is on record as saying that his life is too boring to be worth a memoir, a claim that many people might find debatable. Instead, as one critic has observed, he has written a memoir of Ireland. The book starts in 1958, the year of O’Toole’s birth; from then he charts the changes in Ireland, weaving the personal and the public in a style that never seems forced. The text is organised in chronological order and with clear chapter headings, so although the period is very complex, the reader need never get lost, as it were.

Since the early British colonial period of Australia’s history there has been a strong connection with Ireland, and even now about 30 per cent of Australians can claim some Irish ancestry. The first Irish convicts, many of whom were political prisoners, arrived in Australia in 1791. In The Fatal Shore, his magisterial work on the convict era, Robert Hughes wrote that the Irish were the largest and most cohesive white minority in penal Australia. As such, he said, they were bound to have a deep influence on the ethos of the convicts and their descendants. With the Irish, he argues, because of their notable solidarity and loyalty to each other, the tradition of mateship began. This pervasive influence of the Irish on the Australian psyche means that O’Toole’s thought-provoking and thoroughly researched survey won’t only be of interest to those Australians with ancestral links to Ireland.

It is interesting to compare O’Toole’s work with that of Sean O’Faolain, whose work The Irish was published nearly 75 years earlier in 1947. Both writers consider that Irish politicians have had to contend with the problem of what O’Faolain called their country’s ‘lovely past’, with its romantic view of old heroes and the way Ireland was. A much younger writer, Paul Murray, born in 1975, and author of the recently published and praised The Bee Sting, considers that the Irish are such good talkers (remember the