Audio-book Review
            By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland

By: Fintan O’Toole

Narrated by: Aidan Kelly

Fintan O’Toole (Author, award winning Irish journalist and political comentator for The Irish Times)

Fintan O’Toole helps one understand something about mid-20th century Ireland. O’Toole is born in Northern Ireland in 1958. That year becomes the beginning of his story. O’Toole touches on pre-1958 Ireland but only through literature and brief mentions of earlier history.

O’Toole’s story is fascinating but knowing an Irish population as an “…Ourselves…” is elusive. O’Toole is an excellent writer who reveals his self-understanding, but it is a vain effort to understand a singular society’s self-understanding. No population in the world can understand itself because of its complexity.

O’Toole explains post-WWII’ aid did not come to Ireland because of its neutrality during the war. The hardship in Ireland is difficult in years before and after WWII.

One suspects most Americans do not know that Ireland remained neutral in WWII. (This is not to say the Irish did not side with the west because thousands joined Allied forces on their own.) Education levels in Ireland were low because of little industrialization that would provide taxes or revenues needed for teachers and classrooms. The teaching available is through the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland and it is only after 1958 that the church began to fund education beyond grade school.

Great emphasis is placed on classroom order in Catholic schools with a ruler or open hand slap at young students who have wrong answers or who act in what is considered disruptive behavior.

Conditions of school in Northern Ireland were harsh with Catholic brethren who severely punished students for minor classroom disruptions. O’Toole notes many who experience that disciplinary environment retrospectively praise it as a character builder. However, O’Toole notes some students were sexually abused by their Catholic school masters. Pedophilia is a festering sore in Catholic church’ history. O’Toole implies it is a pox spread in Ireland’s 1960s Catholic schools. As history has shown, Catholic pedophilia extends far beyond Ireland.

O’Toole tells of many conflicts in the sixties through the nineties, without enough context. Because there is a mixture of religious conflict and Irish independence, it is difficult for a reader/listener to have perspective on O’Toole’s history of 30 years of “Troubles”.

Even we self-centered and ignorant Americans know one of the great conflicts of the world is between Irish Catholic’s and Protestant’s. The violence of each against the other is unfathomable to most Americans. O’Toole underestimates American knowledge of the causes and consequences of the “Troubles” in Ireland.

It seems most religions argue there is no God but God or Allah but Allah. Whether one calls themselves Catholic or Protestant, God seems the only concept upon which the largest religions agree. Religious conflict in Ireland is made more complex by the desire of some Irish to be independent of England while others wish for union. It would have been helpful to have a clearer explanation of the origin of the “Troubles”.

The cruelty during the time of the “Troubles” is horrendous. O’Toole’s stories of IRA atrocity are mind-numbing, including children in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the same time, captured IRA prisoners are as poorly clothed and cared for as though they were abandoned dogs. Many lived in their sweat, and excrement which made them either sick or dead. Some went on hunger strikes to resist with death as their end.

The Ireland of which O’Toole writes is Catholic because he is raised Catholic.

O’Toole explains “don’t ask, don’t see, don’t say” is a mantra of those who plan and do wrong. It applies to Irelands loosely explained “Troubles”, but he argues it also applies to the Catholic Church, and later the financial industry in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As wealth accumulates among those who benefit from Ireland’s economic growth, they look for ways to hide their earnings. The earnings are sometimes legitimately earned, sometimes not, but all wish to evade taxation and/or incarceration. O’Toole explains Ireland’s banking industry colludes with those money makers who wish to hide their income.

On February 6, 2002, Allied Irish Bank – Ireland’s second-biggest bank was investigated for apparent currency fraud at its Baltimore-based subsidiary, Allfirst, perpetrated by a trader named John Rusnak. 

Irish bankers and businessmen colluded to make it appear Irish residents lived abroad and should not be taxed for their income in Ireland. O’Toole explains the Irish government loses millions of pounds that could have been used for public services because of that collusion.

O’Toole’s notes women in Ireland of the 1950s and 60s are treated as child bearers and servers to men. They could not sue for divorce for any reason. They could not work outside the home. Women could not practice any form of birth control. Women were subject to their husband’s desires and could not object to either beatings or sexual intimacy.

O’Toole shows that any intelligent human being will overcome denied rights by fighting, fleeing, or subverting unequal treatment. Many Irish emigrate, some surreptitiously rebel. The example O’Toole gives is Irish doctors and pharmacists provide birth control pills to women based on falsely claimed menstrual problems to hide their real intent of avoiding pregnancy. Women had to fight unequal treatment or flee.

Misogyny in Ireland seems even more pernicious than in the earlier years of America.

O’Toole explains how prosperity comes to Ireland with acceptance into the European Union. (Northern Ireland later rejects the E.U. along with Great Britain.)

Eliminating trade barriers enriches farmers and begins industrializing the country while broadening economic diversification. To the church, O’Toole explains there is a concern over the loss of Catholic influence on the population. To the public there is great hope for an improvement in the Irish standard of living.

The benefit to farming is significant because of the price paid for goods within the E.U. O’Toole explains success in industrial growth is less significant, undoubtedly because of lack of infrastructure. There were also displaced workers in trades that could not compete with European prices. However, O’Toole notes women were significantly benefited by job opportunities created in a growing economy. Women were finally liberated from only working at home.

O’Toole explains economic improvement did not cure all Ireland’s ills and in fact created new 20th century problems beyond sexual inequality.

The gap between rich and poor did not change with economic wealth. Drugs became a serious health problem that O’Toole compares to the slums of New York. The biggest beneficiaries of joining the European Union were Irish farmers who were able to get better prices for their produce. Industry lagged and craftsmen disappeared. The truth of O’Toole’s view is that human nature is the same everywhere. America, China, Russia, Ukraine, North Korea- all are motivated by money, power, and/or prestige. Human nature corrupts us all, regardless of government form, rule of law, or intent.

O’Toole chooses to become a journalist despite discouragement by a local paper that might have hired him out of college. O’Toole explains his life in a way that infers he is smarter than many of his peers. That intelligence paves his way through college and on to a successful career as an investigative journalist and author.

In the end, O’Toole shows himself as a Catholic heretic, if not atheist or agnostic, by not following the dictates of the church. Neither Ireland nor the world have reason to believe they are morally or economically better or worse than other nations of the world. We are all in the same leaky boat. Only time and societal evolution will cure or kill us.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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