An Irish Times columnist looks back at the economic and cultural changes that have rocked Ireland since his birth in 1958, mingling his own personal stories with the news of the day that marked distinct shifts in Irish life.
We Don’t Know Ourselves...may appear a daunting doorstopper of a book, but it is leavened by the brilliance of O’Toole’s insights and wit, and by the story of his own life, which he expertly intertwines into a larger historical narrative. O’Toole’s Ireland is, familiarly, a nation of grand myths and discordant realities ... O'Toole...sees the country’s shift with an eye that is simultaneously critical and compassionate ... He returns repeatedly to Ireland’s ties to the United States, and astutely interprets moments such as John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit ... O’Toole’s account ranges well beyond historical grandees to include minor celebrities ... frank moments punctuate this dense book, and these, more than strict reminiscence, constitute the personal nature of his history. O’Toole’s is a wildly ambitious project, one that accounts for inevitable partiality precisely through this invocation of the personal. It is a winning gambit.
One of the many triumphs of Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves is that he manages to find a form that accommodates the spectacular changes that have occurred in Ireland over the past six decades, which happens to be his life span ... it is not a memoir, nor is it an absolute history, nor is it entirely a personal reflection or a crepuscular credo. It is, in fact, all of these things helixed together: his life, his country, his thoughts, his misgivings, his anger, his pride, his doubt, all of them belonging, eventually, to us ... O’Toole, an agile cultural commentator, considers himself to be a representative of the blank slate on which the experiment of change was undertaken, but it’s a tribute to him that he maintains his humility, his sharpness and his enlightened distrust ... We have experienced decades of half-apertures, of which we have been neither entirely in nor out. But O’Toole manages to navigate the astonishing transformation of a valley of squinting windows into something far more kaleidoscopic ... The book begins, much like the era it represents, a little precariously. Instead of the focused burn that we come to find, the opening is a bit shaky, unconfident, more historical litany than the complete focus we begin to exult in later on. But O’Toole quickly settles down and makes a pact with his reader ... O’Toole writes brilliantly and compellingly of the dark times, but he is graceful enough to know that there is humor and light in the cracks. There is a touch of Eduardo Galeano in the way he can settle on a telling phrase ... But the real accomplishment of this book is that it achieves a conscious form of history-telling, a personal hybrid that feels distinctly honest and humble at the same time. O’Toole has not invented the form, but he comes close to perfecting it. He embraces the contradictions and the confusion. In the process, he weaves the flag rather than waving it.
O’Toole’s sweeping, intimate book...is in a category all its own, a blend of reporting, history, analysis, and argument, explored through the lens of the author’s sensibility and experience ... astonishing in its range. Every chapter takes up a specific topic ... The chapters move forward chronologically. What unites them all is O’Toole’s moral presence and literary voice: throughout, a sly, understated humor; when needed, passion and even anger. In the end, surveying what Ireland has become during his lifetime, he manages an optimistic note, one that is not merely asserted but earned ... I came away from We Don’t Know Ourselves seeing modern Ireland more convincingly portrayed and explained than ever before.