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.
... reading Fintan O’Toole’s new book...is like reading a great tragicomic Irish novel, rich in memoir and record, calamity and critique. The book contains funny and terrible things, details and episodes so pungent that they must surely have been stolen from a fantastical artificer like Flann O’Brien ... public events have the irresistible tang of the actual, and around them O’Toole—who has had a substantial career as a journalist, a political commentator, and a drama critic—beautifully tells the private story of his childhood and youth. But because the events really happened, because they are part of Ireland’s shameful, sometimes surreal postwar history, they also have the brutishly obstructive quality of fact, often to be pushed against, fought with, triumphed over, or, in O’Toole’s preferred mode of engagement, analyzed into whimpering submission. His great gift is his extremely intelligent, mortally relentless critical examination, and here he studies nothing less than the past and the present of his own nation.
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.