REVIEW: What we wish we knew about ourselves and each other?

Every once in a while, a contemporary book comes along which moves out of its ‘genre’ community – a history book, for instance – and enters into the wider world of the ‘general’ reader. I recall this happening with R. F. (Roy) Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988) as a truly ground-breaking scholarly work of historical research. From its original publication and subsequent reprintings Modern Ireland changed the way ordinary readers as well as academics and intellectuals, writers and readers read Irish history in many cultural settings.

Almost a decade later, Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons (1995) reached well beyond the local scene to become an international classic of its kind: a poetic and autobiographical memoir with a clear polemical drive. Having just completed reading We Don’t Know Ourselves (Head of Zeus) Fintan O’Toole’s ‘personal history’ (from 1958) of his modern Ireland, it feels like we have a similar moment to hand.

While We Don’t Know Ourselves (a colloquial phrase both ironic and celebratory) focusses on the last sixty years of (mostly southern) Irish history, Foster’s reach was far greater (1600-1972), yet the volume of ground covered, and the questions raised by O’Toole, point to a parallel line being drawn, or a sense of political and moral completion being asserted, which makes his book an important cultural moment in itself.

For not only is his history-recording unflinching, it points to seminal and critical challenges which remain at the heart of Irish social life, its manner of doing business and the influences of the colonial past in terms of the power of the Catholic Church and the huge presence of political ambitions playing throughout the Republic since its foundation, in one form or another, a century ago.

It might sound strange to say of a history book, but the present writer could not put down this substantial book of six-hundred pages, having lived through much of the conflict, challenges and hypocrisy O’Toole charts with such exact and pinpoint accuracy. Indeed, it did occur to me, as I was reliving the nastiness of some of the ‘debates’ around issues such as contraception, divorce and abortion, which dominated much of the 1980s and 90s, that the joy of living had in some way been tainted by the frenzy and fear of that time.

To say nothing about the shame and awfulness of the revelations of the Mother and Child schemes, the Magdalen laundries, the unimaginable institutional abuse of the industrial schools – stories which became in their own way a shocking parallel to the mind-numbing savage sectarian ‘war’ of the northern conflict during the same two decades and more. It struck me too that while O’Toole’s study is a form of moral accounting we await a similar reckoning on the failures of the Northern state, and the blunders of consecutive British democratic oversight, which ultimately led to the brutalities inflicted on the citizens of Northern Ireland.

It is a mark of O’Toole’s intense gaze that while he does cover the northern tragedy by far the greater part of this powerful book is devoted to the Republic in which he grew up in a working-class Dublin family in the late 1950s. He went on to become one of, if not the most important journalist and public intellectual to emerge in the Republic since the 1990s.

The Irish state is anatomised in all its achievements and failures and in a wisely explored configuration of how and why the Irish economy, like the civic culture, was marked with a sense of over-reach, uncertainty and double standards, all capable of ignoring reality in an (at times) perverse sense of what O’Toole’s refers to as the ‘known unknowns’.

O’Toole itemises with splendid detail everything from the ‘Moving Statues’ to Charles J. Haughey’s fantasia of being the Squire of a modernised Ireland. The narrative of We Don’t Know Ourselves, a humane and intuitive understanding of how the religious institutions of the Catholic Church in all its forms ruled the society until their collapse, is not an easy read. How that power merged so indelibly with political parties such as Fianna Fáil, also makes for uncomfortable truth-telling.

But it all came out in a myriad of investigative journalism, parliamentary tribunals and committee work. There was no fudging of the realities of the past; something tragically lacking as yet in the north where any collective sense of a shared desire to get to the truth is constantly being stymied by overriding political objectives, party concerns and the general malaise of ‘whataboutery’.

In passing, I couldn’t help but think, based upon my own experience of living in the Republic for the period of time covered by this study, how the protestant northern tradition, with its varied and divergent attendant perspectives, has been kept to one side, (‘The greatly unloved’?) as a remote ‘other’ which barely requires (as personal experience confirms) much acknowledgement in the hothouse of truly ‘Irish’ subjects and subject matters. Though it is to O’Toole’s credit that it is a tradition he is mindful of, if not discussed at any length here.

So it is hardly surprising, when one turns to the new edition of The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland – Realities and Challenges (Belcouver), edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie, to note that few of the essays engage with the actual state of Ireland, often playing with stereotypical views. Which is a pity. The idea of the union is really the state of unionism and its difficulties with vindicating the place called home – Northern Ireland. It makes at times for strained reading, style-lessly so in some cases, and out-of-date, with an irritating tone of point-scoring.

That said some important contributions such as Arthur Aughey ‘The Idea of the Union’ and ‘Back to the Future: The Constitutional Challenge Revisited’ and John Wilson Foster’s curiously poignant ‘Why I am a Unionist’ and ‘Ireland out of England?’ are well worth (re-) reading along with Ben Lowry ‘The Scandal of Legacy’. The thought occurred though that O’Toole’s fresh, honest, open and unapologetic critique of the Republic could be matched by a parallel act of scrutiny of Northern Ireland, dispassionately examining the same period with scholarship and the brave conviction that good will eventually come out of such truthfulness.

The Idea of the Union, in a handful of essays. seeks to rewrite the generally accepted narrative of Northern Irish history and recasts the roots of Stormont’s injustices and incompetence as inflated and the result of longstanding religious and cultural differences; which really amount to sectarian divisions. These may well have been overstated in comparison with conditions in post-WW2 Europe, but there is no getting away from the fact that they were systemic in the state, and having been left to fester, they would led eventually to their exploitation as justification for the brutality of the Troubles.

For too long we have had a politics of masking come-uppence and self-justification for some of the grim and ghastly acts perpetrated by those in political (and military) command of the conflicting traditions in Northern Ireland. Ordinary people suffered as a result and continue to do so. Telling the truth isn’t a bad thing to do but banging on about who is getting more influences in the professions – teaching, media, law – as one of the contributors to the State of the Union has asserted elsewhere, is depressingly indicative of where the discourse is at present.

Which need not be the case, of course, or is the union really only about ‘identity’ and an inherited sense of Anglophone history shared from childhood? I no longer know.

The Union does have a rationale behind it, but it is not being articulated often enough with the necessary degree of intellectual and political vigour and flair. Instead there is an effort to rewrite the past (civil rights, sectarianism, that ‘cold house’ of David Trimble’s) and lapses instead into Tory complacency and lack of clear future-orientated reason: objectives, plans.

Brexit may have scuppered such hopes for good. It certainly exposed the fraught and limited understanding of England’s colonial role worldwide. It’s one thing pumping out ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Mercury’, and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ to calm and inspire the Classic FM generation but it won’t put the imperial history and politics of Empire into any better place when real – as opposed to fantasy – threats emerge in a Europe that will be forever at the Union’s shaky door.

For a timely antidote and reality check readers should consult a powerful study such as Priya Satia Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Belknap: Harvard).

But I should declare an interest here – John Wilson Foster is a long-standing friend and, in my humble estimation, one of the great intellectual storehouses Belfast has produced in the last half-century. Yet, for all his innovative scholarship – theorizing Irish nature, essential academic studies of Irish fiction (north and south) written over five decades along with the magnificent opening-up of the Titanic Complex to European and North American fields of thought, as well as his highly charged readings of Irish poetry and studies of often forgotten or marginalised texts by Anglo-Irish writers, mainly women, such as his fascinating edition of Midnight Again: The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle (Mahee Island, 2021) – Foster’s undoubtedly unionist credentials may have been unfairly turned against his academic and literary achievements in present-day Ireland and (irony of ironies) Britain.

A state of cultural play which The Idea of the Union could have explored as an underlying pattern here in Ireland and further afield, notwithstanding the cherished ambiguities of the Good Friday Agreement and the long-held beliefs attached to its implementation – anyone remember ‘parity of esteem’? Debate and discussion though come with a health warning.

For example, it only took President Michael D. Higgins to make a few timely and potent questioning remarks about Northern Ireland’s sectarian and class divided educational system, to stir up a hornet’s nest of indignation from institutional vested interests and reveal just how far we all have to go to democratize this society, north and south.

Until such time talk about ‘unification’ is really just that, so hot under-the -collar as many of the contributors to The Idea of the Union undoubtedly are, and gung-ho on re-unification as others sense their moment to have demographically come, it will take much more than border polls to move the dial.

A first step, from a critical point of departure, might well be for those in leadership roles in the north to embrace the chastening findings of Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves while those in the south, who are not transfixed by ‘likes’ and the war-games of social media, could make their way through The Idea of the Union to get a working notion about what some intelligent Unionists are thinking, even at a distance. Not a snowball’s chance in hell, I hear you say.

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Gerald Dawe’s Northern Windows/Southern Stars: Selected Early Essays 1983-1994 will be published in May by Peter Lang.

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