In This Review

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
By Fintan O'Toole
Norton, 2021, 624 pp

The centenary of Irish independence has inspired a flood of writing. Among the many traditional histories and current political commentaries, this book stands out. It charts the extraordinary economic, social, and political transformation of Ireland since 1958, the year the author was born. Before, the country was “a backwater and an irrelevance,” with an “ancient way of life” marked by low economic growth, a stagnant and emigrating population, rigid (if often hypocritical) Catholic moralism, and, O’Toole notes, no running water in most rural houses. To achieve economic and demographic growth, political and religious leaders soon embraced free trade, military cooperation, foreign travel, and Hollywood culture—yet many continued to believe they could maintain premodern practices regarding religion, sexuality, and the traditional family hierarchy. O’Toole reserves his most scathing criticism for the hypocrisy of the last defenders of that old order, above all the Catholic Church. The author, perhaps Ireland’s foremost public intellectual, employs a unique combination of intimately personal narrative, piquant facts and figures, and sharp (often ironic) commentary to describe the experience of this transformation.