August 2023

The man who knew too much

A memoir by Irish author Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, was reviewed by Tracey Edstein for this edition of The Good Oil.

There is something so enticing about a memoir that covers the same period as the reader’s own life. The influence of the Irish on Australia, and specifically on the Australian Catholic Church, is indisputable. I have long been fascinated and puzzled in equal measure by the conundrum that is Ireland and, hence, I loved this memoir.

Fintan O’Toole is an esteemed journalist and a writer of rare insight. He is able to engage the reader via personal anecdotes and carefully chosen snapshots and then zoom out to draw wider conclusions about matters political, religious, social and philosophical. In Ireland all these dimensions coalesce and O’Toole is across the lot.

The image conjured by one of his powerful anecdotes remains in my mind. Nine-year-old O’Toole arrives early to serve Mass. He sees outside St Bernadette’s “a grand Humber Pullman limousine, its stately curves thrusting out like the prow of an ocean liner … I could see a man in a grey uniform kneeling on the cold footpath and leaning in … when I was almost at the car, I could see that two dainty feet were poking out from the … passenger compartment. The chauffeur was polishing the shoes that encased them with a brush. The man wearing them was the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuade … the voice of God in Dublin.”

One of O’Toole’s most pervasive themes is the unparalleled power and authority of the Catholic Church. For much of O’Toole’s narrative, Church and state are virtually one, with civil law resolutely upholding Church law. O’Toole makes a personal protest when he and his fiancée Clare choose to marry in a solicitor’s office, knowing that “We were therefore, in the religious sense, not married at all. We were still living in sin and when we had children they were the product of that sin.”

The couple avoids unwanted attention by choosing Gaelic for their newspaper announcement, “on the assumption … that no one would read it”. Clare is a teacher in a Catholic school and the subterfuge is to avoid jeopardising her position. Why not just marry in the Church? Because O’Toole, like many who refused to be blinkered, knew too much.

Image: HarperCollins.

He cites many examples of the Church’s duplicity. One, which would be comical if it were not so pitiable, is the absurd tale of the cycle regulator, otherwise known as the Pill. “… when Humanae Vitae was published in 1968, the country was also beginning its belated but radical expansion of secondary education. The new convent schools could not be staffed entirely by nuns – more and more young lay women would have to be recruited. Most of them were, or would be, married and if they obeyed Church teaching and had a baby every year, the system would soon collapse. The cycle regulator saved the day.”

O’Toole reserves his most scathing commentary for the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious. He describes his own experience of brothers in his school, including one who would freely and inappropriately touch boys in the classroom. “He sat down beside boys and put his hand on their legs, working it steadily upwards … He did all of this openly, constantly, shamelessly.”

Later, as a journalist, O’Toole received a letter from an anonymous man disclosing “the dread and terror” of his schooldays. Having shared a traumatic memory, he wrote, “You are the first and last person I ever related that incident to …” O’Toole says, “This was a phrase most Irish journalists would hear at some point.”  

The “open secret” of sexual abuse of children by Church personnel prevailed for decades, if not longer. “Most of us could walk like circus performers across tightropes that were strung between private knowledge and public acknowledgement. The only ones who ever looked down were those who were badly abused, and they became even better at suppressing reality.”  

The prevailing co-dependency of Church and state is intriguingly captured in O’Toole’s account of the visit of ‘JFK’ to Ireland in 1963, just months before his assassination. It is as if Kennedy and his hosts have an unspoken agreement that each side will play its part: one the handsome returning hero (although he had not visited before) embodying all that is prosperous and attractive; the other, the bearers of all the shining myths of Ireland, despite the large numbers of people leaving Ireland year after year, many seeking the dream Kennedy represented. “In the unseemly rush to claim Kennedy, we also had to claim all those scattered families of ours, inglorious and unglamorous as they were. Those arms that reached out to him also grasped a painful history.”

In O’Toole’s Ireland, the personal is political and the political, personal. O’Toole writes, “Bodies had always been the ultimate currency of the Troubles – bodies shattered, torn apart, broken, beaten, tortured, displayed, disappeared.” Indeed the Catholic faith too is inherently bodily – its most significant doctrine, transubstantiation, concerns bread and wine becoming, through the action of the cleric and the faithful, the body of the one who had been crucified and raised to new life.

Bobby Sands mural on Falls Road, Belfast. Image: Shermozle/CC-BY-SA-3.0

I would never claim to have a sound grasp of the Irish ‘body politic’, but O’Toole captures much that is significant in the tragic story of the hunger strikers of the early 1980s, the most famous being Bobby Sands MP. Sands died after 66 days without food at the age of 27. “The power of hunger striking lay in its potential to cut through … problems of definition and to draw new lines of victimhood and oppression, of nobility and cruelty.”

Recent turning points in the history of Ireland that point to the decline of the Church’s influence include the successful referenda on same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion (2018). O’Toole frames his account in terms of his generation and that of his parents, sharing his surprise when, in answer to a question about the same-sex marriage vote, his father, “looked at me with deep puzzlement, as if … I had completely lost the plot and become a stranger to Ireland. ‘Sure of course it will pass … Everybody knows somebody who’s gay.’”

Similarly, a Member of Parliament who had supported the repeal of the law banning abortion tells O’Toole he had avoided speaking to his father on the topic. Then his sister reports that both his parents had voted for repeal. “Daddy said he couldn’t bear thinking of all those women coming back from England and not being able to tell anyone what they were going through.”  

O’Toole speculates that 35 earlier, the same couple had voted “to make a statement about Ireland’s perpetually exemplary place as the great beacon of the Catholic world.”

How things have changed – hence the title, “We don’t know ourselves.”

If you are interested in knowing Ireland and the Irish, you won’t regret reading this memoir.

‘Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958′ (Head of Zeus’, London, 2021).


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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and editor based in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

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