Fintan O’Toole, the Irish journalist was in big demand to sign his new book at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Picture by Bill Heaney

The sky over Scotland’s capital darkened suddenly before the arrival of thunder and lightning which saw it throwing down a storm of biblical proportions.

Spectators’ plans just to sit around in the Edinburgh Art College courtyard, relax and watch the Book Festival events on a big screen had to be hurriedly abandoned, but only temporarily.

Fortunately on Saturday, the opening day of the festival,  when the sun shone unremittingly at the tail end of an untypical Scottish heatwave,  we were able to sit out in the open air and watch one of Ireland’s finest journalists, Fintan O’Toole, pictured above, share an intimate account of how the country has changed during his lifetime.

And how he expects it to change more, much more, over the next 20 years or so that he hopefully will continue to live before shaking off this mortal coil.

It was heartening to hear that someone of O’Toole’s standing believes that the 800 years of misery which is Ireland’s troubled relationship with Britain will eventually come to an end.

There are many contradictions in Ireland’s history and the title of O’Toole’s personal history, We Don’t Know Ourselves, is one of them.

It can be taken to describe what O’Toole sees as ‘Irish people’s strange capacity not to know things’ or to express pleasure in tracking the journey to modernity.

The veteran journalist and author – he is now in his mid sixties – delves deeply behind the myths of change and boom to give a rich, nuanced picture of Irish life as he and others lived it — “I had been told to think of myself as the end of something and the beginning of something else.”

Colm Toibin, LEFT, his fellow award-winning author who will also be appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival, in a review for The Guardian, writes: “While his sweeping, authoritative and profoundly intelligent book sees modern Ireland through the lens of his own life and that of his family, it also offers sharp and brilliant analysis of what form change took when it arrived in Ireland.

Picture by Bill Heaney

“Ireland emerged into the world of the postwar boom as a backwater and an irrelevance. It had a high emigration rate and a shockingly low marriage rate. Between 1949 and 1956 the GDP of the countries of the common market had grown by 42%, Britain by 21%, Ireland by only 8%. The population was at an all-time low of 2.8 million in 1961, by which time Ireland had to decide whether “to open itself to free trade or remain as a protected but even more isolated space.

He added: “If O’Toole’s book has a thesis, it is that nothing can easily be pinned down, no fact fully trusted. And no lie can be completely untrue.

“About a politician found saying the opposite to what he had previously stated, O’Toole writes: ‘Usually with political mendacity, there was a truth out there somewhere waiting to be discovered and the lie is merely the opposite of that truth.

“‘But here the lie was a free-floating entity, two opposite signifiers with no real signified.  Of a weird political scandal involving a murder and the resignation of the attorney general, he writes: “The truth itself lacked credibility.”

O’Toole writes that the young politicians who supported economic change could not be trusted on other matters. In 1962, Charles Haughey, then seen as a reforming politician, visited the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid,  “to express his disgust and revulsion” at Edna O’Brien’s novel The Lonely Girl.  He opined that Haughey’s “mastery of hypocrisy was mesmerising, exquisite, magisterial”.

He points out that as the economy improved, a good deal of repression remained. O’Toole quotes the testimony of a woman pregnant outside marriage: “I learned that babies like the one I might have are usually placed in brown paper bags and left in a toilet and I resolved to do this. For that reason, I started to carry around the one penny I would need to get into the toilet to have the baby.”

When change came, however, it appeared in contradictory guises. As a student of the Irish language, O’Toole went to West Cork, where he saw Seán Ó Riada, who transformed traditional Irish music, leading the local choir: “The melodies were long and linear and seemed, because they were sung in unison, utterly simple. But as you listened, they released themselves into gentle, unshowy ornamentations and then curved back into line.”

At the same time, Country and Western music was sweeping over Ireland, with dance halls offering versions of Nashville plus the latest hits. “By the mid-60s there were almost 700 professional bands making a living out of the ballroom circuit in Ireland.”

“We believed that the south was free,” O’Toole writes, “the north unfree.”

Toibin writes: “But any sentence like that in this book is set up to allow ironies, ambiguities to emerge. As Irish feminists discovered when they campaigned for access to contraception in the south, the north had moved light years ahead in some respects.

“O’Toole is aware that his own moving away from nationalism reflects a change in the wider society in the south which in the 20 years leading to 1980, he writes, “had gone from being an agrarian economy where cattle was king to one that could be understood as part of the international industrial order”.

In 1972, Ireland exported £35m worth of electronics; by 1982, these exports were worth up to £1bn a year.

The economic change was fuelled almost exclusively by foreign investment. In 2017, “US direct investment stock in Ireland totalled $457bn, a greater investment stake than in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined”.

Gathering statistics in Ireland, however, especially ones based on annual GDP, was never easy. In 2015, Irish GDP rose by 26% but, it was, as O’Toole writes, ‘a miracle that was mostly a mirage’.

But in O’Toole’s analysis, according to Toibin, a mirage itself can be a mirage. Some other statistics are, oddly enough, real: the overall value of Irish exports did indeed double between 1995 and 2000, and between 1988 and 2007 the number of people at work also doubled.

Towards the end of the book, O’Toole writes: “The old was imploding but the new was not fully born.”

Colm Toibin says: “His book finds a shape for the strength of the implosion and offers a coherent and intriguing way to understand the mixture of mayhem, strange energy and puzzling order in the Ireland of the past 60 years.”

 We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole is published by Head of Zeus (£25). 

Not-to-be-missed events next week

  • Colm Tóibín, Irish Laureate for Fiction, tells all as he joins us to discuss his novel about Thomas Mann, The Magician, in what is sure to be an illuminating hour. (20:30 – 21:30) on Wednesday
  • Journalist, commentator, and former editor in chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, Tina Brown discusses life in journalism, capturing the best stories, and her latest book on the royal family: The Palace Papers(11:30 – 12:30) on Wednesday
  • Joins us for a celebration of the resonant and vital work of Liz Lochhead, who has shaped Scotland’s cultural confidence over the last 50 years unlike any other. (11:30 – 12:30) on Thursday
  • Visitors to the Edinburgh Book Festival watching events on the Big Screen.
  • Everyone is welcome to the Book Festival Village at Edinburgh College of Art on Lauriston Place (from 9.30am until late), whether you have a ticket to see an event or simply want to catch a great discussion on the big screen in the Courtyard, grab a bite to eat with friends, or find your next read at the Festival Bookshop.
  • There are still tons of free events to enjoy, too. You can book tickets in advance – but if spots for the day you were hoping to attend have sold out, it’s certainly worth it to try your chance and ask our lovely Box Office staff on the day.
    • Each day, a Festival author shares an unexpected inspiration or passion in Passion Projects, including Ali Smith, Damon Galgut and Devi Sridhar.
    • Every day at 17:00 different storytellers from around the country share their stories responding to the prompt ‘On This Day’, as part of Scotland’s Stories Now. Join us to hear their illuminating stories and have a go at writing your own.
    • Each afternoon at 15:00 a leading writer discusses books, research and ideas confronting this time of uncertainty and change in Reading the World.

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