Ireland’s Great Gamble

The country wanted modern prosperity and traditional values. It could only have one.

Collage showing soldiers, barbed wire, the damaged Nelson's Pillar, and a man preparing to throw an object
Photo illustration by Alicia Tatone. Sources: Archive Photos / Getty; Independent News and Media / Getty; Paco Elvira / Getty; Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty

Updated at 1:09 p.m. ET on December 19, 2022.

Early in the pages of We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s masterful “personal history” of modern Ireland, I came upon a moment in O’Toole’s life that intersected unexpectedly with my own. The date was Tuesday, March 8, 1966. In a Dublin bedroom in the chill dark of early morning—1:31 a.m. exactly—O’Toole’s mother, given to premonitions, awoke and exclaimed, “God, what was that?” Then came the sound of a distant explosion.

I, too, heard the explosion. My American family had moved from the United States to Ireland for several years. I was a schoolboy, a little older than O’Toole; our home was a mile or so from his. As everyone soon learned, an IRA splinter group had blown off the top of Nelson’s Pillar, an imposing column in O’Connell Street that some saw as a symbol of British oppression but most regarded as a convenient landmark and an elegant viewing platform. I had paid my sixpence and spiraled up the interior staircase many times. Now the Pillar was a ragged stump. Thinking back on the moment, O’Toole writes:

My father got us up early that morning and we took the bus in to see the wreck of Nelson. He said it was a big thing, an event we should remember. He took us right up close to the base where huge lumps of stone were scattered randomly like pebbles. Nobody stopped us. My father picked up a small piece of the granite, its outside worn grimy by the murk of the city, its inside glistening with newly revealed speckles of quartz, a secret self, hidden within the monument until the shock of the explosion so violently brought it to life.

O’Toole and I must have crossed paths that morning, or come close, because our fathers had the same impulse. I rode into the city with my dad and collected pieces of granite; I keep one on my desk. That March day in Dublin feels as present to me now as it does to O’Toole. It was, he writes, “the first time I was conscious of pure memory, of the idea that something you had in your head was now gone forever.”

O’Toole’s sweeping, intimate book covers a lifetime of Ireland’s history: a period of six decades when the country transitioned from one thing to another with little understanding of where it had been or where it was going, and was content to wear blinkers. A dishonest deflection of important questions was a deep-seated habit. The years punctuated by the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar marked a turning point. Even a kid in short pants and knee socks could sense that something was up.

In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion against British rule, Ireland was still an intensely Catholic country. Schools made liberal use of corporal punishment—a leather strap to the palms in O’Toole’s school, a bamboo cane to the palms in mine—and the teaching of Irish was compulsory. Most homes in rural areas had no plumbing. Horse-drawn wagons delivered milk even in central Dublin. The smell of turf and coal was baked into a city that served as a placeholder for postwar Berlin in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The official version of Irish history was a dour, gray, pietistic nationalism. When the remains of Roger Casement, executed for his part in preparations for the Easter Rebellion, were returned to Ireland by Britain in a goodwill gesture, the occasion was marked by grim festivity. As a Boy Scout, I marched in the cortege behind Casement’s flag-draped casket on a day that spat sleet and snow.

Yet in this same Ireland, at this same moment, industrial estates were springing up rapidly around Shannon Airport and its famous duty-free shops. Ireland launched its first television channel in 1961—a year after TV came to Albania—and although Ireland itself had only Telifís Éireann, one could also get the BBC, and therefore access to the rest of planet Earth. Irish theater was effectively still subject to censorship, but the new plays of Brian Friel hinted at a flowering to come. Though Church teaching and the law forbade contraception, sympathetic doctors finessed the ban by prescribing the pill for menstrual irregularity, leading to what one prominent obstetrician described as “the highest incidence of irregular cycles in women in the history of the human race.”

My own vivid, limited sense of that time and place—of a country watching itself change—is lodged in my memory like a single piece of a puzzle. O’Toole provides a place for that piece to go: the missing context in all directions.

Books about modern Ireland abound—the Irish love their words; isn’t that what people say? They include magisterial scholarship (the works of R. F. Foster), searing fiction (Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, John McGahern’s The Dark), and episodic recollections with a sharpened edge (John Banville’s recent Time Pieces). O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves 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: his boyhood in the Crumlin housing estate; his education at the hands of the fearsome Christian Brothers; his awareness, as a political journalist in Dublin, of clerical cover-ups and government chicanery; his impatience with the “silences and evasions” of Irish life.

O’Toole was born in 1958, the son of a bus conductor and a homemaker, into an Ireland where in many respects time seemed to have stopped. The failed Easter Rebellion had led eventually to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which decreed partition for the island and granted independence to the southern Free State. It also brought on a bloody civil war—the original “Troubles.” Éamon de Valera, a commandant in the uprising who was spared execution in 1916 in part because he was an American citizen, opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty but went on to lead the nation it created. He warned against “amorphous cosmopolitanism,” as if that were imminent. Through decades of economic torpor, the country’s chief export was beef. Its other export was people. The Ireland of de Valera’s aspiration was Catholic, rural, Irish-speaking, and, as he himself put it, “as self-contained as possible.” Church and state—specifically, de Valera’s long-dominant Fianna Fáil party—worked hand in glove, a regime of mutual reinforcement. The fusion was symbolized by the use of the term martyrs for the Easter rebels.

The year of O’Toole’s birth was also the year when a government minister named T. K. Whitaker produced a report with the bland name “Economic Development.” It was so calm and academic—the “Grey Book,” in shorthand—that it quietly became national policy. The report’s broad impetus was Ireland’s backward condition as a kind of charming North Korea. The more immediate spark, Whitaker later acknowledged, had been a cover image on Dublin Opinion magazine showing a sign sprouting from an empty island. The sign read Shortly Available: Undeveloped Country / Unrivalled Opportunities / Magnificent Views, Political and Otherwise / Owners Going Abroad. Whitaker’s report provided a blueprint for opening the Irish economy to outside investment and ultimately to Europe. It embodied what O’Toole refers to as “the great gamble”—that “everything would change economically but everything would stay the same culturally.”

It would not and could not. For all its genuine warmth, O’Toole writes, President John F. Kennedy’s state visit, in 1963, was also a reminder of a world the Irish did not yet inhabit but were starting to glimpse: the wealth, the cars, the confidence, the sex, the sunglasses. The sight of the Irish and American presidents standing together underscored the distance. Could anyone imagine de Valera having a drink with Marilyn and Frank? But a different Irish future lay within reach. Whitaker’s plan would lead, down the road, to surging prosperity and brash ad campaigns in foreign airports featuring photos of savvy young redheads above slogans like People Are To Ireland As Oil Is To Texas. In the 25 years after 1990, American companies invested five times more heavily in the vaunted Celtic Tiger than they did in the People’s Republic of China. Among other things, Ireland became a leading manufacturer of Viagra, Prozac, and Botox. The bubble would one day burst, but the change in the country was permanent.

In effect, O’Toole writes, two very different Irelands came to coexist uneasily, neither displacing the other:

“Ireland,” as a notion, was almost suffocatingly coherent and fixed: Catholic, nationalist, rural. This was the Platonic form of the place. But Ireland as a lived experience was incoherent and unfixed. The first Ireland was bounded, protected, shielded from the unsavoury influence of the outside world. The second was unbounded, shifting, physically on the move to that outside world. In the space between these two Irelands, there was a haunted emptiness, a sense of something so unreal that it might disappear completely.

Emptiness is not really the right word. As O’Toole goes on to explain, the space was amply filled, by hypocrisy on the part of Ireland’s leaders, and by a kind of “doubleness” on the part of everyone else—a way of seeing and not seeing, of paying lip service to one set of values while pegging behavior to another.

Two figures loom over O’Toole’s narrative, one from Church and one from state: John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin, who ruled Ireland’s Catholic life from 1940 until 1972; and Charles Haughey, who served three terms as taoiseach, or prime minister, between 1979 and 1992.

McQuaid was a diminutive, regal, fastidious man once likened by the poet Brendan Behan to a lasso (actually, “an elderly degenerate proselytising umbilical lasso”): a prelate who simultaneously held Ireland together and held it captive. He thundered against contraception, abortion, and divorce. His eyes and ears were sharp. When he heard Cole Porter lyrics being sung on Radio Éireann—“But I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion / Yes, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way”—he put a stop to it. The programmer was told, as he later recalled, that “His Grace is concerned at the somewhat, eh, circumscribed morality of the song.” O’Toole once served as an altar boy for McQuaid when the archbishop came to Crumlin for a funeral Mass. Secular leaders had genuflected before him, and after Mass, as McQuaid touched the cheeks and tousled the hair of the altar boys, so did O’Toole: McQuaid “raised his right arm gently to the height of his own waist, palm down, so that I could see the amethyst in the Borgia ring presented to him on his elevation to the episcopacy.”

The only circumscribed morality McQuaid was prepared to tolerate was the abuse of young boys and girls by priests, and of women from many backgrounds by nuns in the infamous Magdalene Laundries. The abuse was known to him and others, and suspected by many, but brushed aside. Later investigations revealed that when parents broached the subject of abuse with Church authorities, they did so timidly and apologetically, as if it were they or their children who had done something wrong. The Church, O’Toole writes, had “successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong.”

McQuaid died in 1973; standing vigil at the lying-in-state, as if to proclaim his solidarity, was a young minister and de Valera acolyte named Charles Haughey. As prime minister, he would back a 1983 constitutional amendment to protect Ireland’s anti-abortion laws from judicial interference. He also backed a referendum that maintained the ban on divorce. Earlier, as minister of justice, he had overseen Ireland’s film-censorship regime and spurned efforts at softening and reform. Haughey upheld the outward forms of marital propriety while conducting a long affair with the wife of a high-court judge.

Haughey was deeply corrupt. In the late 1960s, when he was an elected member of the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, his government salary was £3,500 a year; the annual wages for the staff at his estate north of Dublin came to £30,000. Later in life, Haughey would buy one of the Blasket Islands, off the coast of Kerry, then as now a symbolic link to a mythic past. The modernizing Irish present made the purchase possible—Haughey received secret infusions from builders and beef barons, retailers and speculators, as well as from the public purse. When a popular colleague needed a liver transplant, he solicited large sums of money for the operation, knowing all the while that insurance would cover the cost; then he kept the donations.

Haughey lived, O’Toole notes, like a member of the old Protestant elite—like “an Ascendancy squire”—confident that his constituents would be gratified by the national progress his lifestyle represented: The squire was now an Irish Catholic. People knew all of this but at the same time found it impossible to face directly. O’Toole describes attending a press conference in 1981—his first as a young political writer—where an editor impolitely asked Haughey, “Where did you get your money?” When Haughey dodged, the questioner persisted. Other journalists grew irritated—not at Haughey, but at the editor. “Haughey’s money was not really a journalistic question,” O’Toole observes. “It was, like child abuse or abortion or Magdalene Laundries, one of those things that was both known and unknowable.”

Much of the known and unknowable revolved around sex and sexuality. In O’Toole’s telling, hypocrisy on these matters acted as a solvent, finally detaching Ireland from the grip of the past. The gap between pious pronouncements and “lived experience” was simply too vast. In 1971, activist women made a show of traveling to buy birth-control pills and condoms in Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, where they were readily available; the “contraceptive train” was seen by the Church as an outrage, but the anger and need were real. In the five decades after 1970, some 250,000 Irish women traveled to England to obtain abortions—this in a country of fewer than 5 million. Everyone knew someone.

The saga of Galway’s bishop, Éamonn Casey, who fled to South America in 1992 after revelations about his American lover and their teenage son, was followed by endless investigations into clerical abuse of children. Laws began to change. Contraception was legalized, then divorce, then abortion in 2018. Irish people by the hundreds of thousands, O’Toole notes, had seen the pain of friends and family, and come to conclusions “different from the ones they knew they were supposed to arrive at.” The flock, he observes, had moved far ahead of the shepherd. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum. Thinking back on that vote, O’Toole writes:

What was being recognized was not just the wonderful and ordinary variousness of Irish lives and desires, it was Irish society’s other secret self—not the one that contained all the darkness and in-turned violence, but the great secret of intimate grace. Ours had been a place in which the quiet kindness of human acceptance, of loving and liking people even when their lives were not as they were supposed to be, had been consigned to the private realm, even while, paradoxically, we presented to the world a face of intolerance that was never really our own.

We Don’t Know Ourselves is astonishing in its range. Every chapter takes up a specific topic—the expansion of schooling, Irish peacekeepers during the Congolese crisis, the rise and decline of emigration, Muhammad Ali’s visit to Dublin, the invasion of American country music, Gay Byrne and his smooth and legitimizing The Late Late Show, the quest for membership in the European Union, Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes, the influx of hard drugs, the bungalow boom and bubble, the lunacy of the “Island of Ireland” development in Dubai, the Good Friday Agreement. 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. “What is possible now, and was entirely impossible when I was born, is this: to accept the unknown without being so terrified of it that you have to take refuge in fabrications of absolute conviction.”

I came away from We Don’t Know Ourselves seeing modern Ireland more convincingly portrayed and explained than ever before. I wish I understood modern America half as well.

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “How Ireland Blundered Into the Modern World.”

This article originally stated that Charles Haughey, who became minister for justice in 1961, oversaw Ireland’s censorship of Casablanca. In fact, the country’s censorship office had banned the film when it was first released, in 1943.