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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Fintan O’Toole lectures on transition to a modern Ireland

On Friday afternoon, famed Irish writer Fintan O’Toole spoke at Notre Dame on his new book “We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland.” O’Toole’s book, part autobiography and part history, details the evolution of Ireland from a conservative to a modern society.

When writing the book, O’Toole said, he tried to answer why there was not “more violent social conflict in the Republic of Ireland, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s” despite profound social change.

O’Toole explained that during this time Ireland began its transition from the “backwater of Western Europe” into “one of the most globalized economies in the world.”

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Liam Kelly
The new book of Irish writer Fintan O'Toole, who spoke at Notre Dame Friday, details “six ambiguities” about the Ireland’s ideological structure.


O’Toole argued that while in the 1980s the “traditional hierarchies [in Ireland] looked more solid than ever” with referendums to ban abortion and divorce passing overwhelmingly, these hierarchies were actually on the verge of collapsing.

In his book, O’Toole writes that “‘Ireland,’ as a notion, was almost suffocatingly coherent and fixed: Catholic, nationalist, rural… but Ireland as a lived experience was incoherent and unfixed.”

O’Toole detailed what he called the “six ambiguities” that explain the collapse of an apparently stable ideological structure in Ireland. These instances of “cognitive dissonance,” O’Toole said, allowed Ireland “to change massively, while not actually understanding that it is changing, and therefore not resisting that change.” 

The first of these ambiguities O’Toole described was the history of mass migration from Ireland.

“What characterizes Ireland is this contradiction between people and place,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole described mass migration as the “price that society pays” to retain its conservative culture.

“The Irish state after its foundation sustains itself as a conservative place because it exports most of the people who might have trouble, who might be unhappy, who might be kicking against the system, because they can’t get jobs, because they can't have their aspirations fulfilled,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole then described the ambiguity of “repressive freedom” which Ireland experienced during much of the post-independence period. While the Republic of Ireland had become entirely independent of Britain and attained freedom in that sense, it had many institutions and parts of its culture that were in fact very repressive, O’Toole said.

“There's a disjunction between Irish people's sense of themselves as being free and the way that society actually works,” O’Toole explained.

One of these repressive institutions was the “Magdalene Laundries” which forced certain women who were considered to be a “moral danger” to work without a judicial process, O’Toole said. Ireland also had the highest rates of mental hospital incarceration ever recorded in the world, O’Toole added. 

“We learned how to tolerate completely contradictory narratives of Irish freedom,” O’Toole said.

The third of O’Toole’s ambiguities is the decline of agricultural life in Ireland. O’Toole detailed how the dramatic decline of agricultural life was actually caused by the very people who sought to conserve it. 

One way this transition occurred, O’Toole said, was Ireland joining the European Union in 1973. While the move was opposed more by those in urban areas, it was supported by farmers who wanted access to markets in Europe where they could receive higher prices for beef. This influx of capital into rural Ireland opened up more opportunities for younger Irish people. This was then followed by the expansion of free education to the high school level, O’Toole explained.

O’Toole described that “the initial beneficiaries of this revolution were actually the old conservative farming class.” 

“It allowed people of a certain generation to think that they were still living in a very conservative Ireland, even though they were in fact the most enthusiastic participants in these two huge processes of change: joining the European Union and the education revolution,” O’Toole said. 

O’Toole then described how the initial reaction to the troubles in Northern Ireland displayed a contradiction between Irish people’s sense of nationalism and their willingness to fight at that moment.

“This whole idea of dying for Ireland is very, very profoundly imprinted on our sense of ourselves,” O’Toole explained.

When the troubles began in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and the IRA became resurgent, these nationalistic ideas surprisingly did not lead to civil war, O’Toole said.

“The Republic… just pretends it’s not happening and manages to sustain this for a couple of decades,” he said.

O’Toole argued that this pacifism, despite the strong nationalism regarding Northern Ireland, prevented war and further problems for Ireland which would have prevented it from modernizing.

In his fifth ambiguity, O’Toole described what he calls the “gamble of 1958” in which Ireland tried to modernize while retaining its ideological structures. 

“Irish people were able to actually be living lives which were very radically changed, while at the same time deciding that it was more comforting, in the process of change, not to overturn all the structures and all the institutions but rather to hold onto them,” O’Toole stated.

Although the ideological coherence in Ireland remained largely intact through the period of modernization up until the 1980s, the “gamble of 1958” soon failed after that.

“By the time you get into the 21st century and things start to unravel, they unravel very, very fast because maybe underneath the reality was not as monolithic as it seemed,” O’Toole said.

Finally, O’Toole discussed the capacity of the Irish people to not confront the things that they think need to change.

“Most people learned, because they actually had to, how to navigate their way around apparently unchangeable power structures,” O’Toole said.

One example O’Toole provided was how birth control was allowed in Catholic schools for women only as a means to regulate women’s menstrual cycles and not to prevent pregnancies.

O’Toole characterized these seemingly illogical norms as “transitional states that get you from a culture of obedience and orthodoxy into one of defiance.”

Addressing all six ambiguities, O’Toole acknowledged that while they may be “ways in which you actually don't grasp your own reality” and can cause “a lot of hypocrisy to continue,” they allowed Ireland to transition “from a very conservative, inward looking society to one of the most liberal societies in Europe, and certainly one of the most globalized economies in the world without profound social conflict.”