Discover more from The Liberal Patriot
Beware of Nationalist Self-Deceptions
Fintan O’Toole’s personal history of Ireland—We Don’t Know Ourselves—offers a cautionary tale about national myths, political violence, and the fusion of Church and state.
What can a story about plucky Ireland—a nation with only 5 million people and fairly recent economic modernization—tell Americans about their own national identity? A lot it turns out, especially if that story is Fintan O’Toole’s magnificent personal, cultural, and political history of modern Ireland, We Don’t Know Ourselves.
O’Toole, a columnist and writer for the Irish Times and a professor at Princeton University, was born in 1958 and grew up in working-class Dublin during a time of profound changes in Irish life. His book recounts the rapid transformation in Irish society, its economy, and politics over a few decades including charming stories about television and popular music, harsh stories about the realities of life under the thumb of the Irish Catholic Church, violent stories about the destructive pipe dreams of Irish nationalists and British unionists, and happy-turned-sad stories about the massive influx of foreign capital and investment (particularly from American tech and pharmaceutical companies) that fueled Ireland’s boom and bust economy of the early 2000s.
O’Toole’s description of his family’s move to the planned community of Crumlin, outside of Dublin, encapsulates the strange intermingling of national identities that defined Irish existence in 1960:
[Crumlin] was the largest building project in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, eventually totalling 5,500 two-storey houses, most of them more or less identical…The scale was such that the central government became directly involved, largely to insist of lower building standards and a ‘ruthless reduction of the specifications’…But if this was a new city, the order of its foundational priorities was encoded in the few public buildings: the big police station was built and opened long before any secondary school, dispensary or hospital (for the first few years, there was not even a district nurse). The purpose was obvious: ‘to control the unruly crowds of workless adolescents for whom there are no factories, no technical schools, no secondary schools, no football grounds’.
The centre of the housing estate of Crumlin began to be built in 1934, two years after Dublin hosted the huge international Catholic festival, the Eucharistic Congress, and the new Irish state declared to the world its fervent allegiance to Rome. So they built it in the shape of the Eucharistic Cross badge. The badge was an exercise in branding, a logo for a specifically Irish Catholicism: the Cross of Cong, an early medieval crucifix with a chalice imprinted in the centre, on which is carved a Celtic triskel, surrounded, in the Celtic manner, by a circle.
So our home terrain was a large-scale reproduction of a piece of Catholic religious merchandising. The centre of Crumlin is a geoglyph, like the Nazca lines of Peru or the white horses and giants cut into the chalk downs of England. One axis of the cross is Bangor Road, the other Clonmacnoise Road, and they meet in an inner circle of green space. The outer circle is formed by the elegant curves of Leighlin Road, and Lismore Road. This badge, this brand, is also a kind of fetish, to ward off evil and radiate outwards to the whole estate the miraculous unanimity of the Holy City, the piety shared by ‘everyone imaginable’. It defined an ‘imaginable to which every one of us should subscribe’.
The thing was, though, that on the ground level, where we were, you couldn’t see this at all. We were too close to be able to see the intended pattern. To see the geoglyph, you had to occupy a place above it, a literally superior position…There is a photograph called ‘Crumlin from the Air,’ published in 1939, innocently giving a pilot’s eye view in which the Celtic Cross looks like a bomber’s sight locked on a target. Even without this ominous double vision, there is no doubt that the point of view implied by the way the estate is branded is that of the high-level observer, floating above our lives, somehow controlling the magic of Celticism and Catholicism.
As O’Toole highlights in his quirky, vivid, and sometimes angry manner, when you fuse nationalism with religion, it leads to all sorts of self-deceptions and corruption of both politics and religion. In the case of Ireland, this resulted devastatingly in widespread private hypocrisy and official cover-ups of the Catholic Church’s serial abuse of children in the supposed care of its various “reformatory and industrial schools” where “wayward” boys and girls lived basically as slave laborers and prisoners. (All of this abuse was documented in ruinous fashion in The Ryan Report released in 2009.) The quasi-official fusion of Church and state in Ireland that enabled systematic abuse of minors is nothing to be proud of as a nation.
A second self-deception arose from the increasingly violent Irish nationalist movement, and in particular, the Irish Republican Army (and its Provisional offshoot) targeting civilians for bombings, killings, and other torture with the strategic purpose of trying to show the futility of British rule in Northern Ireland. Nationalism that willingly kills its own people and other innocent civilians merely to sow chaos is not revolutionary change for the betterment of people and sovereign control—it is immoral and illegal. Regardless of how bad the unionist forces and British military may have behaved, this was terrorism that the Irish and Northern Irish people eventually renounced.
A third self-deception came with the influx of foreign capital during the Celtic Tiger boom, where the Irish state willingly ignored various legal and accounting hijinks by foreign companies, mostly American, while simultaneously cutting taxes, spending wildly, and turning a blind eye to its own banks unchecked lending on housing, land speculation, and development flops ahead of the 2008 financial crisis. A national economic model built on lies and foreigners’ money that leads to collapse is not much to be proud of at home.
Despite the clear limits of Irish nationalist identity, O’Toole's memoir paints a wonderful portrait of all the good and decent Irish people who made the country work over the past half century by inhabiting a “real, lived self” to overcome the “official, fictional self” established by corrupt political and religious elites.
Ireland is much better off today both socially and economically than it was decades ago, and the willingness of Irish citizens to unmask the official lies to begin establishing a more democratic, free, and egalitarian state played a big role in its transformation.
O’Toole’s personal lessons about nationalist identity apply to America as well. Although we live in a completely different country in terms of America’s size and economic power—along with a longer constitutional tradition of individual freedom and distrust of authority—the myths that our own elites promulgate about who we are and what we stand for should be viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism.
America has a great national identity and tradition—along with many historical warts that we’ve tried to overcome—and we shouldn’t listen to partisan and ideological propagandists today who want to overturn measured self-knowledge about our national identity with half-baked stories and lies about who is a good American and who is not. Nationalism properly understood should bolster citizenship and promote civic unity, not drive further divisions and fuel hatreds within the population.
As O'Toole shows, people don't always know themselves completely—and it's up to us as citizens in our respective countries to figure out the best and most worthy story of our own national identity and reject the false ones put forth by elite deceivers.