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The Wisdom of Fintan O’Toole

Photo by Ben Russell, Princeton University

The words of the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University serve as a balm during turbulent times

By Ilene Dube

Although a small country (population 5 million), Ireland has produced some of the world’s finest writers, from James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Becket to Iris Murdoch, Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor … we could be reciting the names of writers for as long as it takes to read Joyce’s Ulysses aloud.

If non-fiction writers are admitted to the pack, The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole would be among them. He is considered one of the Emerald Isle’s leading public intellectuals. In 2011, The Observer named O’Toole one of “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals.”

The literary and drama critic, historical writer, and political commentator is also a critic of political corruption and negative attitudes toward immigration. “Race, sex, and immigration are closely entwined in the Irish story,” he said in a March 2022 talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

A regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Granta, and The Guardian, as well as a member of the Royal Irish Academy who is at work on the official biography of Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, O’Toole is the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University.

This semester, O’Toole is teaching Modern Irish Theatre: Oscar Wilde to Martin McDonagh to Riverdance, exploring the ways in which Irish theater transforms every few decades, “from Wilde and Shaw’s subversions of England to the search of Yeats and Synge for an authentic rural Ireland,” according to the course description.

He has written on topics from Brexit to the American War in Afghanistan. Among the two dozen books O’Toole has published is A History of Ireland in 100 Objects, in which photographs of 100 objects that have played a significant role in shaping that country are accompanied by their stories. Ornamental treasures such as the Book of Kells, the 8th century Ardagh Chalice, and a chair by modernist furniture designer Eileen Gray are given equal weight as the bloodstained shirt of Irish revolutionary James Connolly and a 1950s washing machine.

O’Toole’s most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, was named Book of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards and one of the top 10 books of 2022 by The New York Times. The New Yorker compared it to “a great tragicomic Irish novel, rich in memoir and record, calamity and critique. The book contains funny and terrible things” with “details and episodes so pungent.”

“My life is too boring for a memoir,” O’Toole wrote in the afterword, “and there is no shortage of modern Irish history. But it happens that my life does in some ways both span and mirror a time of transformation.”

That life began in 1958. His earliest significant memory was in 1966 when his mother, a factory worker who managed the family’s life at home, awoke in the night to a loud explosion. Nelson’s Pillar, a symbol of British oppression in the heart of Dublin (it had honored British naval commander Horatio Pillar), had been blown up by an IRA splinter group. The following morning O’Toole’s father, a bus conductor, boarded them on public transit to go and view the wreckage.

“He said it was a big thing, an event we should remember,” writes O’Toole. “It was 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 grew up in a time when his country was one of the poorest in Western Europe. Following World War II, two-thirds of homes lacked electricity. Shortly after his parents married, in order to move to their new abode, they had to pack all their belongings onto a cart and walk it eight miles.

Nelson’s Pillar, a symbol of British oppression in the heart of Dublin, was destroyed on the morning of March 8, 1966. (Wikipedia)

“We never had a car or a foreign holiday,” O’Toole told The Independent. His father “worked two shifts a day, seven days a week, for 40 years so we could be well-dressed, well-fed, and they could pay the rent.”

During the Marshall Plan, the post-World War II initiative to rebuild Western Europe, Ireland — which had remained neutral during the war — still fell into an economic depression. Writer Frank McCourt’s words come to mind: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

O’Toole describes 1950s Ireland as “almost suffocatingly coherent and fixed: Catholic, nationalist, rural.” Free secondary education didn’t come about until 1966.

One of the country’s largest exports was its people. On visiting his ancestral land, John F. Kennedy told an admiring crowd, “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel, or gold, or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people.” Three in five Irish children raised in the 1950s were destined to leave at some point in their lives. They left for the blast furnaces and woolen mills of the United States — what O’Toole refers to as voting with their feet. Irish women were almost twice as likely to emigrate as men, traveling on their own. “The idea of disappearance hung over the place,” O’Toole writes.

While some might view living in a stone edifice on a small hill farm as romantic, Irish people sought the modernity the rest of the world was experiencing. They saw it on American TV, of which they consumed large doses. To them, American Westerns were social realism, writes O’Toole.

Abortion, divorce, and even contraception were illegal during his formative years. O’Toole shows what happens as a result. Says one unwed mother quoted in We Don’t Know Ourselves: “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.”

It is cringe-inducing reading about the many ways in which women and children were oppressed. Until 1980, a woman’s income was considered to be her husband’s money. Even marital rape didn’t become illegal until 1990. “The idea that a wife was not a legally or economically separate person but a mere adjunct to her husband had very deep roots. Within my lifetime, even minimal changes to this idea were bitterly opposed,” O’Toole writes in The Irish Times.

Abuse of boys and girls by priests was so rampant it was overlooked. Because the Catholic Church ran everything, there was no one to tell; parents advised their children to look away.

The Magdalene Laundries, run by Roman Catholic nuns, imprisoned, enslaved, and abused both physically and psychologically more than 10,000 women and girls. It was only after those institutions were shuttered that the bodies of the dead were discovered. O’Toole describes the Laundries as “one of those things that was both known and unknowable.”

An altar boy for four years, O’Toole sought to please both his religious mother and his less religious father, ultimately finding a place for himself as an atheist. He describes the Catholic Church as the greatest hypocrite of them all. “To hell with God,” he echoes one of the priests at his school.

O’Toole traces history through the lenses of personal experiences, theater, literature, and Ireland’s plumbing and flush toilets. “Love, honor, and carry water” was an advertising slogan for marriage, he recounts.

In the six decades of his life, O’Toole has seen divorce, contraception, and abortion become legal, and in 2015, same sex marriage was legalized by referendum.

The population has rebounded from its low of 2.8 million in the 1950s, and Ireland’s economy, boosted by the export of electronics beginning in the 1970s, has become one of the strongest in the world.

O’Toole told The New York Times Book Review podcast, “I think one of the hopeful things about the Irish story is that it shows you that you can transform a nation. You can make it, in many ways, an awful lot better than it was.”

He is married to Clare Connell, a teacher of English and geography, with whom O’Toole has two adult children. He’s even a master chef, having appeared on an Irish cooking show with such recipes as lobster in tarragon sauce with runner beans, smoked eel, endive salad and poached quail eggs, and rhubarb and custard pie, winning the show’s five-star award not once but twice.

“There’s lots of bad things about growing up in a very small, intimate society, but there’s lots of wonderful things, too, particularly if you’re trying to write,” O’Toole told John Williams on the New York Times podcast. “I was trying to exploit this thing, which you have in a small society as a writer, which is that your own life, however ordinary it is, is going to intersect with the bigger questions.”

The Spire of Dublin, erected in 2003.

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