With a fine sense for the perfect, ironic anecdote, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole describes how Ireland became modern. I read it as I rode trains around the country my grandparents left.
Early in the book, he describes the visit by President Kennedy to the country in 1963. The ultimate Irish emigrant who did well somewhere else, the Irish were bewitched by his glamor and sex appeal. Mad scenes were reported across the country as Irish nearly trampled the President. And the contrast between the youthful American leader and the elderly Irish leaders is striking.
During his visit, Kennedy says, “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.”
But what if Ireland didn’t need to export its people? What if young Irish could find economic opportunity in Cork and Dublin rather than New York and London?
Deciding to Stay
O’Toole’s parents were part of the generation that decided to stay, rather than emigrate. This was despite the stultifying hold the Catholic Church had on the country, which ruled in matters large and small, from who could get divorced (no one) to what plays could be performed. Most Irish writers lived abroad, for they could find a freedom in England or Italy that they couldn’t find at home.
And underneath the traditional, thatched roof view of green Ireland hid an a archipelago of Catholic horror, from industrial schools for poor children to Magdalene Laundries for wayward women. This was institutionalized slavery and sexual exploitation. According to the Church, what went on in these prisons was not sinful; telling the truth about them was, for it undercut the faith among the believers. We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland uncover this habit of “compartmentalizing” these unspoken horrors in Irish society.
When I was in Ireland, I visited the Irish Workhouse Centre. Poor people turned themselves into the workhouse when they had no money. Families were separated. Men, women and children worked manual labor (like breaking rocks) for their daily gruel. And this wasn’t just some Dickensian-era cruelty; the workhouse was still operating in the 1920s.
This was around the time my Flood ancestors left the country. In America, we like to think that immigrants are in search of abstract causes like freedom. But, for my family, it was probably emigrate or starve.
What Would Ireland Be?
The Irish leaders of the 1960s – the “conservative revolutionaries” of the Easter Rising and the Catholic Church – realized that the country had to change before the population collapsed.
But if Ireland modernized, what kind of country would it be? West Britain? An American outpost? Part of Europe?
The answer: all of the above.
Ireland has inescapable trade links with the United Kingdom, a constant exchange of people and goods. In the 1980s, American investment arrived, with call centers and manufacturing plants blossoming around the country, during the short-lived Celtic Tiger days. (O’Toole has a very funny chapter on the excesses of the era, like the Riverdance phenomenon, when Irish-Americans shamelessly fused tradition with rock and roll into a global sensation.) And Ireland has worked hard to be accepted into the European Union, despite the skepticism of fiscally-prudent Germany.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland ends with a country that is very different from the one that my family fled. The power of the Catholic Church is no more. The veterans of 1916 are just memories. Brexit has flipped old animosities around, with the possibility that Northern Ireland opts out of the UK and returns to the EU through union with Ireland.
The Irish retain their traditional generosity. The country has welcomed more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees, despite having a housing shortage.
And a power shortage, too. Power cuts are expected this winter, as Europe struggles with the economic turmoil created by Putin’s war.
But it’s a place where you can cross the country in a modern train in three hours. And sit in a Cork bar with the band so close that you can reach out and touch them while you drink a five euro Guinness surrounded by French teens practicing their English.
Ireland doesn’t need to export its people anymore. Instead, the world is coming to Ireland.