Tag Archives: Colum McCann

Fintan O’Toole’s ‘personal history’ of Ireland

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole leverages his life experiences from the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s independence to its transformation “from backwater of Europe to one off the most globalized societies in the world” as “a different way of writing the history of a country.”

At a St. Patrick’s Day eve talk in Washington, D.C., to promote his new book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, O’Toole said the Irish experienced “an existential crisis” during his mid-20th century youth. People were asking, “Is this place viable?” and “What does independence mean?”

Fintan O’Toole, March 16, 2022

Many answered the question with one-way tickets to England (The late oppressor, how ironic!), America, and elsewhere. Ireland’s population fell to half of what it had been 100 years earlier, before the Great Famine. The emigration, in turn, bolstered Ireland’s global identity as a conservative Catholic country. The church, O’Toole said, “governed lives and governed the state.”

Those who left, including a notable preponderance of single women, learned to nurture and manage diverse and even conflicting identities in their new homes. But they found themselves, “half there, half here” and suspended between versions of Ireland’s past and present. The Irish, O’Toole said, developed a profound capacity “for thinking one thing about themselves, and knowing it was something else.”

This concept is also reflected in the long-running “collusion” (O’Toole’s word, both joking and serious) between the Irish and Irish America. The Irish lied about themselves and their country to cover up painful truths; Americans agreed to believe the stories, which they weaved into an idealized nostalgia for a place “as unlike America as possible.”

Now, the Irish are staying home. Despite the economic setback of the “Celtic Tiger,” the country has grown progressive and prosperous. The Irish are comfortable (or becoming so) with “complex and multiple identities,” O’Toole said. They live in a world of grays, not only vivid greens … and orange. The “radical change” in Ireland, the author continued, is the Irish are learning this doesn’t make them “less Irish.”

O’Toole noted that demographers forecast Ireland’s population by 2040 will reach 8.5 million, the same as before the Famine. He concluded: “It’s quite an optimistic place to be.”

I’ve only begun reading this book, which is divided into 43 short chapters pegged to individual years or groups of years over the author’s lifetime. O’Toole and I are roughly contemporaries. He was born in suburban Dublin in February 1958, 18 months before my birth in suburban Pittsburgh. He was eight at the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent commemorations of Ireland’s revolutionary period, soon overshadowed by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was six at the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War and subsequent civil rights turmoil; 17 when America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976.

Every country has national foundation myths and internal strife.

So I am very interested in O’Toole’s “personal history” as vehicle for “the history of a country.” As fellow Dublin writer Colum McCann writes in his New York Times review of the book, “it is not a memoir, nor is it an absolute history, nor is it entirely a personal reflection or a crepuscular credo. It is, in fact, all of these things helixed together: his life, his country, his thoughts, his misgivings, his anger, his pride, his doubt, all of them belonging, eventually, to us.”

I will write more in a future post.

McCann’s “TransAtlantic” weaves trio of Irish historical events

UPDATE: Waterford erected a plaque honoring Douglass’s 1845 visit.


I’ve just finished reading Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic: A Novel.” The book wraps the stories of several generations of women around three historical events that involved crossings of the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Ireland.

The most recent of the three events were the 1990s travels of U.S. Sen George Mitchell to broker peace between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. Such recent history is well known and have been covered previously in this blog.

The other two events are older and perhaps less familiar. One is the first flight across the Atlantic by John Alcott and Arthur Brown. The men left Newfoundland on June 14, 1919, and reached Clifden, in County Galway, the next day.

McCann’s describes the aviators’ first look at Ireland after a 16-hour flight:

The plane crosses the land at a low clip. Down below, a sheep with a magpie sitting on its back. … In the distance, the mountains. The quiltwork of stone walls. Corkscrew roads. Stunted trees. An abandoned castle. A pig farm. A church. … Ireland. A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same.

The third historical event in the novel centers on the 1845 visit of Frederick Douglass, including his meeting with “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell. “The ghost of the Irish nationalist, before and after the Civil War years, often inhabited Douglass’s thinking,” according to this piece by historian Tom Chaffin.

One of the most poignant parts of the novel describes Douglass’ trip to Cork from Dublin as famine began to grip the Irish countryside. McCann writes:

They entered wild country. Broken fences. Ruined castles. Stretches of bogland. Wooded headlands. Turfsmoke rose from cabins, thin and mean. On muddy paths, they glimpsed moving rags. The rags seemed more animated than the bodies within.

Below: Mural of Douglass on the Falls Road in Belfast.