A new year post about change for the better. Finton O’Toole tells a personal history of Ireland. This starts with his birth in 1958 and goes to the present. He is an excellent writer and there is a lot of interesting information. In this post I’ll just look at the core themes of his country getting better over time. Things haven’t always been going in the right direction at every given point, but the accumulative change over his lifetime has been stunning. To O’Toole, and this chimes with my more limited personal experience, Ireland is a much better place than it was.
Something is probably going wrong when people are leaving a country in droves. This may be no fault of the country, e.g., when a country is invaded or otherwise oppressed, but mass emigration is an indication that it would be good to have some change in a country’s circumstances. In 1958 people could be described as Ireland’s most important export, as it had been for over a century. Leaving was particularly appealing to women who didn’t fancy the lot they were born into. This often involved a lack of power in the family and numerous household chores such as fetching water.
The effect of emigration on the population was dramatic.
In 1841, [before the famine] the population of what became the twenty-six-county Irish state was 6.5 million. In 1961, it would hit its lowest ever total of 2.8 million. By that year, a scarcely imaginable 45% of all those born in Ireland between 1931 and 1936 and 40 per cent of those born between 1936 and 1941 had left.O’Toole, 2021, page 61
My mother was one of those who came to England. Others went to America, and almost anywhere else they could get to. Ireland and East Germany were the only European countries where the population fell in the 1950s (page 30). East Germany soon afterward put up a wall to stop its people from fleeing its terrible regime.
Material And Educational Progress Matters
When you have a decent standard of material progress, it is easy to forget what it is like not to have basic items. In the 1961 census, the material quality of life was dire in much of Ireland.
In Roscommon [where my mum was born] 67 per cent of homes had no toilets of any kind.O’Toole, 2021, page 61
This won’t come as a surprise, but it can be easy to forget if it doesn’t affect you personally. No country’s people are going to be okay being poor indefinitely.
Part of the transformation of Ireland involved education. In the 1950s 80% of students dropped out at 14 (page 120). It needed to change and, spoiler, it did.
The Good Parts Of Culture Are Resilient
According to O’Toole, Ireland had always worried about becoming West Briton, but was worried less about being East America. Poets and artists were worried about losing the national identity as people (voluntarily) left the wild, beautiful, romantic, but remote and poverty-stricken countryside, where the poets wanted them to live.
For many Irish artists, from Seán ó Riada onwards, the process of modernization could only be a loss.O’Toole, 2021, page 504
Ireland became much more urban as Dublin, especially, expanded. Still, the worries of cultural dislocation seemed largely misplaced. The culture changed but it wasn’t transformed into a pale imitation of the UK or even the US. Television and American movies didn’t destroy Ireland.
Change could be dramatic but this was often because change was needed. The (Catholic) Church’s treatment of women and children could be appalling. Some of the stories are truly harrowing. (There is also a comic element in the book as priests seek to deny the obvious or elude change). The belief that the Church shouldn’t have to answer to their people was clear to see. As information broke many terrible actions couldn’t be covered up. Neither could political corruption.
In the spirit of change for the better Irish people embraced Europe.
The Irish were fed up with being poor and colourful and different. European normality looked pretty good.O’Toole, 2021, page 249
As the father of a daughter who does Irish dancing the extensive discussion of this form of dance was interesting. O’Toole was forced to do it at school. He doesn’t sound like he enjoyed it much but it was a stilted form of dance controlled by the Church. It wasn’t at all fun like dance is supposed to be (I’m told). It was more a statement of national identity forced upon the boys than a source of joy for them to embrace.
Rather than be killed by exposure the art form of Irish dancing grew as Ireland opened up to the world. Irish dance influenced US dancing and Broadway and, in return, the influence bounced back. Everyone was better for it, the dancing culture was healthier and more fun. The Irish government even sought to increase the quality of Irish dancing for the tourists. Whether that government intervention made any difference is a debatable question but something worked. As the dance form opened to the world it became a strong cultural selling point.
Change For The Better
Ultimately, O’Toole’s book is a positive take on a country getting slowly (and not so slowly) better. (One can say the same things about the wider world). Things changed but some things needed to change, e.g., Ireland’s ban on contraception that got revoked. Other things people chose to change for themselves at a personal level, and who is anyone else to say they were wrong in their choices?
[Irish culture] was never a sacred hoard of precious inheritances that must be guarded from the depredations of change.O’Toole, 2021, page 505
Things have got better for people over time, and I haven’t even talked about the progress made in Ulster that has made things better on both sides of the border.
Ireland is no longer a place to look to leave but a place that people actually want to come to. People immigrated from all over Europe and the wider world. Polish passed Irish in numbers speaking the language in their homes (page 509). Religious pluralism arrived, you didn’t have to be a Catholic to be seen as Irish. Not having a religion even became popular.
In a very short time, Ireland became a multicultural society.O’Toole, 2021, page 509
Ireland may have changed more rapidly for the better than most places but let us hope that all countries can do the same.
Read: Fintan O’Toole (2021) We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, Liveright