I have just finished reading Fintan O Toole’s latest book, “We don’t know ourselves”, (Apollo Books) which is subtitled “a personal history of Ireland since 1958”.
O Toole was born in that year and he weaves some of his family story into the broader trends in Irish life, that the book describes.
The central theme is an exploration of Irish hypocrisy.
Fintan O Toole sees hypocrisy in recent Irish attitudes to religious practice, abortion, the use of violence for political ends, the desirability of a united Ireland, unmarried motherhood, clerical child abuse, the United States and what it stands for, and to a host of other things.
He neatly defines hypocrisy as
“the tribute paid by realism to piety”.
Hypocrisy is also often a survival strategy and a form of evasive politeness. There are worse sins.
O Toole describes how, in his early life, emigration was a constant feature of the Irish experience. 45% of those born in the independent Irish state between 1931 and 1936 would eventually emigrate.
For some of them, emigration was a means of escaping the constraints imposed, both by the expectations of their extended family in Ireland, and by notions of morality and respectability derived from prevailing versions of Catholic teaching.
These constraints have loosened, and O Toole admits that
“The real effect of the loss of church authority was that there was no deeply rooted civic authority to take its place”.
He does not explore this. If religion is no longer a guide, what is taking its place? Is it individual choice based on utilitarian principles, or is wokeness taking the place of faith?
This might be a topic for Fintan’s next book.
But demolishing hypocrisy, so elegantly done in this book, is an easier task than creating the ingredients for a new and sustainable social contract.
This will be a big part the task that faces the Christion churches in 21st Century Ireland. It is their road back to social relevance. A huge mental and moral effort will be required, and no one else is volunteering to undertake it.