In 2017, in the west of Ireland, the remains of almost 800 children were found in a mass grave. Shocking as the discovery was, few were surprised. The bones of several children had, in fact, been uncovered in 1975 by two boys playing in an orchard where the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home — a Catholic institution for “fallen” women and their infants — had once stood. In what now seems a cruel metaphor for a culture of devout denial, the site had been blessed by a priest and covered up again.
In countless ways, the story of modern Ireland is the story of covering things up that don’t fit the national myth — with devastating consequences for many. In We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, the Irish Times critic Fintan O’Toole unpacks this truth with passion and smouldering rage. Although set an ocean away, the book holds lessons, about national self-delusion and its repercussions, that are relevant here.
Ireland in the 1950s, the decade of O’Toole’s birth, considered itself Ireland the Holy, a bulwark against the sinful world. It was also Ireland the Poor, with few job opportunities; and Ireland the Troubled, where the violence of the Irish Republican Army was tacitly supported by church and state.
Like so many of my compatriots, I dealt with all this by leaving. Those who stayed behind experienced changes far beyond anything I could have imagined when, in my twenties, I set out for Canada, hoping to distance myself from my island’s hypocrisy, poverty, and bigotry.
The once inconceivable changes arrived slowly, then all at once. O’Toole describes how the natural governing party, Fianna Fáil, became sclerotic and corrupt; the Catholic Church became enmeshed in scandals; the IRA’s tactics became increasingly pointless. At first, the rot was below the surface; few foresaw how the edifice of power would implode. “The aura of authority, maintained now by personal charisma and defiant insouciance, could always prevent things from becoming overt,” O’Toole writes. “It did not seem conceivable that this authority could unravel so suddenly.” There were even more dramatic shifts to come: the Celtic Tiger economic boom, the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and the financial crisis of 2008.
O’Toole traces some of the “unknown knowns” that helped keep the illusion alive for a time. In his own Dublin neighbourhood, for example, Father James McNamee, a recognized sexual predator, was promoted to parish priest. De facto slavery at industrial schools — institutions for neglected, orphaned, and abandoned children — was known to exist and was ignored. By turning a blind eye, Ireland could remain holy.
The twist was that this ability to know and not know turned out to be useful. By not knowing Gerry Adams’s terrorizing past, the architects of the Belfast Agreement could include the IRA in the peace process. By not knowing that a foreign tech giant was hiding profits from tax authorities, the government could keep the economic miracle afloat. “The Irish state knew very well what Apple was doing,” O’Toole explains, “but it decided not to absorb that awareness into its active consciousness.”
But the country could not look the other way forever. In 2008, the unknown finally collided with the known, with the sovereign debt crisis and Ireland’s near bankruptcy. The continued fallout of Brexit now poses a renewed threat of violence along a border that itself is both known and unknown: no longer a barrier in any practical way, it remains very real in hearts and minds.
We Don’t Know Ourselves is a masterpiece of perceptive analysis, made accessible by personal anecdotes and clear, passionate prose. After dismantling Ireland’s hypocrisy, O’Toole takes a positive turn. In two referendums, on same‑sex marriage in 2015 and on abortion in 2018, the Irish shook off their image of intolerance and showed “intimate grace”: their acceptance of those whose lives differ from their own. The ability to live with unknown knowns matured into a skill in navigating ambiguity; a national myth was discarded in favour of an acceptance that the country’s story is still being written.
Although the Irish may have turned it into an art form, their ability to fudge things is not unique. Canadians too have their mythologies, their false certainties, supported by hypocrisy and unknown knowns. Like Ireland the Holy, we are Canada the Good: multicultural, tolerant, clean, responsible. Except when we’re not.
As the voices of victims of oppression grow ever louder, as Alberta’s oil sands sully the pristine image many Canadians still have of their country, as the death toll from opioid addiction mounts — are we really that good? Ignorance, complacency, and misplaced trust can blind us to the dark realities on our streets and under our soil. But this timely book reminds us how unknown knowns have a way of eventually becoming known knowns, how buried children often find a way to speak from the grave.