“My parents’ wedding photograph always reminds me of a frontier town in an old western.”
FOR anyone with a passing curiosity as to the unfolding events in Ireland over the last 60 years, this will be a rewarding, insightful, enjoyable and intelligent narrative. As the counsel for the defence might say: the facts in this matter are well known. But our witness here was born there, lived, there, worked there and as a reporter knew and covered the antics of many of the protagonists, large and small. He was the man who stayed behind, while many emigrated.
I was reading this at the bus stop in Clerkenwell, London when a nun, from her accent Irish, who was passing noticed and stopped to say: Good on yer. In parts this is also a testament. O’Toole is yer man.
It might be hard to write a similar chronicle of say Britain, say England, say even Wales, but Ireland has its own shared story, if only on the level of language and to an extent politics. And Ireland has things in capital letters like Sin, like Social, like Crack, like Shame and most obviously the Troubles. O’Toole unpacks each of them like so many stories you might tell in the pub.
One striking element is just how much has changed over the span of time, notably the waning of the powers of the Catholic church and the arrival of what we might call modernity. It is a long story told in eloquent short journalistic snap shots from when he was born right up to the Now. O’Toole is knowingly informed from a life of what used to be called letters, to watching from the journalistic sidelines, of maintaining his neutrality where everything around seems to have become tribal. But it is also a history from someone who has read the Beano, who sits/sat at the apex and who has a ribald sense of humour, even as he uncovers some of the country’s darkest secrets. In that sense he is more akin to Hunter S Thompson (without the drugs) or Thomas Wolfe or a renegade newsreader.
There is a lovely anecdote about the time when the pill was still banned in southern Ireland and a group of women crossed the border to get supplies from the north. On arrival, the chemist informed them they needed a prescription. Undeterred, they bought aspirins instead and brought their protest back with them brandishing the pills, with no one the wiser, their point well made.
O’Toole’s long experience of writing around the local polemics has allowed him to burnish the arguments here to masterly effect.