September 7, 2022

Connecting with Fintan O’Toole’s “We Don’t Know Ourselves”

By Stuart Mitchner

Although Colm Tóibín is the featured reader in “The News from Dublin,” Friday’s Fund for Irish Studies event, the fact that he’s being introduced by Fintan O’Toole gave me this reading opportunity. For months now, my wife has been urging me to dig into We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright), so last week I took her copy from a small shelf of “keepers” and have been reading it ever since.

Making Connections

Connection is the operative word in We Don’t Know Ourselves. As the author puts it, “The desire for connection was given meaning by the reality that there was still something to connect to, traditions of music and singing and storytelling and language that had their own highly distinctive texture.”

O’Toole makes his first connection in the first sentence of the first chapter, in which wedding photographs of his parents remind him “of a frontier town in an old western.” The film he has in mind is High Noon, where “a respectable wedding” is “threatened by the dangers of a frontier town.”

Why were American westerns “vastly popular in Ireland”? Because “they probably seemed like social realism. In economic terms, Ireland was a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached.” A study on economic development conducted by a New York firm  began with the line, “In the Irish economy, cattle is king.” O’Toole recalls: “In my childhood, it was not unusual to find a stray bullock grazing in the back garden.” His way of bringing everything together to make a point both playful and profound is evident in the conclusion of the chapter, “Comanche Country.” After contrasting the general perception of life in the country (“we were denizens of a no-man’s-land that was barely a place at all”) with the “grittiness and depth of history” in “the old city slums,” he writes: “But we drew our water instantly from taps and made it privately in a little indoor room with the door closed. That didn’t feel like Siberia, or the Wild West or Comanche country. It felt modern.”

“The Wild West”

O’Toole’s home is introduced in the same chapter, which begins with a quote from Brendan Behan’s mother, a fellow resident of Crumlin, “which is right out of the city, on the slopes of the Dublin mountains…. It was like the Wild West.” While the author was growing up in Comanche country, American television brought the Cisco Kid galloping into the living room along with Paladin of Have Gun, Will Travel and Bat Masterson and his  silver-tipped cane (“I used to sing the theme song to myself”), a connection I took a special interest in, thanks to the fiddle I inherited from my great-grandfather, who played in Masterson’s Dodge City band.

Facing the Gun

One of O’Toole’s most stunning gambits covers the title sequence of Have Gun, Will Travel, which opened “with a close-up of a holster with a design of a chess knight on the front. A hand reaches down, takes out the gun, pulls back the trigger and points the barrel straight at the viewer. The voiceover begins: ‘I’d like you to have look at this gun. The balance is excellent. This trigger responds to a pressure of one ounce. This gun was handcrafted to my specifications and I rarely draw it unless I mean to use it.’ “ The voiceover varied from episode to episode. First the in-your-face closeup of the gun and the no-nonsense voice of Paladin (Richard Boone): “Sit down gentlemen and sit still. I’ve come to order a coffin for the first one of that you that makes a move.” The sequence was “mesmerizing.” This was “not Roy Rogers … There was no face…. The voice was disembodied, mysterious, but unquestionable in its authority, like the voice of God. The light on the gun was pure and stark and beautiful, making the thing it illuminated a sacred object, at least as holy as the chalice the priest held up to be adored at Mass. It left no doubt that the hero was not even the darkly enigmatic Paladin … It was the gun itself.” The show was a variation on the grail-seeking knight errant of medieval romance, except that there was a twist. The Holy Grail was not being sought. It was there already, in that hand, pointing at us. The gun was the Holy Grail.”

The title We Don’t Know Ourselves resonates in the words, “pointing at us” whether  you grew up in a suburb of Dublin or in southern Indiana, a faithful viewer of Have Gun right through the dark year 1963, when it ended its American run. In Ireland, the gun in the face evokes the Troubles, in the U.S., it’s pointing at Dallas, the Biltmore Hotel in L.A., Memphis, and on and on through the mass shootings of today.

The Kennedy Chapter

After watching six seasons of Michael Hirst’s History Channel series Vikings, about the range raiders of the Wild North, it was fun to find a mention of the Norsemen in O’Toole’s sixth chapter, “The Dreamy
Movement of the Stairs.” The occasion was President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 arrival in Ireland, during which Irish President Eamon de Valera hailed JFK as a representative of “the great Kennedy clans” who “nine-and-a-half centuries ago, not far from the spot on which we are standing, smashed the invader and broke the Norse power forever.”

The style and spirit of O’Toole’s book is epitomized by the Kennedy chapter and its haunting title, which refers to the arrival of Ireland’s first escalator at Roches Department store; in the words of the Evening Herald, “silent motors began to purr somewhere, and the dreamy movement of the stairs began.” By making a title of the phrase, O’Toole redeems the poetry in an image thrown into the world by an unnamed journalist, an image W.B. Yeats might have discovered in a reverie. In the same extraordinary chapter, O’Toole makes point after crossover point like a master pool player clearing the table, the conclusion delivered at JFK’s funeral, where  26 young Irish army cadets, some still in their teens, pay tribute at the grave: “a strange moment of world history: an American president buried with the honours of a foreign country’s patriot dead, a thing that had never happened before and hasn’t happened since.” O’Toole, who watched on television with the rest of the world, brings it home: “They bowed their heads, kept them down, then raised them again. Each movement was controlled, contained, precise. We were experts at obsequies. We knew, in this if not in much else, exactly where we stood.”

Musical Energy

O’Toole makes the rock connection in a chapter titled, “The Killer Chord.” Rock and Roll could already be felt in the subversive energy of his style, his sense of humor, his command of the stage, and of course his pride in knowing that Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy hailed from his neighborhood. During a trip to London, O’Toole, then 10, backed out of a chance to see the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park (“the place would be full of weirdos and hippies and drug addicts”). Four years later, he earned enough money to buy some clothes for himself. “I chose a pair of luscious purple seersucker trousers with thirty-two-inch flares, an orange shirt with huge white flowers blossoming all over it and a lurid green tie that was almost as wild as the flares. I couldn’t get over how beautiful I looked. I was not the child who had refused to go to the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park:
I was a child of the universe.”

Rock made the “stuff from the first Celtic Revival” seem “exciting again,” especially when O’Toole discovered the Celtic rock band Horslips, which was “somehow perfectly representative of where we were.” When they started playing, “they sounded not just normal, but a revelation of my own normality. Their yoking together of American rock and roll and Irish traditional music expressed exactly the way so many of us were living. And it was not a cacophony. It worked. They were able to hold it all together, to keep it going, to make it hum with energy. I loved them for this, absolutely and unconditionally.”

O’Toole’s chorus of connections can be heard again during a March 1972 concert attended by 20,000 people, where “Crumlin’s own stars” Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy performed, with the drums sounding like tom-toms as “Philo chanted Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo Gal. It was a world away from anywhere we were, somewhere out on the Great Plains.”

The News From Dublin

I took time out from We Don’t Know Ourselves to read Colm Tóibín’s stories “Silence” and “The Empty Family,” from the collection of the same name. When Tóibín was asked in a May 2018 Guardian interview to name a book he wished he’d written, he replied, “I often wish I were T.S. Eliot. I don’t think he suffered as much as people imagine he did. He lived to be old, was lucky in love late in life and he got to write Four Quartets. Not only do I wish I had written Four Quartets, but also I long to record them in Eliot’s voice, so grave and thoughtful and melancholy.”

There’s a similar tone in Tóibín’s stories, a clear contrast to the performative immediacy of O’Toole’s Personal History. At the same time, the American theme O’Toole highlights is a component in “The Silence,” which is inspired by a quote from Henry James’s Notebooks, and “The Empty Family, which moves between the coast of Point Reyes in California and Rosslare Harbor in


Colm Tóibín’s reading will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, September 9 at the James Stewart Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street. The event is free and open to the public. No advance tickets or registration is required. The reading kicks off the Fall 2022 Irish Studies lecture series and will be introduced by Princeton faculty member Fintan O’Toole.