• We Don't Know Ourselves

  • A Personal History of Modern Ireland
  • By: Fintan O'Toole
  • Narrated by: Aidan Kelly
  • Length: 22 hrs and 11 mins
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (235 ratings)

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We Don't Know Ourselves

By: Fintan O'Toole
Narrated by: Aidan Kelly
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Publisher's Summary

In We Don't Know Ourselves, Fintan O'Toole weaves his own experiences into Irish social, cultural, and economic change, showing how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a reactionary "backwater" to an almost totally open society - perhaps the most astonishing national transformation in modern history.

Born to a working-class family in the Dublin suburbs, O'Toole served as an altar boy and attended a Christian Brothers school. He was enthralled by American Westerns suddenly appearing on Irish television, which were not that far from his own experience, given that Ireland's main export was beef and it was still not unknown for herds of cattle to clatter down Dublin's streets. Yet the Westerns were a sign of what was to come. 

O'Toole narrates the once unthinkable collapse of the all-powerful Catholic Church, brought down by scandal and by the activism of ordinary Irish, women in particular. He relates the horrific violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which led most Irish to reject violent nationalism. In O'Toole's telling, America became a lodestar, from John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit, when the American president was welcomed as a native son, to the emergence of the Irish technology sector in the late 1990s, driven by American corporations, which set Ireland on the path toward particular disaster during the 2008 financial crisis.

©2021 Fintan O'Toole (P)2022 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

What listeners say about We Don't Know Ourselves

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Brilliant. Pure pleasure.

Rarely have I ever encountered such a thoroughly articulated sense of time and place. Speaking from life experience — and with a startling number of firsthand interactions with key figures — the author lays out a complex, convincing portrait of the world he was born into and how it has changed in his life. It reeks of truth. It conveys complex yet compelling insights any of us would long to convey about our own experience. The best history I’ve read in ages. And the performance is first rate — this was pure pleasure.

7 people found this helpful

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Relentlessly Negative

If you despise Ireland this the book for you. O'Toole takes the occasion of this book to hang all his enemies. And his enemies are legion. They crowd off his pages any glimmer of a good person, a worthy deed, or a cultural achievement. Listening to half a dozen of Sienad O’Connor's self-congratulatory screeds against her fellows will give you the whole gist of this author's protracted slouching toward whatever ditch he wants to bury Ireland in. He admires nothing. He is always on the attack. Even the rise of Country music in the Irish seventies is an example of the people as fools, institutions are demonic, and innovation as orchestrated by predators. Perhaps the crowning instance of otoole's malevolence comes when he rants against the substitution of horizontal for vertical windows in new built houses, a sign of people too dumb to know which way is up. (No joke here. I’m not kidding.). I kept going until the end of the book, driven by a lurid fascination with seeing if otoole would keep slouching. He never disappointed.

4 people found this helpful

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Loving it

So far I am loving this book. I am a first generation Irish catholic with staunch nationalist family, so hearing a different but not entirely oppositional Account of modern Irish history.

3 people found this helpful

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It was hard to finish

it is extremely well written and informative, but can be dry, overwelming, and overly negative at times. Names of people, places, and events are constantly being introduced at such a rapid pace that you get lost; not to mention it jumps from year to year frequently, meaning that, even though the chapter is in 2008, he's talking about something that happened 80s. I also had the problem of asking "is Ireland getting any better yet? no? Ok." and I start to tune out a bit. despite this, I genuinely feel like I have learned about Ireland; things I never knew or didn't realize. I'm grateful for this book. it's demystified the emerald Isle for me and made me appreciate it for the country it is in the modern day.

2 people found this helpful

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Emerald optimism and its lumps

Here's an interesting idea: Catholicism played the same role in Ireland that Communism played in Russia, and its dominance crumbled for similar reasons. O'Toole takes us along the the path of his own life somewhat as a hiker guides one along a towpath; the big barges of history travel alongside his own ambling way to manhood.

He is enraged at the massive child abuse and sectarian bloodshed that shamed Ireland during his first decades, Yet at the same time O'Toole remains a calm, amiable, and candid talker. He brings us close to the Irish at the time when they got infatuated with American styles, yet remained hard for Americans to understand. I just like the guy.

The book has a couple of chapters that might seem chewy to readers who haven't followed Irish news. But to make up for that, the book is at last happily free from the booze-and-blarney atmosphere that still dominates almost all internationally published Irish fiction. It's clear, bright, and innovative.

2 people found this helpful

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Best book I have read on modern Ireland south & northwest

Totally enjoyable and very informative view of Ireland northwest and south since the 50s. I devour books on our own history literature culture. And I found this books approach to be totally fascinating enjoyable. Weaving so much information in and out in both the topical and chronological order. Additionally, O’Toole is just a wonderful writer a true wordsmith. You may not agree with everything he says but overall fascinating view of Ireland over the last seven years

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brilliant overview of journey of modern Ireland

We Don't Know Ourselves is a stunning achievement. It melds a superb command of the nuances and complexities of the journey of modern Ireland with a first-rate gift for narrative--melding meticulous research with engaging personal stories, unparalleled command of data with gripping biographical accounts. O'Toole's genius for marshalling a vast array of detail is matched by an exceptional way with words.

One of the best non-fictional books I've ever read. A masterpiece.

1 person found this helpful

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History that is alive, accurate and readable

Fintan O’Toole is a very good writer—a pleasure to read. Every page is alive. This book tells the story of Ireland in the Post WW2 period up to 2018. It is social, political and cultural history well told. Highly recommended.

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Don't miss this book

This is a very beautifully read story of contemporary Ireland and a personal memoir. The way in which O'Toole manages to weave his story into the larger history of contemporary Ireland makes this a memoir that is never overpowered by the author's self obsession. It is elegantly narrated, with a beautiful sense of humour which always bears in mind the humanity of the people that provoked it, and extremely informative. I have read O'Toole's articles, but I wasn't sure I would really listen through 22 hours of Irish history (I am not particularly focused on the country) but it has been an absolutely rewarding listen. Aidan Kelly is a wonderful reader. I can't recommend this book enough!

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Wonderful mix of personal and national history

Anyone who loves history and good writing should listen to or read this book. Despite my Irish heritage, I had only fragments of the history of Ireland in my life time. This books weaves together these fragments in an engaging and informative manner. Bravo

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 10-21-22

Accurate account.

Captivating history of our most recent captivity. Thanks Fintan for an excellent recount. If ever there was a book where the devil in the detail was most apt.

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  • World Traveller
  • 07-27-22

Engaging but one-dimensional

Lively anecdotes from his childhood give a vivid picture of Ireland as it transformed from a poor, isolated country of emigration into the fastest-growing economy in Europe but don't expect to understand the forces driving this transformation.

O’Toole is in his element when he is condemning Fianna Fáil, above all CJ Haughey, and the Irish Catholic Church, epitomised by Archbishop McQuaid, but he doesn’t offer any explanation for the extraordinary transformation of Irish life in all its dimensions - social, political, economic, religious and cultural, to mention those of particular interest to O'Toole.

O'Toole does not address fundamental, prior questions. How did Fianna Fail become the most successful party in the history of liberal democracy? They topped the poll in every national, European and local election from 1932 to 2011. Haughey was their leader for only a dozen years in the middle of those eight decades. And similarly, how did the Catholic Church exercise such extraordinary control when it was not an established State Church? It did control most schools and hospitals but it had no monopoly in either field.

O'Toole is no help on these issues. I suspect his explanation would lean heavily on the idea of "hegemony", that shibboleth of all failed socialists. And that still leaves the most interesting question - how did the Catholic Church lose its power so rapidly and (it seems) irredemably? The various scandals of the 1990s were the proximate cause but these scandals (especially the Magdalene Laundries and the Industrial Schools) had been "hiding in plain sight" for many decades, as O'Toole correctly notes.

He, like the rest of the Irish media, has a ready explanation for the end of Fianna Fail's electoral dominance - the banking/property crisis of 2008. But was it this crisis or was it the subsequent fiscal measures which lead to their electoral defeat? If the latter, was Fianna Fail punished for doing the right thing or were they left holding the baby by the ECB? Answers on a postcard please to Yannis Varofakis c/o the Greek Parliament, Athens.