Michael Cronin, review of The Ex-Isle of Erin, in Graph, 3, 1 (Spring 1998), p.4-5.

FINTAN O’TOOLE. The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of Global Ireland. New Ireland Books, 1997. £7.99

Covers bear their own legends. On The Ex-Isle of Erin we have the legs of a giant towering over thatched cottages that are the setting for an eviction scene. Like the title of the collection of essays, the photograph has a constructed cleverness. It is in fact taken in Model World in Newtownmountkennedy. The town with the longest (most constructed?) name in Ireland provides the establishment shot for the titanic inspection of rural Ireland and nationalist iconography. In more senses than O’Toole himself would perhaps allow, his presence on the Irish intellectual scene over the last fifteen years has been gigantic. From the precociously bold and brilliant theatre critic for In Dublin to the regular columnist with the most influential daily newspaper on the island, O’Toole has written on a bewildering array of topics and charted the changing fortunes of the Republic. Collections of essays, such as A Mass for Jesse James and Black Hole, Green Card, and his devastating account of the Beef Tribunal, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, have consolidated his reputation as Ireland’s foremost political commentator and cultural critic. O’Toole’s influence is such that The Irish Times ended up giving him not one but two columns. “Second Opinion” became Another Opinion. The suggested element of response or antithesis was soon given over to the reviewing arm of O’Toole’s critical activities. Some weeks indeed, in addition to the regular column and ‘Second Opinion’, there would also be a full-page piece by Fintan O’Toole on the Christian Brothers or Mary Robinson or emigration. No Irish intellectual since Thomas Davis and The Nation has had such privileged access to the media. It is surprising, therefore, that so little of O’Toole’s work has been analysed. If he had been a novelist, a dramatist or poet with a similar number of publications and a comparable degree of public exposure, the essays would have begun to gather and the monographs make their tentative way off university presses. It is an indictment of Irish intellectual history that this by and large has not happened and demonstrates how far we have to go on the road to a more scrupulous self- understanding.

In an essay in the present collection called ‘Setting Foot on Arch Hill,’ O’Toole criticizes the helpless mimesis of Daniel Corkery’s cultural criticism. He claims that

Corkery’s ideology of the indigenous and the alien.... is classically nationalist in its concern with fixed opposites, its paradoxical obsession with England which can only imagine Ireland as not-England. (168)

The mention of Corkery is illuminating - another cultural critic who was seen as the herald of his age. O’Toole and Corkery are in fact profoundly similar. Both are interested in the theatre, both have written on Shakespeare, both have a rhetorical force that comes from explosive juxtaposition of contraries. Indeed, O’Toole has become the mirror-image of Corkery. Whereas the credo of the latter has been expressed as Faith, Fatherland and Land, the thought of the former is dictated by the trinity of Secularism, Internationalism and City. O’Toole for all the invocation of hybridity in The Ex-Isle of Erin is still powerfully fixated on opposites. ‘Conservative Catholic nationalism’ (94), ‘Nationalist ideology, Gaelic revivalism and religious reaction’ (110), ‘Irish cultural nationalism’ (149), the triadic structure of the contra-Corkery mindset informs the very language of debate, so that the threesomes of [4] denunciation pattern the idiom of censure. Guilt works powerfully by association, ‘Gaelic’ slipping into ‘religious reaction’ echoing ‘nationalist’. ‘Ideological’ as any Tory critic will tell you is any system of thought that you do not happen to like and O’Toole, like the curates of yesteryear, sees ‘ideology’ as a vice practised by others but from which he himself is immune. The thrust of argument in essay after essay is deeply essentialist. Nationalism, Catholicism and rural Ireland are complex phenomena that embrace a variety of very different positions and are not the simple essences of caricature. Any analysis of what O’Toole calls the ‘dead world’ (149) of Irish cultural nationalism would have to include everything from Oscar Wilde’s American celebration of the literature of the Young Ireland movement to the radical language politics of Sean de Beaumont and the group around the An t-Eireannach newspaper in the 1930s. A proper understanding of Irish Catholicism this century would range from Kate O’Brien’s subversive hagiography to the deconstructionist speculations of Joseph O’Leary. The particular achievement of O’Toole’s polemic is that his essentialist sleight-of-hand eschews complexity, so that the one-dimensional representations of elements of the Irish past and present take on a self-evident quality, sharpening polemic and strengthening condemnation. This is why the global mixity promised in The Ex-Isle of Erin is an uncertain lyric for O’Toole. It is difficult to celebrate the hybrid, the mongrel or the mixed when you have spent most of your professional life casting out the serpents of church, soil and nation. That these too might be part of the diversity of Irish life is a more difficult fact to acknowledge, and the essays on the Christian Brothers or on the absence of the industrial and the urban in Irish art after independence have the incurable nostalgia of the Holy Wars when green was green and red was dead.

The discordant note in the hymn to (post)modernisation emerges in ‘Unsuitables from a Distance: The Politics of Riverdance.’ Riverdance is O’Toole’s answer to De Valera’s crossroads. The stalwart lads and comely maidens at the Point were the reality of an Ireland we had only dreamed of. ‘What made it [Riverdance] more than an international business product was the way it liberated locked-up elements of Irish tradition, the way it became, quite self-consciously, a parable of the modernisation of Irish culture’ (153). Riverdance represents the ultimate triumph of stagism, the relentless march towards an industrialised, urban Ireland. This simple thesis of modernisation that has sustained Democratic Left in its various guises marks the symbolic boundaries of O’Toole’s thinking on many questions. Drama results when modernisation shows its capitalist colours and Michael Flatlet proceeds to make a show of himself. Then, ‘a knowing post-modern Irishness tips over into .... packaged, de-politicised, de-contextualised Celticism’ (153). According to O’Toole, if Ireland is not to be caught off-balance, then it will be necessary for the country to respect both the ‘permanent and the contingent, tradition and change, the settled and the mobile, place and displacement’ (156). The problem is that the categories of permanence, tradition, the sedentary and place are utterly alien to his thinking and would hopelessly complicate the manichaean polemic that is his forte. Post-modernism in the O’Toole canon is not so much a repudiation of modernisation as an acceleration.

To dismiss O’Toole as a Workers’ Party hack, as many do privately but few publicly, may explain his prejudices but does little to explain his virtues. His essays on Tony O’Reilly and Oscar Wilde in this collection are extremely able, a matchless combination of energy and insight. His utter humourlessness is a relief in a culture that bludgeons thought with the belly laugh and the backslap. His magpie intellect throws up some artful connections, even if they begin to appear formulaic after the fifth or sixth essay. Gulliver, for all his gigantism, is, however, a figure of weakness not of strength. Looking down from on high on the thatched pieties of rural Ireland may keep the ABC1 readership happy but it is a gesture of power not an act of vision. The binary nature of many of the arguments with rhetorical Aunt Sallys drawn from the Dark Ages of pre-Lemass Ireland means that you know there will be few surprises. Despite the eclectic sophistication of the essays there is a predictability that ultimately deadens. Unlike Nuala O’Faolain, who has a genuine maverick independence, with O’Toole one is certain there will be no celebration of the GAA, no demythification of Pat Rabbitte’s technocracy, no revision of revisionism. In the world of Our Boys, there are the inevitable paeans to Francis Stuart and Paul Durcan but no sign of a Biddy Jenkinson or a Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. It is indeed the very predictability of Fintan O’Toole’s thought that makes it so deeply attractive, the comforting evangel of Irish (post)modernity and dragon-slayer of obscurantism. If the name of Corkery is forever linked to that of De Valera, O’Toole’s will be linked to that of Mary Robinson. They both in a sense have acted as dance masters, one shadowing the crossroads c6ilf, the other answering Robinson’s call to come dance with her in the chorus-line of young tigers. Fifty years hence O’Toole’s encomium to the parable of Irish modernisation may indeed be cited with the same parodic disbelief and wry knowingness that precedes the ceaseless invocation of De Valera’s St. Patrick’s Day speech in the initiation rites of contemporary Irish emancipation. The new Gulliver may yet be bound by a history that will remember not the masterful overview of the giant but the painful complexities of multiple evictions.

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