Wherever Green is Torn . . .


Jude R. Meche

Texas A&M University

Copyright © 1999 by Jude R. Meche, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

O’Toole, Fintan. The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities. London: Verso, 1997. xviii +172 pp. $23.00 (cloth); $14.00 (paper).

  1. In their introduction to the 1938 premiere of Irish Historical Studies, T. W. Moody and R. D. Edwards lamented Ireland’s inability to teach itself its own history. Ireland, however, has been remarkably proficient at not only turning away from its history whenever it threatens to fracture its delicate sense of its own Irishness but also at hearkening back to that same history whenever it offers an opportunity for shoring up a sense of a unified national identity. However, the history of the present moment in Ireland must surely offer little to those who still guard a sense of Irish identity that is in any way analogous to de Valera’s oft-stereotyped version of Irishness. For present-day Ireland, the United States looms increasingly large as the source of a new, cultural imperialism—replete with drug addiction, raves, and the Marlboro Man. And, if this threat seems a bit too innocuous at the present moment, Ireland can always look within for threats to its self-image. Increased wealth is bringing television—and with it the Late Late Show—into Ireland’s homes, and the allure of power has corrupted both politician and clergyman.

  2. This history of the present, though, cannot be successfully avoided for long. And it is this history of the present that Fintan O’Toole not only addresses but tries to make sense of in The Lie of the Land. This collection of fourteen essays (many of which first saw publication in The Irish Times) spans subject matter as diverse as John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland to paedophilia by Ireland’s Roman Catholic clergy to Finn Varra Maa’s failure to take hold as an Irish incarnation of Santa Claus. Along the way, The Lie of the Land acquires a peripatetic feel, as if each essay is another stop on O’Toole’s stroll through the cultural landscape of present-day Ireland. Adding to this peripatetic sense is O’Toole’s tendency to use specific cultural artefacts as the starting point from which to launch his essays. And, as O’Toole strolls from object to object, offering the observations that each inspires, we find that—while he cannot offer absolute clarity—O’Toole is adept at framing contemporary Irish identities and bringing them into further focus.

  3. O’Toole describes this set of essays as "an attempt to explore some of the ways in which the disappearance of a fixed Irish identity and the emergence of a set of provisional, contingent identities has manifested itself in Irish life in the 1990s" (xvii), and he begins the book with a meditation upon the church where his parents were wed. This building, he explains, was a temporary structure set up to house the congregation until a real church was built. However, after the real church was completed, the temporary building acquired a life of its own as the site for dances, sex, and rave drug parties. O’Toole aligns modern Ireland with that temporary building that has found that its always-temporary identity has been transformed from the old and familiar to the new and shockingly-different. Likewise, O’Toole’s first essay entitled "The Lie of the Land" begins with an account of the disappearance of 85,000 maps of Ireland (maps, it turns out, that may never have existed in the first place). Along with these 85,000 lost Irelands, O’Toole meditates upon the disappearance of the political and cultural object known as Ireland. He cites emigration, the influx of American materialism and Ireland's entry into the European Common Market as some of the reasons for this loss. But at the same time as he remarks upon this sense of loss, he questions also how much this lost Ireland—like the 85,000 other lost Irelands—had ever existed in the first place. It is this sense of a loss of what may never have been that marks O’Toole’s essays.

  4. O’Toole’s next three essays focus upon sites of confluence between Ireland and the United States. "Going Native" and "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch" explore the impact of Irish and American identities upon one another. "Going Native" examines the tendencies of the Irish to relate to African Americans and Native Americans at the same moment that the Irish also strive to relate to these groups’ oppressors. The sense of ambivalence allowing the Irish to hold these dual perspectives fascinates O’Toole, and he continues to explore similar ambivalences in "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch." Here, O’Toole unpacks some of the assumptions about America and about Ireland and contends that "the notion of America itself is an Irish invention [and] the notion of Ireland [is] an American invention" (33). This same premise continues to guide O’Toole in his meditations upon JFK’s visit to Ireland in "The Ghost and the Machine." As Kennedy celebrated the contributions of Irish immigrants in America and as he congratulated his Irish audiences upon their relations’ victories in America, O’Toole contends, JFK allowed Ireland to take pride for the first time in a legacy of emigration that had been an embarrassment until that moment. And if JFK gave pride to the Irish, O’Toole contends that Kennedy’s tour and the adoration heaped upon him in Ireland allowed the American president to also bask in a sense of pride that had heretofore been foreign to Irish politics and politicians in America.

  5. O’Toole continues his examination of ambivalences in the Irish identity as he turns to the Catholic Church in the essays "Mixed Blessings" and "Annie and the Bishop, Ireland and America." Both essays point to a paradoxical relationship between church and people, between the Irish people’s strong identification with the Roman Catholic Church and their growing reluctance to submit to church authority. However, no crisis threatened the Church’s relationship with the Irish people as much as the revelation that not only had a Catholic priest sexually abused children but that the Church knew and had suppressed knowledge of the priest’s activities for years. This chapter out of Ireland’s recent past begins O’Toole’s "Scenes from the Birth of a New Morality," an essay that highlights, in quick succession, the social problems of divorce, of infanticide by unwed mothers, and of paedophilia within Church ranks. Throughout this piece, O’Toole offers portraits of Ireland as it is and juxtaposes them to Ireland’s stereotype of itself as it "should" be. The result, however, is less the sense of standing witness to the birth of a new morality—as the title suggests—than of straddling a widening gulf between reality and a stubbornly-maintained Irish identity with no ties to fact. The companion piece to this essay, "Scenes from the Death of the National Movement," achieves the same effect. As O’Toole chronicles Charles Haughey’s political career, the reader again finds O’Toole pointing to the Irish reality and the Irish ideal, suggesting how Ireland traversed the distance between one and the other, and questioning how and whether this rift can be mended.

  6. Another set of essays in The Lie of the Land—"Gay Byrne" and "Permission to Speak"—springs from the career of television personality Gay Byrne and his Late Late Show. As with the Roman Catholic Church and the subject matter for his other essays, O’Toole locates Gay Byrne and his program as a site at which Ireland’s ambivalent identity manifests itself. The show, he claims, offers itself as a confessional for the nations’ secret shames, a forum through which secrets can be admitted by anonymous letter and issues such as contraception frankly debated. Gay Byrne is, ironically, a product of Ireland’s prohibitive culture, but he is also anathema to it. The Late Late Show succeeds because of what cannot be mentioned elsewhere except on the program. The question remains, however, of wherein lies the truth for a culture that must air its dirty laundry anonymously on the Late Late Show, and O'Toole eagerly questions whether the genuine version of Irish culture at century's end consists of what is spoken on the street or of what can only be spoken of on the Late Late Show -- or of what lies somewhere in-between.

  7. As a history of the present moment, The Lie of the Land is a refreshing work. O’Toole’s experience as a journalist allows him an historian’s perspective while also allowing him to maintain a style more akin to intelligent conversation than historical prosody. The serious historian may have trouble with The Lie of the Land for this reason, but s/he would be hard-pressed to find fault with O’Toole’s insights. Each essay offers a glimpse into an Irish culture in transition. And even though a few get bogged down in seemingly-unnecessary factual minutae, O’Toole usually achieves a sense of relevance in every observation and comment. The Lie of the Land is, in the end, a work that is entertaining and humorous while still perceptive and smart.

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