Fintan O'Toole, scourge of old Irish myths, has turned to the new myths of the economic miracle.by Roy Foster / March 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: After the Ball Author: Fintan O’Toole Price: New Island Books, ££7.99
Fintan O’Toole’s Irish persona is more recognisable in France or Poland than in Britain: the public intellectual. He writes an influential column in the Irish Times, but he has also produced a stream of closely argued books on the state of the nation and a brilliant biography of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Along the way he has been dramaturge for the Abbey Theatre and for a while commuted to New York, where he was drama critic for the Daily News, and acquired an intimate fascination with the way Irish America recreates the Ould Sod in the New Jerusalem. Though a regular star of the New York Review of Books (in whose pages he has tried to talk sense into the Americans about Gerry Adams), he is based in Dublin once again, to the relief of many.
These admirers do not include the imitative neocon tendency in the Irish media, nor the see-no-evil spokesmen for the beleaguered Catholic church, nor the Fianna Fáil political establishment – whose malodorous involvement in the Irish beef scandals of the 1990s was forensically analysed in O’Toole’s exposé Meanwhile Back at the Ranch. O’Toole’s stance is firmly on the liberal left, though there is nothing knee-jerk about his responses; collections of essays such as Black Hole, Green Card and The Ex-Isle of Erin are full of unexpected and lyrical passages, often revolving around some surreal Irish experience or institution which O’Toole has scaled up into an epic symbol. Such phenomena might include the “Celtworld” theme park in County Waterford, or the vast halal meat-processing plant in Ballyhaunis whose Pakistani workforce doggedly play cricket instead of frequenting country and western nights at the Midas Nite Club. Out of the tacky and mundane, O’Toole’s mordant humour makes what satirical mayhem he will. At its best, this is journalism to stand with George Orwell or HL Mencken.
His current target is contemporary Ireland and what it has made of itself. He has long been preoccupied by what the Dutch cultural historian Joep Leerssen christened Irish “auto-exoticism”: our tendency to be indulgently fascinated by ourselves, and to analyse our historical and cultural condition as if it was something wonderfully “other” and outside our own control and responsibility. The Saxon oppressor, once a useful element in this process of distancing, is no longer so easily employed. Yet the syndrome…