Early in the pages of We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s masterful “personal history” of modern Ireland, I came upon a moment in O’Toole’s life that intersected unexpectedly with my own. The date was Tuesday, March 8, 1966. In a Dublin bedroom in the chill dark of early morning—1:31 a.m. exactly—O’Toole’s mother, given to premonitions, awoke and exclaimed, “God, what was that?” Then came the sound of a distant explosion.
I, too, heard the explosion. My American family had moved from the United States to Ireland for several years. I was a schoolboy, a little older than O’Toole; our home was a mile or so from his. As everyone soon learned, an IRA splinter group had blown off the top of Nelson’s Pillar, an imposing column in O’Connell Street that some saw as a symbol of British oppression but most regarded as a convenient landmark and an elegant viewing platform. I had paid my sixpence and spiraled up the interior staircase many times. Now the Pillar was a ragged stump. Thinking back on the moment, O’Toole writes:
My father got us up early that morning and we took the bus in to see the wreck of Nelson. He said it was a big thing, an event we should remember. He took us right up close to the base where huge lumps of stone were scattered randomly like pebbles. Nobody stopped us. My father picked up a small piece of the granite, its outside worn grimy by the murk of the city, its inside glistening with newly revealed speckles of quartz, a secret self, hidden within the monument until the shock of the explosion so violently brought it to life.
O’Toole and I must have crossed paths that morning, or come close, because our fathers had the same impulse. I rode into the city with my dad and collected pieces of granite; I keep one on my desk. That March day in Dublin feels as present to me now as it does to O’Toole. It was, he writes, “the first time I was conscious of pure memory, of the idea that something you had in your head was now gone forever.”
O’Toole’s sweeping, intimate book covers a lifetime of Ireland’s history: a period of six decades when the country transitioned from one thing to another with little understanding of where it had been or where it was going, and was content to wear blinkers. A dishonest deflection of important questions was a deep-seated habit. The years punctuated by the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar marked a turning point. Even a kid in short pants and knee socks could sense that something was up.
In 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion against British rule, Ireland was still an intensely Catholic country. Schools made liberal use of corporal punishment—a leather strap to the palms in O’Toole’s school, a bamboo cane to the palms in mine—and the teaching of Irish was compulsory. Most homes in rural areas had no plumbing. Horse-drawn wagons delivered milk even in central Dublin. The smell of turf and coal was baked into a city that served as a placeholder for postwar Berlin in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The official version of Irish history was a dour, gray, pietistic nationalism. When the remains of Roger Casement, executed for his part in preparations for the Easter Rebellion, were returned to Ireland by Britain in a goodwill gesture, the occasion was marked by grim festivity. As a Boy Scout, I marched in the cortege behind Casement’s flag-draped casket on a day that spat sleet and snow.