*Fintan O’Toole on stage at glór for EBCF 2022. Photograph: Eamon Ward

BALLYVAUGHAN has been a hive of inspiration for one of the country’s most respected scribes.

Dubliner Fintan O’Toole was back in Co Clare this month for the Ennis Book Club Festival where he was one of the keynote speakers for the Sunday Symposium, while there he paid a trip to his beloved Ballyvaughan coastal home which is the family’s second residence.

Since 2002, the O’Toole family have enjoyed the luxury of their North Clare home overlooking Galway Bay, it has proven to be a beacon of inspiration so far as Fintan’s writing is concerned which readers of his columns in The Irish Times and memoirs have savoured. Ballyvaughan and Co Clare is very close to my heart,” he admitted.

Nearly all of his latest book, ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’, a personal history of modern Ireland was written in Ballyvaughan, it claimed awards as both Irish Book of the Year and Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the An Post Book Awards. “This sounds terrible but for me the beauty of the pandemic was that we were able to retreat to Ballyvaughan because we couldn’t go anywhere else, it is where I would want to be anyway, I was supposed to be in Cambridge for a fellowship but everything closed down, at the time it was voluntary self-isolation so we did that in Dublin for ten days, as soon as that was over we headed straight to the house in Ballyvaughan,” he recounted.

“We’ve been going there for a very long time, even before we had the house. It is a magical place and it is such a privilege to be able to spend time there, I had never spent a lot of the winter there, typically we’re Dublin blow-ins and are there for the summer and maybe the Easter, to be able to get a sense of the seasons, the countryside, the animals and the light changing,” he told The Clare Echo.

Its landscape and surroundings make Ballyvaughan a hive of creativity, Fintan noted. “It was also incredibly quiet during that period, most things were closed down, I very much realise how privileged I was to be able to do it but it was quite wonderful to be able to spend that time there, it was very productive. Every book I’ve written in the last ten to fifteen years has been written there because it is just a wonderful place to write, it is a great place for creative activity, it is not accidental that you have a lot of painters, the College of Art is there, there is something about the landscape and the way it is always shifting and always changing, it really genuinely has a big effect on your brain and a very positive one, it allows you to think and imagine things you wouldn’t maybe otherwise, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do that”.

He is quick to point out that having more than one home is certainly a luxury. For book-lovers, this does pose a predicament when it comes to deciding which shelves to use in each home for storing particular books. O’Toole admits that he has no system of organisation for his books in Dublin, Ballyvaughan and the US where he lectures at Princeton University. “I am notoriously sloppy, I’ve stuff all over the place, I would spend two hours looking for a book in Ballyvaughan only to realise I left in Dublin. I’ve tried to cluster things, I have some sets of books that I have brought together in Ballyvaughan and some in Dublin, I spend more time looking for stuff than I do reading it and using it, it’s stupid”.

Books were part of the thinking when it came to building the house which was formerly lived in by local tailors, the O’Connors in the early 1900s. “When the house was being built, the architect knew I was a reader so basically it was one big room built around the idea that there is books on the walls. There was a time that people were questioning the future of books and asking would I be embarrassed having built this house for books and who would have books anymore. It’s very interesting that the last year was the best on record for physical book sales in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere. I still think there is something wonderful about the physical book”.

There are pros to not having the most organised system for book-keeping, he acknowledged. “My lack of organisation is sometimes a good thing because you pick up stuff you have forgotten about and start reading something, it then leads to somewhere you don’t know which you don’t do with electronic stuff which is so well organised, you have to look for it and there it is, it gives it to you immediately. Princeton has this old fashioned system where you wander around the shelves and pick up anything you want. It is a funny business because you end up with the book that you want but also something else beside it and you start making connections or finding things you weren’t looking for, finding things you weren’t looking for is the pleasure of any kind of intellectual life. I still love the idea of having books around”.

At Princeton, he is a professor of Irish Letters where he teaches two courses a semester. “One is about dead bodies in plays and films and what happens when you have a dead body in a play or film, it is a great way of engaging students with what is really going on in a story, young people are very goolish so they love the dead bodies but you can go through everything from Greek tragedy all the way to Alfred Hitchcock and contemporary stuff like zombies. I’m doing a course on contemporary Irish women’s fiction which is centred around Sally Rooney but also Claire Keegan, Eimear McBride and Anna Burns, it is a great course to do because usually in University you don’t do stuff that is happening and coming out right now, we did Claire Keegan’s novel ‘Small Things Like These’ which only came out in September, it is great to be discussing something so current”.

He continued, “I try to engage them with contemporary Ireland and it so happens that you have this astonishing flowering of writing by Irish women at the moment, it is not to say there is also fantastic work by Irish men but you have this amazing quality of the depth of stuff that is coming out, it’s absolutely fantastic, students love it, a few years ago if you were teaching in America you had to explain an awful lot because Irish stuff was very Irish, but you can read Sally Rooney in Ohio or Florida and they recognise the relationships at the heart of it. I’m 64 so it is great to be talking to 20 year olds about their intimate lives and how they understand relationships, we can use the books as a way of trying to frame the experience and I’m not pretending as an old white guy that I understand their world which is also good for them in a way to have a certain authority of what we’re talking about”.

Fintan engaged with contemporary Ireland and its past for his latest book which manages to achieve a conscious form of history-telling. It charts his own personal history and that of the country since 1958. “There is no question that the biggest change is the collapse or the implosion of Catholic Ireland, I don’t mean in this any way in relation to faith or spirituality, it’s not what it is really about, it’s the institutional power which was overwhelming for most of my life, certainly when I was born, it was this fusion of church and state which came together for very specific historic reasons. It was this suffocating power, people say it was starting to change in the 1960s, it was but look at the late 1990s and the church had incredible power. The whole scandal of the industrial schools only really hit in the late 1990s and the State’s response, I think Bertie Ahern was in power at the time, their response was to protect the church from legal action, to make sure they don’t have to pay anything significant towards the cost of redress so the State ended up paying well over a billion euro for that and the church paid maybe €100m.

“You still have this situation where you have religious orders with vast amounts of money selling huge properties in Dublin for housing and looking to rezone them but the people who ran Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and mother and baby homes have paid nothing, the taxpayer has been left with that. It shows you how powerful these institutions still were, then the kind of suddenness of that collapse, the idea that it went from having the huge power and authority to being effectively a minority force in Ireland, by any means it is not dead and still very large numbers of people who are conservative Catholics and are fully entitled to be. The institutional power has waned very significantly, we saw this with the same sex marriage referendum and the abortion referendum, Ireland in that sense is not a Catholic country anymore, that is not just a change in my lifetime, it is a change that resonates over 15,000 years, for most of the existence as a historical space, it was a very heavily Christian catholic space, it is not now, that’s enormous”.

A loosening on the grip of Catholic Ireland over the public stands out for Fintan as the biggest change for the people but for him personally, transformation occurred because of the actions of one political figure. “The single biggest thing that happened to me and this might sound a bit abstract, it was a Government decision made by Donagh O’Malley who was Minister for Education to decide to open up second-level education for free, this is why I’m an old-fashioned believer in good Government, that changed me and people like me, it changed everything because it meant the expectation was that I would go to secondary school but it also because it was opening up, it felt psychologically why stop there, you could also aspire to go to college.

“I’m like vast numbers of Irish people of my generation, neither of my parents went to secondary school, my father left school at 13 and my mother at 14. This was very true for large parts of rural Ireland and working class Dublin which is where I came from, it always strikes me that Donagh O’Malley who I think was a really heroic figure and a great loss when he died young, he basically sprung that decision on Government, he put the word out among journalists that he was making an announcement and that they should make sure they are there and he just said we’re opening up free second-level education next year, the Department of Finance were tearing their hair out because they hadn’t a budget or a plan, it is a bigger thing, it had a huge effect on me and people like me but also the idea that if something is right the Government should be able to say we’re doing this and we’ll work back from there. So much of the time that I’ve been in journalism, you come up against this over and over again, ‘we couldn’t do this or that’ but then it is eventually done and people ask why it wasn’t done years before. O’Malley was driven by a basic sense of social justice, we were still exporting huge numbers of young people as emigrants and we were sending them off with nothing or an education so they would end up in domestic service, construction or low level jobs, they were the sort of bottom of the heap in terms of the employment market fairly often because they left school at 13 or 14 and they hadn’t the skills or educational capital, he had a deep anger about that which forced change”.

Fintan O’Toole. Photograph: Benson Russell.

During promotion for ‘We Don’t Know Ourselves’, Fintan was adamant that it was not a memoir and he jests that his life is too mild to warrant a memoir of its own. “If you spend your time writing I oddly enough don’t have enough interesting stories, I didn’t have an affair with Sophia Lauren, I didn’t nearly die of a drug overdose, I spend my time writing stuff and talking, my life in that sense isn’t interesting for a memoir. What I did think is there was a way of writing about the big story of transformation in Ireland in my lifetime, it just happened that I was born in 1958 which was the year that TK Whitaker published Economic Development then Sean Lemass and himself began to push through this radical change to open up the country, I’m a baby of that decision, I thought there was something interesting in that and someone’s journey through that transformation, then you realise that in terms of memory it doesn’t have to be that spectacular or stuff that is headline, it is what everyone would have experienced, maybe not the specific incidents”.

One story included in the book and referenced at Ennis Book Club Festival was when his father driving a bus along the Dublin Mountains met one of his sporting idols. “I remember my father who was a bus conductor coming home one day and he was glowing, he had been out on the early morning bus in the Dublin Mountains and there was Muhammad Ali running with his entourage, he came on the bus and was joking with my Dad, it is this big world intersecting with your own world, everybody in Ireland could tell stories maybe not that specific one but because it is a small place, one of the great things of Ireland is you’re aware of the politics, the history, it is very local and intimate, we’ve all had the weird moments when the two things come together, I thought there was a way of writing that which has some element of memoir, as much as might be interesting of my life is in the book but it was in the service of trying to tell this large story”.

Change has also been common-place in the world of journalism where Fintan O’Toole is regarded as a giant. He has been with The Irish Times since 1988 and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. When he assesses the media today, O’Toole is much more optimistic in 2022 than he was in 2012. “If you go back ten years there was a lot of pessimism about whether professional journalism would survive, the online world had cannibalised the traditional media to a huge extent with all the advertising migrating and being streamlined by Facebook and Google, the whole economic model was in very deep trouble. It is tentatively encouraging, if you look at the pandemic, it has coincided with significant increases in online subscriptions for newspapers which is obviously my own obsessions, The Irish Times looks financially viable in ways that it probably didn’t if you were looking forward a few years ago”.

Challenges still persist for media outlets, “as always things go in both directions, there is more wild west stuff, fake news and crap out there but people’s awareness of that is much higher and therefore perhaps there is some sense that this easy dismissal of mainstream media isn’t in people’s interests, there is a need to be critical and aware of what mainstream media are doing but the idea that we’re much better off with professional journalism than without it still remains fundamental to democracy, that has taken hold for a lot of the population so I’m fairly hopeful that some kind of media world with some kind of accountable standards will continue into the future”.

When it comes to analysing what the country did right and wrong during the pandemic, the role of journalists must also be part of the discussion, he said. “For all journalists there is a bit of a dilemma, we’re part of a society, particularly with the local press you’re so embedded in the community you’re a citizen with a family and you want to be helpful in the broad sense, we’re not neutral, we’re trying to do the right thing and we wanted to be helpful in getting good information out there, hoping that people could trust the independent advice coming from medical authorities, that is on one side but I think it takes a while to start saying hold on a minute. No matter how well motivated people are and we were fortunate in Ireland that the people in NPHET and the Chief Medical Officer, whatever criticism you have of them, they were well motivated and were working their butts off to do their best for the community, no matter how well motivated they are every system has group-think, it gets into a silo and big things get missed”.

O’Toole agreed that his colleague, Paul Cullen maintained this balance very well. “I remember early in the pandemic talking to people who were talking about the horror going on in nursing homes and realising this stuff is not being talked about at NPHET, you look at the minutes from their meetings and it wasn’t even on the agenda, it was a terrible example to all of us as journalists that out of sight is out of mind and being out of mind in a pandemic is a bloody dangerous place to be, if people are not thinking about you it can literally have lethal consequences. I think, the political and medical system needs to examine its consciousness but also we as journalists need to do the same, we also need to talk about what we failed to do in alerting the public to things or being properly critical, I don’t think we should have ever gone into a hyper-negative mode, that would have been irresponsible and wrong but I think trying to keep that critical distance to say what is happening but also what is not happening and what are we failing to do. One of the most moving things I thought was the ‘Lost Lives’ series in The Irish Times, it was a very simple basic form of journalism and showed it was real people we were losing not numbers, they’re fill of human richness of life, experiences, imaginations and connections, that sort of stuff did have an effect. I’d love to see a broader national conversation about what we did wrong and right and I would certainly be happy enough as a journalist to be held to account”.

Matters in Ukraine are to the fore of his mind with regular columns filed for The Irish Times on Russia’s invasion. He admitted that his working week is currently seven days as he continues to combine his various commitments while penning the biography of Seamus Heaney, once completed it will see two of the country’s most notable men to hold a pen marked together in unison for eternity.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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