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2003 interview with Fintan O'Toole

Pic: Simon Burch

[Many moons ago, I interviewed Fintan O'Toole for Cara magazine - when it still had a relatively highbrow editorial policy under Vincent DeVeau & Paul Whittington. Here is the uncut version.]

As that other, slightly misplaced “institution” within the Irish Times, Flann O’Brien might have said, a good interview piece may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in using both the first name and the surname of the subject.

Examples of the three separate openings – the first: Fintan O’Toole was born in Blackrock. He had family in the British Army, and has Jewish ancestry. He has spent many years commuting back and forth to New York and London on business. (Critics!) He owns a holiday home in County Clare. He enjoys nothing so much as a hike in the country. He lives in a valuable house in the leafy suburbs of Dublin

The second opening: Fintan O’Toole is the proud son of a bus conductor and a cleaning lady. (The Blackrock thing? A basement flat, where he lived for just two years.) He grew up happily in his grandfather’s two-bed corporation house in Crumlin with four brothers and sisters. He was the first child in the family and even on his road to go to university. He lives in a house he bought in the eighties, appropriately situated where the leafy trees of Glasnevin meet the towers of Ballymun. (The Clare thing? An uninhabitable shack that he’s doing up himself.) He is still surprised that people will pay him to indulge in thinking and writing.

The third opening: When I told my mother that I had interviewed Fintan O’Toole, instead of being suitably impressed she told me she was annoyed with him because of an insensitive piece he had written about a person recently deceased. My mother doesn’t use email, but if she did she might have joined the ranks of readers who respond personally to his articles in the Irish Times. Let me report that, regardless of what you say to him in those communications, Fintan O’Toole loves it. I purposely didn’t say “thrives” on it, to avoid implying that he seeks out controversy and attention. (One critic writing in Magill said of O’Toole: “There is no trace of superstar narcissism to his appearances in the media; nothing to suggest that it is the promotion of his own public image rather than the promotion of his ideas that drives him.”) He says he just needs that direct relationship with his audience that the Irish public arena still admits, and that he could not cope with the fragmentation of society or the huge gap between the public and private realms in more populated countries.

It was a sunny World Book Day when I visited O’Toole at his house, and the world was well represented in books on his shelves. Robert Hughes’s Jerk on One End prompted me to ask if he fishes (“No, I just love Robert Hughes”). I saw a few “author’s copies” of his own The Lie of the Land, Irish Identities, and piled back issues of Granta magazine for which he has written on a number of occasions. When I asked him if he is ever troubled by the quantity of books published he joked, almost like a character in a Gary Larson cartoon: “Only when I see my own remaindered.” One of the copies of the New Yorker that lay on a coffee table had an article about Kofi Annan with the following appropriate line: “To anyone with a pessimistic view of history, the notion that our salvation depends on everyone’s coming together for the common good may sound like a forecast of doom. But Annan … believes in the possibility of world order.”

O’Toole’s face is in the Irish Times practically every week and although you see his frame on TV from time to time, you still get a little shock meeting up close and in the flesh someone so otherwise familiar. O’Toole is a thin man. His limbs move somewhat awkwardly as if his brain judges them to be out of control and in need of restraint. He leans his head back and curves his arm forward when he is shaking your hand. His glance is slightly displaced and tends downwards. His mouth looks like it too is under some strain as if its owner is overly conscious of its odd, wavy musculature.

It could be intimidating to interview this man: one of Ireland’s best known journalists and a prominent public intellectual – summed up by one critic as Ireland’s “leading journalistic analyst”. And, indeed, O’Toole is quick to move from chat about the seemingly mundane to analysis of broad social or historical forces. However, to my great relief, and in contrast to his physical deportment, he is in total control of how he communicates. His language is direct, and though his thought processes are often complex they are never complicated. This is as it should be considering his career as a polemicist. He wants his message to get through, and be understood rather than simply impress. It is also, perhaps, a reflection of his sense of social responsibility. (He admires academic scholarship, but disapproves of the ivory tower syndrome.)

In O’Toole’s eyes, his life is less an individual effort and more a product and reflection of society. So instead of seeing his education and writing career as some great personal achievement, he puts them to work as examples of how society has improved (in parts), does change and can be changed. Without free education, he insists, he never would have got to university, and without the forging of a freer kind of journalism in the seventies he never would have become a journalist.

The phrase O’Toole uses to encapsulate his upbringing is “respectable working class”. There were five children, his parents and his grandfather in a two-bedroom house, but it was “very stable”. It was a small world, but quite broad in its scope. A lot of neighbours were first-generation Dubliners with strong connections to the country. His mother’s father was from Wexford, “nineteenth-century peasantry” (his phrase, and “in no sense derogatory”). His presence in the house meant a “slight connection with the countryside and a pre-industrial mentality.” He continued to believe in evil spirits, curses and “that superstitious world that the vast majority of Irish country people believed in at the same time as being devout Catholics. You got a sense of the world being quite a complicated place. People could not be simply categorised one thing or another. They had all sorts of layers.”

Nothing straightforward on his father’s side either. O’Toole describes his father, from a family of dockers, as a frustrated, inner-city working class intellectual, reading Sartre and Camus, with Shaw as his great hero. On that side of the family, there was, “classically”, a great deal of emigration to England, and O’Toole’s uncles fought in the British Army in World War II. Their children had English accents and the families were closely associated with London. At the same time, they were Irish nationalists and would sing rebel songs, “getting sentimental about the fourth green field and all that sort of stuff.”

On both sides of his family, then, O’Toole had evidence that “people could be more comfortable with absolute contradictions that you might expect.”

“One of the things I deeply believe is that we all have kind of official versions of ourselves, which are uncomplicated and simple and straightforward. And then we have hinterlands, which can in many cases contain all sorts of swamps and marshes and untrodden ground, where we don’t examine assumptions. And that’s the way most people’s experiences are, especially Irish people.”

But is it especially Irish?

“Of course, many peoples of Europe have had much more complicated experiences than we have, but I do think there are quite extreme versions of it in Irish people.” He suggests this is to do with our failure to recover from our past and the massive emigration experienced by succeeding generations.

O’Toole has had a particularly dramatic experience of the consequences of emigration. Some years ago his father organised an international family reunion – based on getting together as many as possible of the direct descendants of his grandparents. O’Toole’s take on the event has less to do with personal enjoyment and everything to do with social history. The event in Jury’s was “absolutely fascinating” to him, “because about 30% of the descendants were people of colour – Afro-Caribbeans, people from Pakistan and from India.” He looked around the room thinking, “These people are as ‘Irish’ as I am in one sense”. He also discovered that the male in this couple who were the common “point of origin” of all those present, was actually not originally from Dublin at all, but was a Jewish immigrant from Hamburg. The myth of “Who are the Irish” was exploded yet again in a most dramatic way.

Throughout his time in UCD O’Toole was writing – in student publications or public information leaflets. He started doing the odd bit for In Dublin “just to make a bit of money”. He became theatre critic for the magazine on a retainer of £20 a fortnight - “which, even then, was very little money”. But In Dublin was “a different place to be”, with a lot of interesting people floating around, many of whom were rethinking how you could “do journalism” here, trying to look at Irish life in a more beneath-the-skin way, in longer feature articles using some of the narrative techniques of creative writing.

O’Toole should have been writing his thesis on aesthetics, but looking back he supposes that he had always been essentially a polemicist, too political an animal for scholarship. “A lot of my experience of writing was writing a pamphlet or a report to be presented to a politician about something like corporal punishment rather than a scholarly discourse.” He wonders whether the young journalists today would be writing at all if it wasn’t suddenly such a desirable profession.

“But I suppose I found it hard to imagine getting paid for writing.” He says the word “writing” delicately. “That may sound terribly stupid, but it never quite occurred to me that it was something you did for reasons other than that you wanted to campaign about issues and persuade people to a point of view.”

We discuss how he is driven by optimism and a conviction that we do have the power to change our world. He insists that the most appalling thing is to not at least try to use that power. I am surprised when he admits that he wouldn’t rule out getting into politics. (“But no party would touch me,” he says smiling, and mock-proudly: “I’m unelectable!”) We discuss the failure of the left and the more recent signs of failure of “the free market right”, which has “not been able to deliver social goods” effectively never mind evenly. We touch on the social relevance of art. I ask him why he doesn’t write fiction. (A too happy childhood, leaving no “deep hurt to be filled”.) We talk about how people are losing interest in politics, and typically O’Toole doesn’t blame people but blames the system they are being forced to accept. And no one can accuse him of not getting stuck in himself, although his version of rolling up his sleeves is partaking in a “left-of-centre think tank” that has set out to bring radical changes to our democratic structures.

You’re A Star voting meets Oireachtas Report?

Not quite.

A big parcel arrives with research material for his next book – an epic, non-fiction “novel” set in eighteenth-century America about a Meath man who became a negotiator on behalf of and lived among the Mohawk Indians. They gave him the native name, Wariaghejaghe, the meaning of which is uncertain (not to mention the pronunciation) but may be something like “he who has charge of affairs.” O’Toole explains that he is attracted by contemporary resonances in the story, and he turns the parcel over in his hands in childlike anticipation.

1 comment:

topgold said...

I think Fintan was one of 300 teenagers who attended the same schools in Crumlin in a sample set where fewer than 20 went on to third level education. There's a lesson in that fact.