Fintan O’Toole, Leopold Bloom and me

I have been reading We Don’t Know Ourselves, Fintan O’Toole’s marvellous personal and political memoir of Ireland over the past 64 years. I am an unashamed admirer of O’Toole’s writings, and his brilliantly insightful, left-wing views on multiple aspects of Irish life in all its glory and grubbiness. I once introduced him to a Northern Irish audience as a “national treasure”. In my years in the Irish Times, our paths occasionally crossed, most memorably on the terraces at Belfast’s Windsor Park on a bleak night in November 1993, when we sat silent and anxious beside a section of the crowd singing about being up to their knees “in Fenian blood”, and inwardly cheering as an Alan McLoughlin goal sent the Republic of Ireland to the finals of the following year’s World Cup.

O’Toole shares some of my pet hates: the all-powerful Irish Catholic Church of the mid-20th century, with its imperious prelates, brutal Christian Brothers and child-abusing priests; that church’s long alliance with Fianna Fail, personified by the astonishingly corrupt and hypocritical figure of Charles Haughey; and the doublethink of the IRA and Sinn Fein, who for many years combined “electoral politics and mass killing, political party and private army, victim and perpetrator.” This was “of a piece with the larger Irish capacity for being in two minds simultaneously” – although he feels that by the 1990s this capacity was radically diminishing. I fear a new generation, those who will vote in their hundreds of thousands for Sinn Fein in the next election, have inherited at least some of it.

I did not experience the unanimous fury of the people of the Republic at the horror of 14 innocent people murdered by the British Parachute regiment in Derry 50 years ago last weekend. I was told of it by a driver as I was hitch-hiking through Colombia. In contrast, O’Toole’s father, a socialist and sceptic about Irish nationalism, announced that he was prepared to go to war over it. “We have to face it”, he told his wife and sons. “Me and the boys are going to be up in the North, fighting. It’s coming. There’s no choice now. It’s just the way it’s going to be. It’ll be them or us. We have to be ready for it.” 14 year old Fintan was “stunned, terrified, but also excited. It was a big thing to think about, this civil war that was going to shape our destinies.” If ever there was a ‘two nations’ moment in Ireland, this was it: nationalist Ireland ready to go to war over a British atrocity; many in unionist Northern Ireland wrong-headedly equating it to the killing of Protestant civilians by the IRA. 

As an Irishman of part-Jewish ancestry, I was particularly intrigued by a chapter on Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses (first published a hundred years ago this week), who, according to O’Toole, had an afterlife following his starring role in that greatest of novels. O’Toole recounts the story of Bloom’s death in 1942 (certainly apocryphal, since Bloom was not a real person) from a Dublin Jewish chronicler, Asher Benson. According to Benson, he was barred from burial in the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish cemetery on the grounds that he was “a confirmed apostate, an eater of forbidden food, and had married out” (and was also a great lover of a jug of porter). He ended up being half-buried in the middle of the night under the wall dividing the Jewish cemetery from the houses on Aughavannagh Road in Crumlin, and thus possibly in the O’Toole family’s back garden.

I have always been interested in Leopold Bloom as the sort of atypical Irishman I could identify with. In the famous Cyclops episode in Ulysses, which takes place in Barney Kiernan’s pub, off Capel Street, Joyce contrasts the citizen’s aggressive and xenophobic nationalism with Bloom’s gentle insistence on tolerance and compassion. Bloom talks about “persecution…all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.” The citizen interrupts:”What is your nation, if I may ask”. “Ireland”, says Bloom. “I was born here. Ireland.” “The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.”

Later in the conversation Bloom gives his views on violence and hatred. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” “What?” says Alf, another drinker. “Love”, says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

In terms of love and hatred in the northern part of Ireland, I fear sometimes that we haven’t moved on much since 1904. I worry that the xenophobic nationalism of the citizen is about to be reborn in the form of a near-future government dominated by the militant republicanism of Sinn Fein squaring up to the jingoistic English nationalism of a Tory government in London. I ask myself: where will I, as a peace-loving, left-of-centre, non-republican person from a half-Presbyterian, half-Jewish background, fit into the ‘new Ireland’ ruled over by Sinn Fein?

In all my years in Dublin I have always been bemused when somebody is described as a “republican” as if that were a mark of distinction, a source of pride. To me, a contemporary Irish republican is somebody who believes in killing people in pursuit of some ill-defined all-Ireland republic. I agreed with John Hume back in 1989 when he said that “there is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life.” He said the same thing repeatedly about the IRA’s killings and bombings in pursuit of unity, denouncing their ultra-nationalistic and fascistic belief that they were the “pure Irish master race.”1

Between 1998 and 2016 I had hoped we were moving into a benign period of power-sharing between the parties of unionism, nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland and increasing cooperation between North and South on the island of Ireland, and that over a period of 30 or 40 years of joint EU membership and rising prosperity this would start to remove much of the historic poison from relationships on this island. I believed that the neuralgic issue of Irish unity could be postponed until a future and perhaps wiser generation. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I underestimated the right-wing anti-European forces that were gathering in Britain to drive on to Brexit; the DUP’s insularity and stupidity in fully backing that madness; and Sinn Fein’s determination to take full advantage of such a huge British misstep to up the tempo of the drumbeat for unity.

I had hoped that in this benign period there would be recognition of a new broad definition of Irishness, that one could be fully recognised as Irish as a non-Catholic, an immigrant, a gay person, a black person, a Northern Protestant or unionist – anybody, in fact, who, like Leopold Bloom, is born on the island of Ireland. One would not have to fit into the stereotype of the ‘true Gael’ that was dominant in the first 50 years of this state’s existence: an Irish-speaking, Brit-hating, GAA-following, physical force-supporting republican. With the huge immigration into this country over the past 25 years of people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Brazil (among many other countries), the definition of Irishness will have to be greatly broadened anyway (despite the 2004 constitutional referendum, endorsed by nearly 80% of those voting, which, against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, restricted citizenship to those born in Ireland to Irish citizens).

I sometimes I wonder where I, as a kind of ‘West Brit’, with my Northern Protestant background and largely English upbringing, will fit into this new Ireland with its Sinn Fein-led worship of violent republican ancestors, including those who killed over 1,700 people in the Northern Ireland conflict. Just as ‘republican’ is usually a compliment in the present day Republic of Ireland, ‘West Brit’ is an insult. ‘Unionist’ is one of the worst insults one can throw at anyone in Irish politics, and even a Taoiseach like John Bruton was not safe from the insulting epithet ‘John unionist’ for trying to reach out to the unionists at various stages of the 1990s peace process.

I am a passionate and lifelong lover of Ireland and its people and culture (in my retirement I have taken up set dancing and have been learning Irish). But I just cannot see how we are going to attract any significant number of Northern unionists into our shiny new Ireland, many of whom are understandably opposed to all things Irish after being battered by 30 years of IRA violence (in the 2011 census 2.1% of Northern Protestants defined themselves as Irish, compared to 20% in 1968). And if the politicians overseeing that transformation are from the party which glorifies the perpetrators of that violence as the heroes of the final stage in the long and noble struggle against the British oppressor, unionists’ acquiescence in such an outcome is even more improbable.

We need a change of heart in the South if we are going to attract any unionists into our society. A Dublin friend who has held prominent positions in both Irish jurisdictions asks if the citizens of this republic “can open up to the notion that a sixth of the population will have an identity which is not Irish”. He goes on: “I think we need an expression of Irishness that accommodates, welcomes and doesn’t exclude Britishness. It doesn’t compromise the notion of being Irish; we don’t have to dilute a sense of Irishness to be open to a sense of Britishness. Nobody is purely Irish and nobody is purely British on this island – it’s too interwoven for that.” This man believes the work of bringing about Irish unity is a 100-150 year project.


This entry was posted in General, Irish reunification, Republic of Ireland. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fintan O’Toole, Leopold Bloom and me

  1. David Quinn says:

    I am a 72 year old man from Belfast, living in London for 50 years. I am of Presbyterian heritage and my father and his parents before him had a shop on the Shankill Road. The family were Orange and Masonic. I personally eschewed religion at the age of 14. At 28 I went to Trinity College Dublin, and I loved Dublin. When I retired I took up genealogy and discovered that, as a Quinn with Tyrone ancestors I was probably descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, so my Quinns may well have held land before the Plantation and been deprived of it by my Scottish ancestors. Also my DNA began in Ireland 1000 years before the Celts arrived there.
    Even on the mainly Scottish side of my Family there are Murphys, Presbyterian since 1800 but like the Quinns certainly Catholic before that. Furthermore, my great grandparents were a mixed marriage and had 11 children, who all started out Presbyterian like their father but all but my grandmother were enticed to the Catholic faith by their mother, except my grandmother who was late teens by then. She had a brother who had a nephew called Martin Meehan, head of the IRA in Ardoyne. I believe that many Northern protestants would be similarly mongrel. Maybe there ought to be obligatory genealogy lessons in Northern Ireland.

  2. Tom McCarthy says:

    Thank you Andy for an insightful blog. Alex Kane had also a very interesting article in the I.T today.

  3. Niall Kennedy says:

    You appear to be entirely unaware of the career of Leo Varadkar, the first non-white Head of Government in Western Europe.

    Also, young people are voting for SF in the Republic because they can’t afford their own place to live. It appears to have been a long time since you were young and poor, if you ever were.

  4. vincentaltmanoconnor says:

    Some Joyceans argue that ‘Altman the Saltman’ is the Irish-Jewish model for Leopold Bloom.

    The Altmans arrived in Dublin in the 1850s. Moritz and son Albert set up a salt importing business in Usher’s Island and the firm was known as ‘Altman the Saltman’. In 1877, the Altmans were fined by the Lord Mayor who accused them of cheating their customers by using a faulty weighing machine. However, Albert managed to turn the tables on the corporation by alerting the authorities at Westminster that, following his own inspection of Dublin Corporation’s weighing machines at the docks, he discovered that they were defective.

    This incident proved to be the catalyst for their political careers as advanced Nationalists. Albert and younger brother Mendal became members of the Land League and they were peripherally associated with the Invincibles. Albert’s wife was a cousin of the leading Fenian Denis F. Burke who masterminded the escape of James Stephens from prison. The Altman brothers were well-known for their commitment to the Temperance and Labour Movements. They were major shareholders in the Freeman’s Journal and were involved in Dublin’s musical life.

    Despite anti-Semitic abuse, Albert was elected to Dublin City Council in 1901. Together with Thomas Kelly, they became the opposition within the Nationalist block. Kelly was the first Sinn Fein representative. But by 1903 Albert Altman was dead. He died in a blaze of publicity after uncovering a corruption scandal on the council. He was succeeded by Mendal and his son Emmanuel worked at Dublin’s Cattle Market.

    The Altmans tick a lot of the Leopold Bloom boxes. A critical biography of Albert Altman is to be published this year. Google ‘Altman the Saltman’ for more on this forgotten Hiberno-Jewish family.

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