Fintan O'Toole,
The Ex-Isle of Erin:
Images of a Global Ireland

(New Island, 1996)

There are plenty of books on the market about Irish history and lore. But what about modern Ireland? No, not the headlines about the IRA and the fluctuating peace process -- what about the culture and society of the Republic of Ireland since its independence less than a century ago?

Fintan O'Toole does an admirable job of addressing many issues of modern Ireland in The Ex-Isle of Erin, a collection of essays on many aspects of Irish life. O'Toole shines a bright light on many of Ireland's accomplishments in the past century, but he also pulls no punches -- he'll honestly discuss the various failings, too.

For instance, a lengthy section of Ireland's richest man, media mogul and Heinz CEO Tony O'Reilly, gives the man his due for pulling himself up, growing from a young rugby star to an innovative government appointee and, finally, a highly successful man of industry and finance. However, O'Reilly may have tramped on some toes during his fabulous rise, and his decisions might not have always been in the best interests of Ireland.

O'Toole takes an unflinching look at the great strides Ireland's young government took to encourage and control the arts. He explores the impact the Christian Brothers' schools have had on Ireland's revolution and growth. He discusses the attempt to replace the foreign Santa Claus with an Irish variation on the theme -- and explains why it failed. And he draws an interesting parallel between Oscar Wilde and Jesse James.

He expounds on the James theme while explaining why the gap between Ireland's western isles and America was, in many ways, narrower than the gap between those isles and mainland Ireland. He bursts the balloon of silence which has surrounded the too-common incidents of child molestation in Ireland's many church-run schools for boys. He explores the politics of dancing, and explains why Riverdance was a successful celebration of Irish culture -- and why Lord of the Dance was not.

Perhaps most importantly, he deals directly with the ties to Ireland which make its many immigrants so often yearn for home -- and ponders the reasons why so many feel more at home elsewhere in the world.

The text is at times a little dry, but overall, O'Toole presents fascinating glimpses of the Irish mind, a peek behind the veil of Irish society. Since each chapter is a separate commentary, it's easy to take the book a piece at a time. If the growth and development of modern Ireland is of interest to you, this is a good place to learn more about it.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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