The Ex-Isle of Erin

Ireland is changing, according to Fintan O’Toole, fundamentally and swiftly. A journalist for the IRISH TIMES, O’Toole has long scrutinized the changes and commented on them. The fourteen essays in THE EX-ISLE OF ERIN: IMAGES OF A GLOBAL IRELAND explore three major themes that he finds paramount: emigration, the influence of the outside world, and illusion in Irish traditions.

The pun of the book’s title, ex-isle, captures two central ideas. First involve the exiles, especially those emigrants who went to America. Their attempts to preserve the homeland’s culture in America’s heterogeneous society, for instance through music and dance, have been the primary means for teaching Irishness to the world. At the same time, America grew in importance to the Irish who remained at home. They grew receptive to American popular mass culture, an effect that O’Toole calls the Americanization of Ireland. Americanization is itself part of a larger process, a globalization of Ireland. It is no longer an isle on the outskirts of civilization, culturally isolated from the world. Because of it, the traditional ideological forces behind the Republic of Ireland—Catholicism, rural economy, Celtic language and art, animosity toward England—have flagged, and a new mentality is building.

The specific subjects of the essays vary widely: a biography of the tycoon Tony O’Reilly, a literary appraisal of the poet Paul Durcan, and a commentary on the child molestation scandal involving Father Brendan Smyth, for example. Readers unfamiliar with the names of Irish politicians and celebrities may feel perplexed at times, yet O’Toole so skillfully can enliven earnest analysis with deliciously wicked humor or capture an idea in a telling image that even non-Irish readers will find insight and delight.