Book Review: Ship of Fools by Fintan O’Toole


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As I started to read Fintan O’Toole’s “Ship of Fools” I grabbed a stack of Post-it notes to mark interesting passages and key points for easy reference later. The trouble is, after 40 pages it became clear that marking ever page, or every other page, was not a good way to go back to reading the key points.  And that’s what it was becoming, with revelations on each and every page of fraud, deception and corruption, the wholesale fleecing of the country aided, abetted and encouraged, most prominently by Fianna Fail.

That’s because the book itself is a set of key points. It is a distillation of O’Toole’s knowledge and experience over decades looking with increasing despair on Irish life. One suspects that the working title for this book (as with David McWilliams’ latest) could have been “I Told You So” or at least “I Warned You“. O’Toole describes the book as a polemic. That does it an injustice. Polemic conjures up an element of hyperbole and bombast being deployed in advance of an argument. This is an almost surgical dissection of the body politic, with each layer, canker and cancers laid out with clinical precision. Facts and figures are marshalled to reinforce the arguments at each stage.

O’Toole, like great analysts before him, cuts to the heart of the matter in Irish society. He describes our State as “barely modern let alone post-modern” (pg 101) and summarises our problems devastatingly as “a weird unfolding in the globalised twenty-first century of an intensely local nineteenth-century psychodrama.” The tragedy is not that we didn’t know what to do. It’s clear from the evidence that at all times government knew what to do, but chose not to do it. From the original Kenny Report on development land to the present day we have known, particularly at a governmental level. Our government has repeatedly “abdicated its responsibility for short term advantage” (pg 140)

Various dramas play out as an example of the problems we have faced. The repeated selling of Eircom is a microcosm of Ireland’s problems.  The “ideologically induced stupidity” of the market drove the sale of Eircom at a time Ireland was supposed to be driving toward a knowledge-based economy. A careful distinction needs to be made here between the European ideal of a knowledge-based society and the Irish view of a knowledge-based economy, as the favouring of the economy over society is one of the key threads in this book. O’Toole points out that €4.1Billion in 2000 would have provided for 5Mbps broadband for the whole country. Instead the state sold the core telecoms infrastructure company and pocketed the money. If this did not completely strangle the knowledge economy in its infancy it certainly severely stunted its growth.  O’Toole sums up the Government’s approach to the knowledge economy as “more reminiscent of the IT Crowd”. To be honest that is unfair to the IT Crowd.

This issue of lip service versus what is really valued plays out repeatedly in the book.  The repetition of 19th Century patterns in the current information society emerge again and again. O’Toole describes the lack of interest among students to study for anything other than the professions, and how this leads to the “professions reproducing the professions”. He talks about the lack of value for science, engineering and technology in society.  In some research I carried out myself I came to the same conclusion, that the key barriers that held back the development of a knowledge-based society were cultural, not technological.  J.J. Lee first pointed this out over twenty years ago in his book “Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society” (and O’Toole does refer to Lee at least once in the book). In it Lee pointed out the central role of the Catholic Church in the creation of classes of professions, merchants, farmers and others, and the role the Church played in preventing change. The irony in all of this is that as I write these words the report of Commission of Investigation into Child Abuse in the Dublin Dioceses is being widely discussed after its publication last week. The rotten core laid bare in that report is essentially the rotten core laid bare in Fintan O’Toole’s book.

Patsy McGarry in his Irish Times report last Friday referred to the Church’s use of “mental reservation”, a concept “developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”. This concept is at the heart of the Commissions investigation.

“Mental reservation” appears to have been an ingrained Irish trait. O’Toole similarly describes the Irish facility for doublethink, talking out both sides of our mouth at once, as being the Irish version of Orwell’s “TruthSpeak” (pg 181). The relationship between the State and the Church particularly through the actions of Bertie Ahern is discussed late in the book, with Ahern choosing to buttress the Church and its assets via those sweetheart deals provided in the wake of the first wave of child abuse scandals.

Our inability to imagine the future leads to a situation where Ireland has been described internationally as “the worst case scenario for growth” (pg 174).  I’m not sure that this is a “consequence of an inability to imagine the future” (pg 177). More likely it is a deliberate disregarding of the possible future for reasons of power, clientism, tribal loyalty and party over country.

What has occurred to me while reading about organisational change and thinking about the desperate entrenchment of privilege in Irish society, is the question of whether we have fallen into a societal Nash Equilibrium.

Wikipedia describes a Nash Equilibrium as:

If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing his or her strategy while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitute a Nash equilibrium.

A website that talked about organisational change points out that:

“There is no guarantee that a Nash equilibrium is optimal for the system as a whole. Most are not. However, it is often very difficult to move from one Nash equilibrium to another. To do it successfully, all players must be made aware that a better state is attainable and they must trust each other to change.”

Machiavelli got there earlier when he said:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

We can see this in the state of Ireland at the moment. We have moved from De Velara’s “comely maidens, dancing at the crossroads” to Orna Mulchay’s description of “pert breasted women” wandering around Sean Dunne’s planned Knightsbridge in Ballsbridge. There is an illusion of change without real sustainable progress or alteration of the power structures that underlie the State. Instead of change what we have had over the last decade is a chimera, as Dublin became the site of Europe’s biggest ever fraud (Parmalat pg 134), the largest every bankruptcy in EU history (DEPFA pg 140) and a $500 million scam (pg 140).  We have had governments that ideologically promulgated inequality (pg 94 on McDowell). We had rulers who sense of entitlement almost lead to Bertie Ahern becoming the highest paid leader in the world, that is, before public outrage finally called a halt to the incessant political wage hikes.

The problems that O’Toole reflects on, ending with the mortgaging of the State to bail out Anglo Irish Bank, are endemic, systemic and deep rooted. J.J. Lee twenty years ago pointed to “a suspicion of the intellectual process and the value of ideas’ among businessmen”, an attitude Ivor Kenny “attributes to the pervasive anti-intellectualism of Irish culture”.

Look at who benefits from the continuation of culture. “The sanctity of property, the unflinching materialism of farmer calculations, the defence of professional status” were for decades the key values of the Irish State; values baptized by the Catholic Church (Lee, 1989 pp 159).  O’Toole shows that they still are. These barren virtues were typical of the mercantile cultures that predated the intellectual enlightenment in Europe, and indicate unenlightened attitudes to knowledge and innovation and which see civic virtue as dangers that can upset the status quo. Innovation does upset the status quo, because it generates a new dynamic in a non-linear system leading to unpredictable results.

Enabling this dynamic is the essence of economic growth and development. Powerful interest groups tend to block technologies to protect their rents. Our society’s structure, as well as our beliefs and attitudes need to ensure that dynamic change is allowed to occur.  Despite all our economic growth the focus has always been on the encouragement of Foreign Direct Investment in Ireland rather than the growth and development of native industry.  The fortunes gambled at the Casino of the Celtic Tiger were not gambled on creating an Irish Google or Microsoft. Instead they were thrown at bricks and mortar and the property shell game.

Problems of perception with regard to the value of science and progress and the whole action of modernism are deeply embedded in Irish culture. The power of this culture is reflected in the traditional interest groups of the State: the farmers, the vintners, the builders and the clergy.  This is all laid bare in this book.

The extant power structures of Irish culture embodies Foucault’s notion of relationships of power acting on actions, controlling the choices and constraining the mode of development of others. The outcome of this culture is intellectual poverty and the stunted development of a State, benighted by generations of emigration.  The institutions of the State played midwife to and supported this culture. The ultimate tragedy we are faced with is a return to the dysfunctional cycles of the past as the demon of emigration rises to haunt the country again.

Our problems stem from inflexible structural systems where these powerful, vested interests have acted to discourage any change that could threaten their rents. Debates over the morality of divorce, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the productivity of the public service have all taken place in struggles to preserve what each group saw as its own interest. At the same time no debate has taken place on the importance of an innovative knowledge-based economy in generating wealth and promoting societal well-being.  An economy in the service of the people as opposed to a people in service to the economy.

The regime of Church sponsored censorship, which beggared the intellectual development of Ireland and stifled this temperament for much of the 20th century is an absolute moral bad.  It is no coincidence that economic stagnation paralleled intellectual repression. The problem with the Catholic Church is that it has at least from the time of Copernicus become, as Hans Kung points out in his Short History of the Catholic Church, “an institution characterised not so much by intellectual effort, empirical assimilation and cultural competence as by defensiveness against all that was new”. As a consequence, “in the Catholic countries, hardly any later generations of scientists appeared” (Küng  p 155). Catholic beliefs are barren ground for the development of scientific thought; barren ground for the development of modern thought and modernisation.

Küng traced the modern development of France from the time of the revolution, when the secular power of the Church, which extended to education and hospitals, was replaced with a secularised republican culture (Küng, 2001).  The lesson from our past is that this closed-mindedness is destructive to human growth and development. O’Toole says Ireland has essentially to grow up and become a modern society, as a first step out of the tar-pit we have become mired in, echoing the evidence of Küng.

It is easy to come away from this book with a sense of despair. The nation plundered, our children’s futures mortgaged, emigration as the only route out of the past and the maintenance of existing power structure that have not only failed but have damned our society since Independence.  In the end, despair is the only sin. We must not go gently but rather marshal our anger and use it to forge new structures and a new modern Ireland. Read this book. It will help gather your anger for the tasks that lie ahead.

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12 Responses

  1. Padraig McKeon

    December 1, 2009 4:19 pm

    That’s an engaging review that might interest me in the book. What would keep me at bay however is a residual uncertainty as to what F O’Toole really stands for and how he would act and take responsibility. He is described here as a great ‘analyst’. Analysis, dissection etc is all well and good but it’s being clever after the fact. Forgive me for holding my admiration for someone whose courage is measured by their ability to act on conviction of something that is not yet proven.

  2. Dermot

    December 1, 2009 9:40 pm

    don’t want to the discussion to be about FO’Toole himself. He was warning about this while it was happening and he was one of the people behind TASC which has pulled together some ideas on how to fix the problem.

  3. Philip Pilkington

    December 17, 2009 12:02 am

    Great review of what looks to be a very good book.

    I have to make a not so minor criticism though. While it may be true that the Catholic Church are responsible for anti-intellectualism etc (although who’s responsible for the Chucrh… can’t blame that one on the Brits – that’s homegrown…) I nevertheless think that critiques on Irsih society are stifled by an obsessive anti-clericism.

    Today this ideology is rapidly deployed by the red-tops to rile up Brass Eye-esque hysteria and (typically) a reinforcement of judgements based on moralism. As sickening as the abuse stories are this is the “progress” that comes from debating them.

    On the side of critique anti-clericism blinds people to the fact that this is no longer the main problem in Irish society. Today developers are more dangerous than priests and yet we tirade against the Church – even in your wonderful article you gave it the last word.

    It looks to me that the mindset ingrained by the Church absorbed both the “Establishment” and the “dissenters” – both are caught in the confines of that ideology. I think we should just drop it all together – its unproductive.

  4. Dermot

    December 17, 2009 10:51 am


    Developers have been incredibly destuctive over the past few years. Add in the Bankers that fuelled them. And the regulators that let them run riot. Cherry on top is the Government that thought all of this was OK.

    What we need is proper governance and accountability. I genuinely think this involves seperation of church and state. No matter how benign the church. Even it what wholly composed of good people like those I knew growing up. And yes the church is only one of the entrenched vested interests. Given its role and position in society it is an important one.

  5. Philip Pilkington

    December 17, 2009 12:59 pm

    I really don’t think it is that important an institution in contemporary Irish society and I think the attention its being given tends to distract from the real culprits of regression.

    Irish people have always been quick to attack irrelevant figures and institutions as the progenitors of their woes – just think of Brit-phobia, especially among the working-classes.

    An attack launched at something that (a) doesn’t really exists anymore or (b) is under attack from all sides and spiraling into self-destruction, is an easy attack with little risk to either the attacker or the elites. That’s why the tabloids have a field day on Church scandals.

    If, as O’ Toole claims, Ireland is still living in the Mercentile era (not sure how accurate that is, but a nice analogy) then at least its critics should focus firmly on contemporary rather than historic forces. No point in railing against the Church – its suicidal, just wait for it to die.

  6. Noreen

    December 17, 2009 2:46 pm

    Good review, followed by a totally nonsensical comment from Padraig. Excellent powers of analysis are usually regarded as a good thing in an author. How bizarre to keep oneself “at bay” from reading a book because you have “a residual uncertainty” as to what the author “really stands for”. Read the book, Sherlock, and you’ll find out. O’Toole’s a journalist, for heaven’s sake. He “takes responsibility” by investigating what happened.

    Why on earth would anyone “hold” their “admiration for someone whose courage is measured by their ability to act on conviction of something that is not yet proven”? You mean like George Bush invading Iraq over WMD’s? Bankers lending to all and sundry in the belief the property prices would keep rising? Seems to me that idiots acting on their convictions are responsible for an awful lot of our troubles to begin with.

  7. Paul Healy

    January 3, 2010 9:21 pm

    I am currently reading the book with my jaw wide open, when not reading passages to my partner. She suggested I ask myself what was Fintan O’Toole doing at the height of the madness in 2006. Was he critiquing from the sidelines or participating in the madness. The answer sadly is he was right in it with the rest of us, applying for planning permission to QUADRUPLE the size of his SECOND home in Ballyvaughan. Reference here:

    Sad but true.

    Still a great book.

  8. Philip Pilkington

    January 4, 2010 4:59 pm

    Another strange, particularly Irish argument. The notion that its was somehow “all our faults” that a serious credit crisis occured, that we shouldn’t have “tricked ourselves into thinking that Ireland could be prosperous”.

    Yes, O’ Toole was probably trying to build a nicer house – personally, I was working part-time for a major auctioneering firm. Does this mean that myself and Fintan are somehow to blame? I seriously doubt it.

    Neither one of us has or had any institutional power. We didn’t have any control over the issue of credit – like, say, the Financial Regulator has. We didn’t have any direct influence on the property market – like, say the Taoiseach or the Finance Minister could have had at the time. We didn’t have any sway over how much Irish people were being paid (there is a significant connection between low-pay, high-prices and the abuse of credit) – employers associations and the FF government certainly did.

    No! This was not everyone’s fault. Most people were just trying to improve their lives, they weren’t invited on board the ship – that was filled with specific breed of fool. No prizes for guessing who…

  9. Tombuktu

    January 21, 2010 8:50 pm

    [I risk becoming a magpie, picking up other people’s comments on books reviewed here, but here goes!]

    Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has commented on Ship of Fools:

    [T]here is a quite significant hole in the book. Apart from a brief reference near the beginning to the “weaknesses and limitations” of the social partnership process, and an aside later on about how workers made out like bandits from the privatization of Eircom, there is no discussion of the role that trade unions and the left played in either passively supporting the Celtic Tiger economy (through their supine acceptance of inequality etc) or actively embracing it. If social partnership and consultation played a role in Ireland’s economic success during the 1990s and early 2000s, it surely also played a part in its downfall too. It may be too crude to argue that trade unions were bought off by wage increases and tax cuts for their members, so that they weren’t too bothered trying to organize the growing sectors of the economy or provide a substantial alternative vision of Irish prosperity – but it isn’t that far from the truth either. If the Irish right (represented by an alliance of Fianna Fail politicians who were cosy with business, and the PDs who were ideologically gung-ho free marketers) was intellectually ascendant over these years, it was partly the left’s fault. I’d surely have liked to have seen O’Toole discuss this – it seems to me an important part of the story that he isn’t telling.

  10. Brian

    April 2, 2010 12:16 pm

    Interesting point Paul concerning what this author himself was doing during the madness. Typical hypocricy from hindsight experts. Reminds me of stock brokers or currency experts , including one who recently opined that he has been warning of Euro problems for the last 10 years ( sooner or later , his prediction had to come true ). However , I still look forward to reading the book

  11. William Wall

    April 5, 2010 7:04 am

    Padraig’s comment that analysis is somehow suspect because it is post-factum is about as shallow as it gets. Ship of Fools is a fascinating, frightening and necessary book. It should be compulsory reading for every citizen of this shambolic republic. It’s a real history of what has happened to us, not a state-sponsored narrative. Excellent review.