Book review – O’Toole, Ship of Fools (2010)

Natasha GamboaNatasha Gamboa is a Politics and International Relations student. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.

O’Toole, Fintan (2010) Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, London, Faber and Faber.

Ireland became the envy of the world with the advent of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Ireland quickly went from being one of the poorest countries with one of the slowest growing economies in the European Union to having a national income that was (on paper at least) triple that of the European average in 2004. However, this all came to a magnificent crash when the Irish property bubble burst. Ship of Fools – How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger sets out to explain all of this in a clear and concise way. The chapters are written as individual essays, each exploring a different topic or a different aspect of the story of the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. O’Toole exposes the bad decisions that were made during this time, and provides revelation after revelation of the corruption, greed, and sheer foolishness that caused the Celtic Tiger to sink.

There is one recurring theme throughout the whole book – that of corruption. Chapter 2, for example, details the stories of politicians receiving corrupt payments, and the subsequent Tribunals. Time and again we see that the politicians such as Charles Haughey, Ray Burke, and Michael Lowry, who were the biggest offenders, seemed to get off all but scot-free.

Readers who, like myself, may have been too young to understand what the Celtic Tiger was when it was happening, should take a special interest in this book. Written very clearly and straight to the point, the shocking revelations make it compelling reading. Understanding what went on prior to the crisis gives us essential background context when examining the state of Irish politics today. The Celtic Tiger crashed just under a decade ago, and the repercussions are still very much with us. To be given a succinct and compelling explanation such as this as to what happened and why is incredibly useful.

Fintan O’Toole has been an opinion-editorial columnist for the Irish Times since 1988, and he writes a weekly column on political and social affairs. His work has appeared in many international newspapers and magazines including The New Yorker, The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post. He is considered one of the top commentators of Irish politics in Ireland.

Although this book has some very strong points, particularly its clarity and readability, the book is not with out limitations. The tone is problematic: it is very angry throughout, which is arguably justified in the light of the subject-matter, but is also rather unrelieved. The point of view is intentionally controversial and confrontational: arguing from a left-wing perspective, O’Toole doesn’t attempt to hide his bias, and this tends to result in a very pessimistic interpretation of the Celtic Tiger. Brian Groom, writing for the Financial Times, points out that O’Toole ‘underplays the good sides to the Celtic Tiger – [for example] the features that attracted so many US investors’, and, we might add, that contributed to employment creation and rising living standards. Frank Barry, who reviewed the book for the Irish Times, also points out that O’Toole simply ‘doesn’t like low corporation tax rates, [and] ignores it in listing Ireland’s attractions as a location for FDI.’

Somewhat surprisingly for a vigorously argued book, it lacks a strong conclusion. It doesn’t seem to offer anything new or different to the reader apart from feelings of anger and despair. In the blog Ireland after NAMA, Rob Kitchin comments that ‘the conclusion… needed further elaboration on what needed to change and why, using examples from elsewhere, to really push the point home.’ I would agree with this assessment. Such conclusion would have helped the book to really stand out from other books that also analyse the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger.

Despite my reservations about this book, overall I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it hard to put down. Although O’Toole makes no effort to hide his bias, which can be a little damaging at times, his point of view gave the book a really entertaining twist, which I think makes the book appealing to a wide audience. A lot that can be taken away from a reading of this book. It provides a concise story of exactly what happened during the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, so that we might understand how to prevent such foolish mistakes from happening again. Gaining insight into the corruption of mainstream Irish politics in the past helps us to understanding the rise of the independents and small parties in more recent times: we can view this, in part at least, as evidence of voters rising up against the establishment and standing up to corruption. The book teaches us how detrimental greed and corruption are in the political sphere, and rightly allows us to feel outrage.

The book ends with a positive tribute to the Irish people who ‘have enough energy, enough talent, enough resourcefulness, and enough imagination’ to create a different kind of politics. But he warns that it will not be easy: he wonders whether or not the Irish people will have ‘enough constructive anger to kick away a system that has failed them and make a new one for themselves.’ He has given us the information and the motivation, and he has set the challenge. What will unfold from now on remains very much to be seen.

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