For a long time, the experience of tribal politics on the island of Ireland seemed anachronistic. The Northern Ireland conflict was almost universally characterized as a throwback to the upheavals of post-Reformation Europe. Yet more recently I have had to wonder whether it might be as much a portent of a possible future as a weird anomaly from the past. We have to think again about how tribalism works, why it appeals and, most importantly, how democrats can respond to its growing allure.
Fintan O’Toole, one of Ireland’s leading public intellectuals, is a columnist for The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. He also contributes to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian, The Observer, and other international publications. His books on theater include works on William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Thomas Murphy. His books on politics include the bestsellers We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (2021), Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain (2018), Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic (2010), and Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009). In 2011, The Observer named O’Toole one of “Britain’s top 300 intellectuals.” He has received the A.T. Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism, the Millennium Social Inclusion Award, and Journalist of the Year in 2010, the Orwell Prize, and the European Press Prize. O’Toole’s History of Ireland in 100 Objects, which covers 100 highly charged artifacts from the last 10,000 years, is currently the basis for Ireland’s postage stamps. He has recently been appointed official biographer of Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. In 2023, O’Toole was named an International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.