Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

He suggests the same trait might also explain how we can be genuinely shocked at official confirmation of abuses of power, even when such abuse is common knowledge. Related to this is our excessive deference to authority, with which we have a weird relationship (again, by no means peculiar to Ireland).

Speaking of which:

In Ireland, there was a refinement on Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ramblings about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Irish added another category: unknown knowns, things that were understood to be the case and yet remained unreal. At its most extreme this worked as a kind of collective psychosis, analogous to the idea of dissociation in psychiatry, where, in response to trauma, the mind distances itself from experiences that it does not wish to process. This process was at work in relation to corruption. . . . With this habit of mind so well ingrained it was possible to vote for a fraudster while believing that this was not an act of collusion but merely, for example, an expression of sympathy . . .

Often, voting has less to do with performance or policy than with a lifelong affiliation to a particular party. This derives in part from habit and a natural aversion to change and the unknown, a case of “better the devil you know”. But in some cases the familial and emotional allegiance to the idea of a political tribe is so deep-rooted that alternatives are effectively unthinkable.

On the plus side: the Irish capacity for doublethink, O’Toole proposes, may have had social and cultural benefits too, fostering a more fluid interpretation of reality which would have obvious implications for creative activity, with its affinity for pluralities and ease with irresolution.

This embrace of contradiction and superposition also manifests in the vernacular Hiberno-English tongue, with its ubiquitous irony and paradoxical phrases, stacked negatives and litotes (no harm; not bad; devil at all; not the worst), and prominent conditionals inherited from Irish (I’d be the same; Would you be well?).

Is it a good thing? Well, it is and it isn’t.


15 Responses to Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

  1. BF says:

    The episode with Mr. O’Faolain in the 1930s sounds like a variation of the traditional Spanish (from Don Quijote) “Jo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.”

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Greetings, Stan!
    As an American southerner, I relate well to the human tendency to think “but, and” and/or “no, but also,” not just “either, or,” despite the black and white beliefs of the fundamentalist faith that characterizes the south and me. I wonder how the different beliefs and practices of the different European and African countries influenced the different areas of the eventual USA during colonization. I wonder too how those beliefs and practices were melded or not with the Native American/Indian ones that Europeans and others encountered and often discounted when they arrived. My wondering is not meant to be a request for information; I’m simply reflecting upon your wonderfully interesting post about the Irish. Thanks!.

  3. Clodagh says:

    The litotes you draw attention to at the end of your post goes way back: early Irish literature makes great use of it, and I think shows that it has always been part of the idiom – and, I suppose, psyche. I like the response of a physician in Táin Bó Cúailnge (9th-11th c.) to a warrior’s request for a prognosis after his recent disembowelment: ‘In truth, you should not exchange your grown cows for yearlings now.’

  4. John Cowan says:

    Interrogated by a student whether he agreed with Chairman Mao’s view that a statement can be both true and false at the same time, [philosopher Sidney] Morgenbesser replied “Well, I do and I don’t.” Ambiguity can serve all sorts of subaltern peoples very well indeed.

    I also have to say that those “infamous ramblings” of which O’Toole speaks are actually very good sense, not ramblings at all, and in fact standard engineering doctrine.

  5. Stan says:

    BF: So it does. I wonder if it’s coincidence or subtle influence.

    Vinetta: Your reflections are welcome. I like that human tendency to entertain conflicting ideas, and I suspect it’s better in general to rub them off one another and see what happens. Fundamentalism of any stripe disturbs me; I think we do well to get as comfy with uncertainty as we can, or dare.

    Clodagh: Ah, I am overdue a return to the Táin. That example with the cows is wonderful. You’re right, of course: these linguistic structures have been with us in one form or another for many centuries.

    John: Variations on that true/false statement presumably are quite widespread and occur in many languages, but the frequency with which it’s resorted to in Ireland has long struck me. (Well, it has and it hasn’t.) I agree about Rumsfeld’s lines: they’ve received considerable ridicule, but I always thought they were basically sound. Maybe O’Toole’s feelings about the politician coloured his reaction to the statement.

    • Roger says:

      re O’Toole’s reaction to Rumsfeld: the Plain English group were motivated by the same bias in 2003. They needed a well-known public figure to hang a Golden Bull on. But they were wrong shipped. Rumsfeld’s statement was itself in the plainest of PL; exemplary, even, since it had not a word from anywhere but from Old English.

  6. Roger says:

    Before Rumsfeld, Alexander Haig, Reagan’s man, came in for the same kind of criticism. He denied a leak once in which he called a British diplomat a “duplicitous bastard”. He said the leaked dialogue could not possibly have been his because “it was too clear”.
    Obfuscation: a necessary skill.

  7. Roger says:

    Haig was on camera once, delivering some-or-other booshwah.
    After he delivered he visibly stuck his tongue into his left cheek.
    At least, it was visible to me at home watching tv news. But one reporter that I read either didn’t notice or else ignored the non-verbal point and wrote a standard criticism of administrative bafflegab, unaware or unobservant of the send-up.

  8. Roger says:

    Eisenhower, former president — if you can remember that far back or were even born then — was well known for a meandering vagueness when he spoke publicly. Later, this vagueness turned out to be what at West Point was called “bugling”.
    Bugling sounds like the art of talking without saying anything.
    Cadets probably had to learn it, a survival skill.

    Harry Shippe Truman, on the other hand, was better known for blurting out the truth. He had no use for the mealy-mouthed.

  9. ucronin says:


    I have nominated your blog for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

    More on this nomination is at



  10. Stan says:

    Roger: That’s right; I had forgotten the PEC gave Rumsfeld its Foot In Mouth award for that speech. Go figure.

    Ultan: Many thanks! (For the record: I won’t be propagating the chain.)

  11. This no doubt explains the ability of my spouse (he’s from L’pool, his family from Derry) to say “sure” when asked to do something and then go ahead and do what he pleases instead.

    • Stan says:

      Maybe! Or “Sure” could be just a ritualised acknowledgement that he has heard the request, rather than a confirmation that he’ll fulfil it.

  12. John Cowan says:

    Westerners are often very confused when dealing with people from cultures in which a nod of the head means “Yes, go ahead, I’m listening”; they think they have an agreement when they don’t.

    • Stan says:

      Very true, John. Other paralinguistic and body-behavioural differences between cultures can be similarly misleading and baffling.

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