WHICH of our European neighbours do you think you know the least about? I’m afraid I’m beginning to think that in my case it’s the Republic of Ireland.

The reason is I’m currently reading Fintan O’Toole’s new book, his personal history of Ireland since the year of his birth, 1958. I’m only a hundred and odd pages in and it seems that on every page there is revealed something I didn’t know about the country next door. The book is called We Don’t Know Ourselves. In my case it’s becoming evident that it’s more a case of We Don’t Know Our Neighbours.

Some of the details the Irish Times columnist and author reveals are savage, some of them mordantly amusing. When Edna O’Brien’s debut novel The Country Girls was banned by Ireland’s Censorship of Publications Board in June 1960 it was just one of 35 books targeted on the same day. Others included novels by Alberto Moravia and James T Farrell. Oh, and a book entitled Diana Dors in 3D.

And Ireland didn’t get its own TV station until 1961. “This was very late,” O’Toole writes. “Albania got its own television station before Ireland did.”

But it’s the bigger picture that keeps you reading. O’Toole analyses the theocratic nature of the state in its early years (I’m guessing that the Catholic Church is not going to come out of the rest of the book well) and its relationship with the UK, and Northern Ireland in particular.

At heart, though, it’s an investigation of the arrival of modernity in Ireland and just how much upheaval it caused.

Read More: Northern Ireland at 100 For Scottish readers O’Toole’s account of the economic teething troubles of independence may be of particular interest given our own ongoing conversation on that very subject, though it might also be noted that for O’Toole (and most Irish people, I would imagine) the pros and cons of independence are not something to be even thought about anymore. Independence is just a fact of life.

HeraldScotland: Fintan O'TooleFintan O'Toole

Reading the book has also made me think a little about our knowledge deficit when it comes to the countries we share the continent with. It’s a truism to say we are much more interested in the UK about what happens in Ohio than Oslo, say, or in Los Angeles than in Lisbon.

In part, that is a symptom of a shared language of course. It is also a reflection of the UK’s obsession with the political “special relationship” that speaks to our desire to hang onto the coat tails of global power. (Because, once upon a time …) It would be wrong to suggest that the British media ignores our European neighbours. Last weekend’s coverage of the German elections proves otherwise. And, no doubt, next year’s French Presidential election will also get a fair crack of the whip, if only for the Brexity possibilities of Paris-London argy-bargy.

But that’s the danger. We too often see what is happening in Europe through our own prism. On the Today Programme on Monday morning Nick Robinson spoke to German Christian Democrat David McAllister. Robinson was particularly concerned that the closeness of the vote meant that the formulation of a new German coalition government might take months. For McAllister it was just the reality of the German system.

In Scotland we are becoming used to how proportional representation adds complexity to election results, but for those schooled in the Westminster first past the post model that can seem alien.

Yet, given that the devolved governments in the UK are coalitions (or in the case of Wales require co-operation), should that really be the case anymore?

Sometimes we need to lift our eyes and look about us. News from elsewhere helps us do that.

Anyway, I’m off back to read about Thin Lizzy and the GAA.

We Don't  Know Ourselves: A Personal  History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintain O'Toole, Head of Zeus, £25