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Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd Edition

Bealoideas, Journal of the Folklore of Ireland, Volume 70, 2002

Family and Community in Ireland. By Conrad M. Arensberg & Solon T. Kimball. With a new introduction by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson and Tony Varley. Ennis, County Clare 2001. CLASP Press, xciii + 417 pp. Figures, Tables, and Maps. Third Edition Hardback.

Family and Community in Ireland is a famous social anthropological study arising from an interdisciplinary research programme undertaken in Ireland in the 1930s known as the ‘Harvard Irish Survey’ (1931-1936). First published in 1940, a second enlarged edition appeared in 1968. The edition of Family and Community in Ireland under review here is a facsimile copy of the 1968 enlarged work and contains all the preliminary data of the earlier editions (vii-xxxiii). It also includes an extensive new bibliography and details of archival and video sources consulted, including the Solon T. Kimball Papers, Columbia University, The Hooton Papers, Peabody Museum Archive, Harvard University, and the Personal Papers of Conrad M. Arensberg in the Vivian G. Arensberg Private Collection, New York, in the production of an important new introduction, by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson and Tony Varley, Department of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway. This substantial introduction (I-CI), discusses, inter alia, the methodological and theoretical significance of the work, the intellectual, cultural, political and economic context in which it was formulated and conducted, the main characters involved, and the organisation and progress of the survey. It also includes a very useful twelve-page summary (LXXX-XCIII) of the main elements of the study. The ‘Harvard Irish Survey’ consisted of three disciplinary strands—archaeology, physical anthropology and social anthropology—and it was co-ordinated by Professor Earnest Hooton (1887-1954), Anthropology Department, Harvard University. The field work for the survey was carried out by a team of American academics who spent various periods of time in Ireland between 1931, when the study commenced, and 1936, when it ended. The social anthropological strand of the study is our main interest here since Family and Community in Ireland was one outstanding product of that survey.

Ireland was considered suitable for a social anthropological study by the ‘Harvard Irish Mission’ as the project was also called, as it ‘presented a distinctive and characteristic variant of western European civilisation and a long, relatively unbroken tradition dating back to pre-Christian and pre-Roman times’ (ibid., xxxi). It was also viewed by the Harvard academics as a society in transition, moving between tradition and modernity, a society with a ‘distinctive culture’, ‘increasing in strength and automony’ (ibid., xxxi). It was a country that had ‘taken a place once again among the free nations of the world’ and deserved ‘to be thoroughly known’ (ibid., xxvi).

The sociologist, W. Lloyd Warner (1898-1970), then at Harvard, and later at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University, was the director of the anthropological strand of the study. He stated that he made a preliminary survey of the twenty-six counties in the summer of 1931 (though it is doubtful that he could have managed to visit each county during this short period) ‘and recommended to Hooton that Clare should be selected as the main site for a detailed study of Irish society, the county being representative in “microcosm” of Ireland as a whole’. It presented a ‘balanced mixture of demographic and social criteria’ and it was ‘a county in which there was a blending of older Gaelic and modern British influences, and one that was neither entirely Gaelic nor entirely English in speech’ (ibid., xiii; XLIV).

The social anthropological field work in county Clare was undertaken by two doctoral students in anthropology at Harvard University, Conrad M. Arensberg (1910-1997) and Solon T. Kimball (1909-1982), under the direction of Professor Warner, then also at Harvard, during the two-year period 1932-1934. The research locations were the town of Ennis where markets and courts were intensively observed , Luogh, in the north-west of the county, Inagh and Corofin in the middle-west, and especially Rynamona (Rinnamona) and Carrownamaddra, in north Clare (LV). The social anthropological strand is the best-known segment of the Harvard Irish study because of two publications in particular which resulted from it—The Irish Countryman. An Anthropological Study by Conrad M. Arensberg (1937) arising from a series of lectures based on his field research in Ireland, delivered by him at the Lowell Institute in Boston in March 1936 (Arensberg, 1937, vii), and the later, and more substantial co-authored work, Family and Commuity in Ireland, by Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball (1940).

In the course of their field work the authors became aware of the central influence of family structure and kinship on community form and life, and this became the ‘principal area of investigation’ (ibid., xxvi). Influenced by ‘the ethnological work of Malinowski and ‘the theoretical formulations of Radcliffe-Brown’ the authors sought to describe ‘aspects of community life among the small farmers of County Clare . . . and the system of ordering family relationships to be found among them’ (xxvi). This they sought ‘to do… as observers of the minutiae of social life’ (ibid., xxix, xxxi). Both works, which were published by Harvard University Press, became classics on the basis of their theoretical and methodological strengths in the study of local communities in the Old World, and the richness and evocativeness of the descriptions of local life in country and town which they contained.

The first edition of Family and Community in Ireland (1940) contained fourteen chapters, thirteen of which dealt mainly with aspects of rural society in county Clare in the 1930s, and Chapter 14 was a conclusion to the work. The authors, who acknowledge in the 1968 edition that ‘a good deal’ of the material had already appeared especially in the Irish Countryman (ibid., xxvii) introduce us to the small farm economy of the Irish countryside noting ‘in how many respects Clare duplicates the various types of agriculture for all Ireland’ (ibid., 11). The emphasis is on what the authors call the ‘complete family’, ‘consisting of father and mother and sons rather than daughters alone’ (ibid., 67), while the term ‘incomplete’ indicates those farms run by bachelors, spinsters, widowers and widows (ibid., 66). The daily, seasonal and annual routine of the male and female members of the farm family, centred on the ‘spatial unit of land and house’, is described in detail and the authors illustrate the importance of common effort during crucial points in the annual agricultural round, when all family members, male and female, including children, contributed to the work in hand, according to their age, sex, and ability. Interfamilial cooperation (‘cooring’, Ir. Comhair) was also expected, and expected to be reciprocated, at tasks such as turf-cutting and at harvest-time.

The farm-family children are described as ‘subordinated’ to their parents and remained ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ until marriage. They were trained in farm and household duties, respectively, by their parents in preparation for marriage and the setting up of farm households of their own. Marriage itself is described by Arensberg and Kimball as a mechanism which united the transfer of farm ownership and economic control by the old couple to the inheriting son or daughter, and the advance to adult status for the marrying couple, in the eyes of their family and the community. The services of a matchmaker were usually employed to negotiate the dowry to be brought in by the bride, or by the groom, if he were marrying in to a farm, in order to ensure social and economic parity between the contracting parties. The introduction of the old age pension which gave a measure of regular financial support to old farm couples, eased the relinquishing of control of the farm and household by the parents. Indeed, it might be added that an old couple in receipt of the old age pension were considered a financial asset in some households. The sibling for whom a dowry was available was in a position to marry, but the other less fortunate family members had to ‘travel’ and make a new life for themselves outwith the family farm.

For Arensberg and Kimball, therefore, emigration, which was accounting for the departure of about one-third of the population by the 1920s, had become a ‘traditional movement’ enabling both landless family members, and the traditional family structure and the rural culture which supported it, to survive. Emigration was also viewed as a factor in the ageing profile of the population in the 1930s. Other reasons are mentioned below.

A primary concern of the new family created at marriage was the birth of children as this was necessary to preserve family unity and its identification with farm and household in the future. Hence the oft-reported displeasure with the woman who was barren, graphically expressed by some women as follows:

No matter how much money you have and how good-looking you are, if you don’t have children, you’re no good. But if you’re ugly as the worst and have children you are all right (ibid., 131).

The man wants children because he is afraid others will tell him he is no good if he hasn’t any. Children are the curse of the country, especially if you haven’t any (ibid., 132).

Indeed, the harshness of country sentiment against a barren wife, or against a young widow without issue, persisted well beyond the 1930s. Both were expected, in accordance with social custom, to accept repayment of their dowry and to return to their families. It should also be pointed out, however, that where a husband had married into land (cliamhain isteach) he, too, was expected to return to his people on being refunded his dowry, if no children were born of the marriage after a reasonable period of time. This review recalls that such situations still pertained elsewhere in county Clare in the late 1950s. In such cases the land might be transferred to a nephew or other male relative in order to keep it within the family group. Arensberg and Kimball state the matter succinctly as follows:

The country districts recognize only vaguely the right of a woman to hold property. The patrilineal identification of family and land is incompatible with it. Whatever farm a woman works or controls is regard as a trust for a son or brother of her husband or father (ibid., 133).

The social evaluation of age and status is dealt with in detail in Chapters nine and ten. While emigration was seen as contributing to the large proportion of the aged in the community, longevity was also viewed as an important factor. Arensberg and Kimball were of the opinion that the old people ‘live long because they have much to live for. In their own sphere of life, they are honoured. They have power’ (ibid., 162). Many examples of the deference afforded the old people are given in the evocative description of the community of Rynamona (Rinnamona, parish of Kilnaboy) largely penned by Arensberg and much of which had already appeared in The Irish Countryman (1937). In particular, the relative importance of the informal evening gatherings called cuaird, of the older men, in which matters pertaining especially to agriculture, including innovations in that context, and community attitudes to internal and external matters, were debated and responses to them formulated, is ably presented by the authors. By comparison the gatherings of the younger men, concerned mainly with recreation, and those of a third group characterized as intermediate or transitional, were of less import.

The second edition of the work which appeared in 1968 included six new chapters dealing with town life, specifically that of the people of the town of Ennis. The book is thus presented in two parts—‘Part One. The Countryside’ and ‘Part Two. The Town’. While the emphasis of the earlier edition on the behaviour and social organisation of the small farmers, and especially on the influence of family structure and kinship in that context, remains, the work is also concerned with the position of the family in the urban setting, its role in the economic, educational, religious, and political institutions of the town, patterns of social class, and, especially, the connection and discontinuities between countryside and town (ibid., ix).

The wealth of new information provided by the personal papers of Arensberg, Kimball and Hooton, and interviews with locals who could recall the progress of the survey, are used to admirable effect by the authors of the new introduction, to show how the ‘Harvard Mission’ leaders went about the task of introducing their project to the people of Ireland and ensuring its success. They made extensive and skilful use of the media and established contact with, and secured the approval and cooperation of, the leaders of church and state, civil servants, leading academics, the local bishop and members of the clergy, public representatives, the Garda Síochána, members of the legal profession, teachers, publicans and so on.

Of particular interest to folklorists and ethnologists is the role played by Séamus Ó Duilearga who was instrumental in the selection of Luogh, where some of the older people still spoke Irish, as a research location for the anthropologists. It was an area still largely steeped in tradition yet not untouched by modernity. In the first edition of the work Arensberg and Kimball credit him with having ‘paved our way among the country people. (xvi). Ó Duilearga’s association with the Harvard team continued throughout the study and he was invited by the Anthropological Department at Harvard University to give a series of lectures there on Irish Folklore in 1939.

Indeed, Ó Duilearga was no stranger in north Clare in the early 1930s. He had been visiting the area since 1929 in search of traditional storytellers. During his visits he stayed in the house of John Carey (Seán Carún), and this family also played host initially to Arensberg during his stay in the area. Indeed, he was expected to behave in an Ó Duilearga-like fashion—working late into the night and rising late in the morning—no doubt to facilitate morning work in the house (LII). Ó Duilearga regarded Stiofán Ó hEalaoire (Stephen Hillery) as one of the best storytellers in the Irish language that he had ever met, and he collected his repertoire during his visit to the locality (Ó Duilearga [eag.], Leabhar Stiofán Uí Ealaoire, Baile Átha Cliath, 1981). He wrote to Stiofán to recommend Arensberg, who was in search of fairylore, to him. In The Irish Countryman (1937), Arensberg gives an evocative description of Luogh, of Stiofán Ó hEalaoire and his dwelling, and of the Carey household, as he observed them during his visit (ibid., 19-22; LI-LIV).

It is also of interest to note that the ‘Harvard Irish Survey’ was not the only international cultural ‘mission’ to Ireland at the time—a decade after the foundation of the sate, when concerted efforts were afoot to collect and document the folklore and folklife of Ireland. In 1934, Séamus Ó Duilearga had brought the Swedish ethnologist Åke Campbell (Uppsala) to Cill Rialaigh, county Kerry, to document the way of life of the storyteller, Séan Ó Conaill, whose repertoire he had collected during the period 1923-1931 (Ó Duilearga [eag.], Leabhaar Sheán Ì Chonaill, Baile Átha Cliath 1948, 1977; Séan Ó Conaill’s Book, translated by Máire MacNeill, Dublin 1981). In 1935, two Swedish ethnologists— Åke Campbell of Uppsala, once more, and Albert Nilsson (Eskeröd) of Lund, came on a ‘Folk-Life Mission’ to Ireland at the invitation of the Irish Folklore Commission, to make a survey of Irish rural farmhouses. Among houses surveyed by Nilsson in north Clare was the dwelling of Stiofán Ó hEalaoire. The organization of the survey, including the use of the media (newspapers and radio) to publicize the work of the ethnologists, and the recourse to local contacts for assistance, is reminiscent of the elaborate negotiation of the research setting and management of the project document for the Harvard survey (Patricia Lysaght, ‘Swedish Ethnological Surveys in Ireland 1934-5 and their Aftermath’, in H. Cheape [ed.], Tools and Traditions. Studies in European Ethnology Presented to Alexander Fenton, Edinburgh 1993,22-32.)

An assessment of the importance of the work of Arensberg and Kimball from social anthropological and sociological perspectives is undertaken in the new introduction to the volume. Writing in the 1968 edition of The Irish Countryman (p. 10), Arensberg himself emphasized the distinctiveness of that work and also of Family and Community in Ireland, stating that the texts

. . . were the first of the cultural-anthropological studies, now so widely distributed, to cross the ocean to the Old World of Europe and high civilisation (quoted in Arensberg and Kimball, 2001, LVIII).

And the value of these studies has also increased as the way life observed and analysed by Arensberg and Kimball in rural Ireland the 1930s, has all but disappeared.

Arensberg and Kimball are still remembered in county Clare— positively by those whose forbears were favourably characterized in print (ibid., LVI)! Both had ‘successful careers as innovative and influential pioneering anthropologists, careers that began to take shape in the narrow streets and crowded markets of Ennis and in the fields and homes among the limestone crags of rural Clare’, in the 1930s (LIX).

The Irish Countryman was republished in the United States by Waveland Press in 1968. clasp Press is to be congratulated for making Family and Community in Ireland readily available to the academic and general public in Ireland. The volume is well produced and is greatly enhanced by its authoritative new introduction.


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