Header Image

Clare Local Studies Project

   Home | Search this Website | Publications | Copyright Notice | Contact Us
Family and Community in Ireland Book Cover
Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd Edition

An extract from Timothy W. Guinnane, 'Returns, Regrets and Reprints', FIELD DAY
REVIEW, 3, 2007.

A long tradition of writing on rural Ireland has produced its share of classics. Family and Community in Ireland, the product of fieldwork in County Clare in the 1930s, is one of these. Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball presented a comprehensive account of the life of two rural communities and the town of Ennis, including customs and practices related to marriage and sexuality, the transmission of property, the treatment of the young and the aged, etcetera. Their account, although not entirely admiring, reflects a generous sympathy and an effort to understand these Clare people on their own terms.

This CLASP press edition of Family and Community in Ireland is most welcome. The new edition contains a facsimile of the 1968 (or second) edition of the book, along with a new Introduction by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmundson and Tony Varley and a bibliography of works about Arensberg and Kimball and their impact on anthropology in Ireland and elsewhere. Just keeping Arensberg and Kimball in print is justification enough for a new edition. Byrne, Edmundson and Varley's Introduction is a nice bonus: they provide a useful history of the research and some broader context about its inception. Many readers will be aware of Arensberg's earlier volume, The Irish Countryman[1], but even those familiar with the larger project will learn much from the Introduction. Byrne, Edmundson and Varley consulted unpublished papers and sought out Arensberg and Kimball's friends and acquaintances. They also were lucky enough to have the support of Vivian Garrison Arensberg, Conrad Arensberg's widow.

Under the direction of Professor Earnest Hooton of the Harvard Anthropology Department, three teams from three different disciplines began fieldwork in Ireland. In addition to the social anthropology project that resulted in Family and Community in Ireland, the Harvard project sent teams of archaeologists and physical anthropologists. Hooton apparently never visited Ireland during the project, but was overall director and closely involved with the physical anthropology component. Started with a $25,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the project intended to 'attempt a scientific interpretation of a modern nation, the country of origin of more than one-fifth of the population of the United States'[2]. The original plan had been to use all three disciplinary approaches to write an integrated account, but that never took place. The Second World War placed other demands on the researchers (Arensberg, for example, worked for US Army Intelligence during the war) and developments in the social sciences made the original plan seem less compelling. The archaeological findings were published in Irish journals and the physical anthroplogy appeared in a separate volume.

From the start the Harvard teams displayed a keen awareness of the problems they might encounter if they did not cultivate Irish public opinion and tread lightly on Irish sensitivities. The archaeologists sought the blessing and assistance of the keeper of the Irish Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland, Adolf Mahr, and his support remained important to fending off criticism from those who either opposed excavations in general or feared the objects discovered would not remain in Ireland. The physical anthropologists' task was perhaps more delicate. They sought to gather evidence on the 'racial' characteristics of the Irish population, and thus needed, in addition to measures such as height and weight, the full array of cranial and other measures familiar to these studies. The team responsible for taking these measures relied on local authority figures, including priests, doctors and the police, to encourage others to volunteer. One can only guess what the participants would have thought had they known that their measurements would be used to detect the presence of a 'tall, dark, long-headed strain surviving from the Old Stone Age' alongside a 'shorter, dark haired, round-headed element which may have come in during the Bronze Age'[3]. Some declined to participate for more practical reasons; a few apparently assumed the Harvard researchers were working for the Irish government and would use their data to take away old age pensions[4].

A second central figure in the Irish project was William Lloyd Warner, another Harvard anthroplogy professor who was directly responsible for Arensberg and Kimball's research. Warner had studied aboriginal peoples in Australia, but he is most famous for the 'Yankee City' studies, which used the methods of social anthropology to study the people of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Both Arensberg and Kimball had worked on the Yankee City project; as Byrne, Edmundson and Varley remark, Warner's influence can be seen in both the effort to extend the methods of the Yankee City study to another context, and in the selection of the two researchers who would carry out the Irish research. Family and Community in Ireland has little explicitly comparative discussion, but, given its origins, one can understand that it was firmly grounded in a comparative sensibility.

Warner took great care to negotiate the reception of the project in Ireland. Perhaps a more important step was Warner's interview with Eamon de Valera in July of 1932, which resulted in a letter of endorsement for the project. Warner had the tact not to use de Valera's name where it would not help, such as when he met with the bishop of Killaloe, no admirer of de Valera. Kimball later recounted the project's method: '... it was standard procedure to acquaint local religious and political authorities with the objectives of the research and to enlist their support. In no instance was such a request ever denied and there were many among the Irish whose assistance was invaluable'[5]. This is not to say that the Harvard team did not encounter opposition or create ill will. Even in 1992, when Varley interviewed people in the two rural communities Arensberg and Kimball studied, there were bad feelings among the descendants of some of those whom the Harvard team had described less than positively.

Most research monographs enjoy a hardcover edition and, if lucky, appear also in paperback. Only a book that has achieved classic status deserves to be reprinted more than sixty years after its first publication. Family and Community in Ireland certainly qualifies as a full-blown classic. No account of rural Ireland can ignore it and it stands as a landmark in rural ethnography more generally. Yet this classic status poses some problems for readers today.

The first problem reflects not so much what Arensberg and Kimball wrote, as how others have used what they wrote. Arensberg and Kimball dealt with a particular part of Ireland at a particular historical juncture. The Harvard project went to some lengths to decide which area of Ireland was most 'typical', and the selection of Clare on those grounds was deliberate. Subsequent discussion of Family and Community in Ireland has challenged this characterization and at some level it is both fatuous and harmless[6]. The greater problem is that others have pulled the work out of its historical context and tried to view it as applicable to some 'long-ago' rural Ireland that could just as well be the 1860s, the 1930s or the 1960s. There is a serious danger in this, at two levels. First, many social scientists cannot escape the temptation to split human history into a before and an after, a 'pre-modern' and 'modern', and to assume tacitly or explicitly that 'pre-modern' societies do not change. Arensberg and Kimball clearly thought rural Clare was pre-modern and if we follow their claim and the assumptions about modernization, then we have a slippery but convenient line of thought that allows us to assert that their fieldwork could just as well have taken place in 1860s. This just won't do, but we cannot blame it on Arensberg and Kimball. The second problem reflects the assumption that Arensberg and Kimball's Clare is a sort of rural Irish 'benchmark' and that later studies can deduce change over time from how their communities differ from the picture given in Family and Community in Ireland. Byrne, Edmundson and Varley's discussion of this point is especially useful. Hugh Brody, although at points very critical of what he saw as the a-historicism in Family and Community in Ireland, also compared his 'Inishkillane' to the Harvard study as a way of deducing change over time[7]. The temptation is there; we have a classic text about a rural community in the 1930s, and if we want to document 'change and decline' in the same region, we can compare life in our period to life in the 1930s. The problem with this is that, even setting aside any reservations about Arensberg and Kimball, it pulls their Clare study out of its geographic context. What Brody saw as change over time could just as well reflect differences at a given point in time.

In describing the impact of Family and Community in Ireland, Byrne, Edmundson and Varley neglect another literature in which Arensberg and Kimall have figured heavily. Many historians, including myself, have tried to understand Ireland's unusual demographic patterns, especially in the period between the Famine and the 1950s[8]. Probably starting before the Famine, the proportions that ever married rose to very high levels and emigration became a central feature of the demographic system. By the First World War the Irish were relatively unlikely to marry if they remained in Ireland, but had large families if they did marry. The net result was an Irish birth rate too low to offset all the emigration and the Irish population shrank continuously even after the Famine's direct impact was long past, a decline that was reversed for good only in the 1990s. Efforts to understand these patterns have often turned to the institutions of marriage and family-transmission and tried to understand what role they could play in the restriction of marriage to relatively few. The first systematic such efforts were due to Kenneth H. Connell, who relied heavily on folklore record and all but ignored Arensberg and Kimball's work. Later demographic historians, including David Fitzpatrick, Cormac Ó Grada, and myself, have tried harder to extract lessons from the Harvard studies. This latter effort risks the a-historicism criticized above, of course, but the coherent account at the centre of Family and Community in Ireland has probably done more harm than good in coming to grips with Ireland's demographic patterns.

Family and Community in Ireland first appeared in 1940. The editors provide a lengthy if necessarily incomplete bibliography of works about the study and just perusing that list gives some sense of how much fruitful research it has generated. We can best convey that sense of debate here by briefly describing one way in which it encouraged a new line of research. Arensberg and Kimball's account of the structure and dynamics of rural Clare hosueholds is nearly identical to the famous 'stem' family described by Frédéric Le Play[9]. In contrast to a 'nuclear' family, in a stem family system one son brings his bride into his parents' home and the resulting offspring live in that household with their parents and grandparents. The result was, supposedly, a three-generational household that might also include other extended kinsfolk. The stem family played a particular role in the attack Peter Laslett and his colleagues in the Cambridge Group mounted against romantic conceptions of a lost 'extended' family in European history[10]. Arensberg and Kimball's account pre-dated Laslett's work and its status made the Irish stem family a credible exception to the generalization the Cambridge historians were pushing.

Peter Gibbon and Chris Curtin turned to the manuscript census of Ireland for 1911 to ask whether the type of rural family Arensberg and Kimball described was as common as they thought. This effort is precisely what historians and others should have done all along; rather than debate the ideological or other influences of the Harvard researchers, one could simply check other sources for the veracity of the claims made in Family and Community in Ireland. Gibbon and Curtin conclude that the stem family was no myth, but that Arensberg and Kimball had mistakenly over-generalized; the extended family system was most common among a middle range of farmers and was not typical of either the poorest or the wealthiest. David Fitzpatrick later used more of the 1911 census manuscripts, as well as records of landholding, to mount a defence of the account in Arensberg and Kimball[11]. The reader can turn to their publications to make up his or her own mind on the matter; I think Fitzpatrick got it right, but we owe Gibbon and Curtin for raising the question in the first place. More perhaps than they realized, these authors demonstrated what could be done with the 1911 manuscript census schedules, which constitute a rare and valuable historical source[12]. And this debate in Ireland formed an important warning to scholars interested in the history of family structure that the stem family was not the simple myth that Laslett at first claimed it was.

Family and Community in Ireland enjoys a rare place in Irish history and social science. Byrne, Edmundson and Varley have done the world the added service of researching the project's background and helping us to understand how it came about and how it has been received since. For that, they and the press are owed an additional debt of gratitude.


1. Conrad M. Arensberg, The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study (London, 1937).

2. Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd edn., ed. Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmundson and Tony Varley (Ennis, 2001), xix. In 1931, $25,000 had about the same purchasing power as $330,000 in 2006. At later stages in the project Harvard University, private individuals, Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedhael government and de Valera's Fianna Fail government also made financial contributions.

3. Family and Community in Ireland, xxvi.

4. Family and Community in Ireland, xxv.

5. From an unpublished manuscript by Kimball, quoted in Family and Community in Ireland, xli.

6. Chris Curtin and Peter Gibbon argue that Arensberg and Kimball were taken in by a Fianna Fail-inspired romanticism about the Irish countryside and that much of what they say is simply ideological. The possible danger is clear. As the Introduction notes, the Harvard researchers were at times concerned about being in the middle of a renewed civil war. But it seems to me that the real test of whether Arensberg and Kimball were fooled by nationalist propaganda is whether we can verify aspects of their account from other sources. This is what Gibbon and Curtin attempted to do, as I outline below.

7. Hugh Brody, Inishkillane: Change and Decline in the West of Ireland (London, 1973).

8. Timothy W. Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914 (Princeton, 1997).

9. Frédéric Le Play, L'Organisation de la Famille, selon le vrai modele signalé par l'histoire de toutes les races et de tous les temps (Paris, 1874).

10. The best account of the Cambridge view can be gleaned from the chapters collected in Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, eds., Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge, 1972).

11. Peter Gibbon and Chris Curtin, 'The Stem Family in Ireland', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 20, 3 (1978), 429-53; David Fitzpatrick, 'Irish Farming Families before the First World War', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 25, 2 (1983), 339-74. Gibbon and Curtin's parting shot was 'Irish Farm Families: Facts and Fantasies', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 25, 2 (1983), 375-80.

12. My own interest in the 1911 census manuscripts was kindled by reading the debate between Gibbon and Curtin and Fitzpatrick. They were of course not the first to use them for demographic history, but they more fully appreciated what could be done with a source like this.

Back to Family and Community in Ireland
Other Reviews

Journal of Comparative Family Studies,
Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2005

Other Clare,
Vol. 27, 2003

Journal of Marriage and Family,
November 2002

Bealoideas, Journal of the Folklore of Ireland,
Vol. 70, 2002

North Munster Antiquarian Journal,
Vol. 42, 2002

Irish Times,