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Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd Edition

Journal of Comparative Family Studies,
Vol. 36, Number 2 (Spring 2005), pages 343-344

Arensberg, Conrad M. & Solon T. Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland (3rd ed. with a new introduction by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson, & Tony Varley) Ennis, County Clare, Ireland: CLASP Press, 2001, 417pp., 33.00 euro, hardcover.

Reviewed by: Rudy Ray Seward, Department of Sociology, University of North Texas, Denton, TX 76203-1157, USA.

Anyone who has read about the Irish family or comparative family studies over the last 60 years should be acquainted with this classic. This edition contains previously unpublished background and evaluative information in its introduction. The book is based upon the first in-depth study of Irish families conducted in the early 1930s by two anthropological doctoral students as part of the Harvard Irish Study. The results of their Social Anthropological Survey of rural families in County Clare were first published in 1940. The patriarchal authority, stem-extended families and inheritance patterns, arranged marriages, and co-operative kin and neighbor networks portrayed contrasted sharply with most contemporary descriptions of families and community in other western nations.

This first all encompassing treatment of Irish families received international attention and became the most common historical reference cited for Ireland. Many scholars considered the book a “classic” and their portrayal of the Irish family as “definitive.” The acceptance of their portrayal was both broad and enduring. Damien Hannan, the Irish sociologist and family scholar who devoted a good deal of research effort to assessing their portrayal and updating it, has noted that their work was continuously reproduced as being typical of Irish families for much of the Twentieth Century. Its definitive status was bolstered by the publication of the second edition in 1968 that extended their earlier claim that Ireland was “very homogeneous indeed.” The six chapters they added to this edition described the families in the town of Ennis as being very similar to those found in the countryside. In the late 1940s, a study of Dublin families by Alexander J. Humphreys’ essentially complemented their portrayal. Humphreys in his 1966 book, New Dubliners: Urbanization and the Irish family, used Arensberg and Kimball’s family descriptions as a baseline. He found a “radical continuity” between their families and his urban families and he detected no ideological and only modest organizational differences.

The original intent of William Lloyd Warner, Director of the Harvard Irish Study, was to select an area that was nationally representative of Ireland. After he surveyed all 26 counties in the Irish Free State in 1931, Warner recommended County Clare as being “representative ‘in microcosm’ of Ireland as a whole” (p. XLIV). This bolsters claims of the survey’s inclusiveness but it is not the whole story. Only readers of this edition will get this informative insight and others on the selection of County Clare.

Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson, and Tony Varley used a wide variety of sources including original field notes, letters, and other papers to address a number of important issues in their introduction. These include how traditional was Irish society in the 1930s, what other outsiders observed in County Clare, where this study fits in the three pronged Harvard Irish study, how the study unfolded, what supported and challenged its classic status, and why the theoretical perspective applied needs reassessment. The introduction’s 101 pages are packed with new insights and previously unpublished details. It could easily stand alone as a scholarly monograph on this classic.

The myriad challenges directed at Arensberg and Kimball’s portrayal of families also attest to its unequaled status. Peter Gibbon’s contention in 1973 that their account ranged from the “inaccurate to the fictive” touched off an intense and lengthy debate on the validity of their work. Many assessments argued that their portrayal had limited historical and regional applicability. Most agreed that the stem-families were stronger and resilient longer on the small farms on poor land in the west. Hannan’s analysis of census data, ethnographic studies, and an intensive survey of farm families indicated that their portrayal was valid primarily for western rural Ireland before the 1950s. A few have claimed that despite its emotional appeal and the wide spread practice of farms and small businesses being worked by family members, stem-extended families were never typical anywhere in Ireland. David Fitzpatrick’s detailed evidence on households from census reports and schedules before 1941 suggest that many Irish families were extended and a sizable proportion were stem-extended. The debate continues.

This edition with its erudite introduction will attract old and new readers and contribute to the “passions” (p. LXIX) generated by this book. It makes a significant contribution to family scholarship in Ireland and the world.

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