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Family and Community in Ireland Book Cover
Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd Edition

Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2002

Family and Community in Ireland. Conrad M. Arensberg & Solon T. Kimball
(with a new introduction by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson, & Tony Varley).
Ennis, County Clare, Ireland: CLASP Press. 2001. 417 pp. ISBN 1 900545 13 6.
Price: £26 / €33 (hardback).

There can be no doubt that this text constitutes a classic in anthropological literature and in the sociology of the family. Based on fieldwork carried out as part of the Harvard Irish Study in Ireland, 1931-1936, it is an account of life in rural county Clare and in the county town, Ennis. There were three strands to the Irish Study: a survey of the physical anthropology of Ireland by Earnest Hooton, published in 1955; an archaeological survey; and a social-anthropological and economic strand directed by Lloyd Warner of Yankee City fame. Family and Community in Ireland is an account of this third strand.

The book was first published in 1940 and written largely by Conrad Maynadier Arensberg (1910-1997); he was one of the two main field researchers on the social-anthropological aspect of the overall study dealing mainly with life on the small family farms of a number of town lands in County Clare. As a prelude to the main book, Arensberg had published The Irish Countryman (1937) after completing his Ph.D. dissertation. Indeed, the editors of the third edition reported that the first version is better known in the United States than the more substantial Family and Community in Ireland and is still used as a classic ethnographic college text. When published again in 1968, Family and Community in Ireland contained two parts. Part 1 was the original volume that dealt with rural life, whereas Part 2, written largely by Solon Toothaker Kimball (1909-1982), pertained to his fieldwork (also in the 1930s) in the town of Ennis. The edition under review is a facsimile of the 1968 volume, but with a new introduction. This new introduction is by the joint editors, is approximately 90 pages, and constitutes a most valuable and fascinating addition to the text because it is based on considerable new scholarship.

The 1968 volume is a detailed account of many aspects of rural and small town Irish life of 20 years earlier. It deals with the life and work of these communities in terms of the economy, family labour, occupations, markets, inheritance patterns, mobility, and emigration. Even more central, however, are the themes of family and kinship. There is also considerable quantitative economic and demographic data in figures and tables.

Familism is central to the work in that the family is seen to constitute the main organizing and structuring principle in the community. Its centrality as not only a social but also an economic system is evident to the authors: this is clear in their accounts of many of the issues they examine. The very choice of marriage partner is strongly economic; as manifest in the account of the practice of matchmaking, this is a highly instrumental process.

Role relations within the family are portrayed in terms of members’ division of labour, power and authority, and affective relations. The picture that comes across is of, again, quite instrumental relations. Affective bonds seem remarkably inexpressive; even between parents and children there is an uncompromisingly patriarchal authority, and the division of roles is rigidly segregated. The economic dimension of spousal relations is recorded here. The man needed an heir to whom to pass the farm, and the woman needed the economic security of the farm, owning nothing of her own. Arensberg and Kimball recount that the expectation of an heir was so central that, if not met, it might result in the “boy’s” parents getting angry and abusing the bride (p. 131), whereas “The husband has every right to express his displeasure at his wife’s barrenness.” He may be also use violence against her (pp. 131-132). It is even recounted that in the ‘old days’ a man might send his barren wife back to her parents, although this ‘Catholic divorce,’ as it was termed, was rapidly passing in the early 1930s.

The authors stress, however, than this emphasis on fertility is not only economic—its true goal is the continuity of the ‘human nexus’ (p. 131). The significance of this continuity is manifest also in the inheritance practices recorded: “Keeping the family name on the land” is tremendously important, and in view of the smallness of the landholdings—in part a contributor to the Great Famine of the previous century—the farm can pass to only one child. This is the system of impartible inheritance, which maintains the existence of the ‘stem family,’ a much contested phenomenon). This transmission demands an heir; it also represents to a large extent the relinquishment of the father’s economic power and so was often postponed until the inheriting ‘boy’ was in his 40s or 50s. When he inherited and brought in a wife, the remaining siblings had to be dispersed.

Here is one of the least satisfactory aspects of Arensberg’s and Kimball’s account. They portray this issue of land inheritance as relatively unproblematic. According to them, for the siblings (who may continue to work the farm up to the marriage of the inheritor, and are then dispersed) “the special position a brother occupies in this regard is a matter of agreement among them, and easy enough of an adjustment” (p. 63). To those familiar with Irish literature, such insouciance regarding land ownership cannot be accepted as the whole story. Similarly, there is a strong claim made for the integrated and consensual nature of the society on page 46: “The interests and the desires of the individual concur in large measure with the norm, and he (sic) finds reward and pleasure in it.” Tell that to the ‘barren’ wives of Chapter 7!

A putative reluctance to address, or perhaps see, conflictual issues in the society these authors studied has been at the bottom of many critiques of this work. There is an element of romanticism in Family and Community in Ireland, sometimes attributed to the author’s (overtly stated) functionalist approach. That they have nonetheless made a very significant contribution to anthropology and sociology on many grounds cannot be over looked, and this theme is examined in considerable detail in the new introduction.

The introduction is an original contribution. It will be of major interest to any scholar of ethnography; the political, religious, and economic context of the Ireland of the time; the development of the social sciences; or indeed of the work of Arensberg and Kimball themselves and their influences, critics, and supporters. It is written under six main headings and draws on original interviews and correspondence, as well as on the fieldwork notebooks, letters, and other papers of both anthropologists.

The authors of this introduction, Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson, and Tony Varley, initially give a brief account of the Harvard Irish Study and its various strands, informatively locating the anthropological work within it. The first major section focuses on the oft debated issues of tradition and modernity and whether Ireland in the 1930s was a traditional society or already on the path of modernization. It is this section that gives fascinating detail on the cultural, political, economic, and religious issues of the day. The authors go on to discuss and give details of the reports of other visitors to Ireland. Such travelers date back at least 150 years before the Harvard study (excluding the various invasions of Ireland, which of course date from the mists of antiquity to the present day). County Clare in particular was no stranger to the visits of folklore collectors and others.

In the next section the various strands of the Harvard Irish Study are recounted in detail drawing on field notes, letters, and other papers, with special attention to the work of the anthropological strand. This gives valuable insight into the influence of William Lloyd Warner (1898-1970), director of this strand, who was in turn influenced by Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe Browne and had worked with Elton Mayo on the Yankee City studies. Warner was particularly interested in establishing a social anthropology of contemporary industrializing societies, rather than exclusively of ‘exotic’ and so-called primitive communities. He was also concerned to develop more rigorous methodological approaches in the discipline.

The editors of the 2001 volume recount the process of access to the research settings not published in the main book and utilize papers of the fieldworkers and their associates to document this. All of this and the following section would be invaluable to a teacher of ethnographic methods, which are now used not only in anthropological work but also in sociology, history, feminist studies, and other fields.

There follows a thoughtful examination of the claims of Family and Community in Ireland to be a classic text, addressing its theoretical and methodological contributions as well as many of the critical papers to which it has given rise. Among these is the critique by Gibbon that the functionalist perspective of the anthropologists resulted in an ethnography that was “incapable of registering either the presence of processes of class differentiation tied to commercialisation or serious and deep-seated class and intergenerational conflicts” (p. LXVI). It now appears that there was in fact a plan to publish a further volume that would deal with some such issues, but this has not seen the light of day. The penultimate section is a further reassessment of the status of Arensberg and Kimball’s study and it’s critiques, in particular of the theoretical issues raised. The final section is the editors’ summary of what they see as the main aspects of the contents of Family and Community in Ireland.

Overall, this is a wonderful book. Notwithstanding the well-founded reservations of many commentators, the central text by Arensberg and Kimball gives us an interesting, painstaking, and colourful account of an aspect of Irish society of the time. It is a contribution the positive aspects of which the editors acknowledge, describing the authors as putting us in their “debt for the glimpses of a still vibrant small holder society with which they provide us.” (p. LXIX). It is a valuable handbook on the history, practise, and problems of ethnography, and to this the editors have made a significant contribution. In the opinion of this reviewer it is worth having this volume for the introduction alone.

National University of Ireland—Dublin

Back to Family and Community in Ireland
Other Reviews

Field Day Review,
Vol. 3, 2007

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

Other Clare,
Vol. 27, 2003

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

North Munster Antiquarian Journal,
Vol. 42, 2002

Irish Times,