A snapshot of how Ireland has changed

Tom Inglis, a professor of sociology at UCD, interviewed a cross-section of Irish people for his latest book on what matters to them in life. This is what he found out

Family life is the most important web of meaning for most people, interwoven with those spun with friends and neighbours. The study revealed the importance of place in people’s knowledge and understanding of themselves both in terms of where they had been reared and where they were now living. Photograph: Alan Betson

Family life is the most important web of meaning for most people, interwoven with those spun with friends and neighbours. The study revealed the importance of place in people’s knowledge and understanding of themselves both in terms of where they had been reared and where they were now living. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Republic of Ireland was a homogeneous society and culture. The vast majority of people were white, English-speaking and Catholic. Over the last 50 years, the cultural map of Ireland has changed dramatically. Ireland has become a multinational, cosmopolitan, globalised society.

There has been a shift in the balance of cultural power away from the Catholic Church towards the state and the media. The Catholic Church no longer has a monopoly over morality. Everyday life has become more secularised: people no longer operate in the same Catholic time and space. Social relations have become less formal. The rigid protocols that governed relations between parents and children, men and women and social classes have melted. At the same time, people see and understand themselves as discrete, free, independent individuals who are not bound by the family, community and religion into which they were born.

The results of my study of a hundred people from all walks of life reveal that while there have been many changes in Irish social and cultural life, the vast majority of people are deeply enmeshed in webs of meaning that are spun within families, neighbourhoods and among friends and colleagues. They create strong social bonds that enable people to develop identities and a sense of self.

I interviewed a hundred people from different parts of Ireland, from all walks of life. I obtained a good mix of men and women, young and old, rural and urban and from different social classes. The interviews took place in 2008 and 2009 at the beginning of the economic recession. The goal was to get people to talk as openly and honestly as possible about what was important and relevant to them. The theoretical task was to make sense of their stories, to develop a sense and understanding of them as individuals and, at the same time, to link their lives into wider social structures, the institutional and personal struggles for power and to put these within the context of long-term processes of change. Finally, the task was to find a way of telling their stories that would be relevant and meaningful to a wider audience beyond academics.

The study reveals the creative, dynamic ways in which people use the culture into which they have been socialised to develop new beliefs, values and practices. They develop their own cultural strategies that build into repertoires that enable them to create and maintain a sense of self and their own personal identities. They create webs of meaning in different contexts with different people – from loved ones to strangers – by telling their own stories and listening to the stories of others. It is this flexible, transposable ability to create webs of meaning, some of them strong and long lasting, some of them weak and ephemeral, which form the backbone of everyday social life.

It used to be that the Catholic Church and its teachings and practices were important ingredients in the creation of webs of meaning. The stories that the participants told me about themselves suggest that this is no longer the case except in particular times and circumstances. God and religion are not woven into their everyday lives. There is little or no definite explanation about the meaning of life and little or no certainty about how to live a good life.

People live with ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of God and what happens when you die. As Stephen Young, one of the participants put it : “I’m Catholic, but believing in God is … yeah I suppose I do but … you know when you look at things and you kind of say it’s like a wish, you know …” (p.140).

Like most other people in Ireland, the majority of my participants were brought up as Catholics. And while most no longer fulfilled the teachings, rules and regulations of the Church, many still used Catholic culture to create and sustain meaning, particularly within families and with friends and neighbours. In this way, Irish Catholics have moved from being orthodox, to being cultural and creative in the ways they use Catholic beliefs and values.

Family life is the most important web of meaning for most people. Their everyday lives revolved around other family members, many of whom had died or were living elsewhere, but who preside in their absence. People saw and understood themselves primarily in terms of parents, grandparents, husbands, wives and children.

The strong webs of meaning spun with family members were interwoven with those spun with friends and neighbours. The study revealed the importance of place in people’s knowledge and understanding of themselves both in terms of where they had been reared and where they were now living. However, while they may have lived away for some time, the majority of the participants were living in the area in which they had been born. It is within families and neighbourhoods, using various cultural ingredients, that people recreate the social identities into which they were born (gender, class, religion, nationality and so forth) and their personal identities (occupations, lifestyle preferences, leisure orientations, tastes and pleasures).

For most participants, even in a time of a deep and troubling recession, the importance of money and work was secondary to the webs of meaning spun within the family and neighbourhood. People were anxious to emphasise how earning a living was more a means to maintain bonds with loved ones rather than as an end in itself. Angela Doyle sees success and happiness in terms of her husband and children “once there’s no stresses around me … [and] I just know that the kids … and Martin are happy. That’s what makes me happy.” (p.6)

Similarly, even though it was a time of political upheaval, most people saw politics as a game played by politicians that they followed in the media but which had little relevance to their everyday lives. There were those who were actively involved, either in traditional party politics or promoting particular interests, but for most politics was something to be debated and discussed among family and friends as a means of creating and maintaining webs of meaning.

Finally, the study describes and analyses the extent to which sport has become the new religion in Ireland. For many respondents, it was sport rather than God and the church that was on their minds, in their hearts and on their lips. Participating in, following and talking about sport was for many a major method of creating meaning and maintaining bonds with friends and loved ones. However, there were some who had no interest in sport and others who saw it as the new opium of the people.

Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland: Webs of Significance by Tom Inglis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £60

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