An amateur anthropologist: gender, emigration and politics in my home county

The Harvard anthropologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball came to Ireland in the 1930s to study rural communities in Co Clare. What has changed since then?

Close to 90 years ago two young Harvard University anthropologists, Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, arrived in the west of Ireland and for several years lived among the people of Ennis and north Co Clare.

At a time when much energy was being devoted in Dublin to the formation or reformation of Irish culture and identity, many of the small farmers and townspeople the young Americans met were tied to a distinctly traditional way of life.

The pair wrote about the people they met in Family and Community in Ireland. The book, which became something of a go-to text for anthropologists for 50 years, showed how interdependent family and community were in 1930s Ireland and how the group held sway over the individual, often at significant personal cost.

Some of the families were unhappy with the way the book had named and observed their relatives, as if they were a primitive tribe. But, as the sociologist Anne Byrne notes, Arensberg and Kimball’s work “presents a view of the ‘Old World from the inside’ by two ‘outsiders’ from the ‘New World’. It is ‘a document expressing a point of time in the social life of rural Ireland’.”


So what is community life in rural Ireland today, where we hear of neighbours reduced to passing each other in cars, post offices and pubs are closing down, and a generation has chosen a life away from the soil?

I recently spent several weekends in Clare, my home county, immersing myself in the lives of its people and communities for a radio series. Themes quickly emerged: emigration, rural decay, isolation, belonging, gender, local stereotypes, and a feeling of alienation from political decision making. And although the 1930s Ireland that Arensberg and Kimball studied was in no way a static society, it does feel as if the way people live together has changed fundamentally in only a few generations.

I found the ties that once bound people to place and to expected roles are now very loose. Many farmers and shop owners told me that they discouraged their children from taking on their businesses. In one case a farm had been passed down but the elderly parents took on a caretaker role while their son had a different life and career in Dublin. In the 1930s sons and daughters put their lives on hold until they inherited or were given the family land, business or career.

Arensberg and Kimball encountered an Ireland where emigrants had been streaming out of the country since the mid-19th century; there was a pause only in 1932, when “for the first time for at least a century, more Irishmen returned than left the country”. The scars of emigration were evident in the high proportion of unmarried men (and to a lesser extent women) whom they met. Few recent Irish emigrants have moved to Bondi because they were in danger of not marrying, but there is no escaping the emotional impact emigration has had on rural Ireland over the past decade.

And this despite the fact that emigration is more a comma than a full stop now, with annual return visits more the norm than the exception. Still, fathers told me that they couldn’t look their children in the eyes in the weeks before their departure, and a digitally savvy grandmother, who can speak to her daughter in the United States each day, said that this closeness made the separation more difficult.

Arensberg and Kimball described women’s role in rural Ireland largely through observation, as male voices dominated. “Women, be silent while we are talking about ploughing,” the authors say they heard men tell women several times. Women were given the task of milking cows mainly because of their “smaller hands”.

Meeting a group of transition-year students in Rice College, in Ennis, it was refreshing to hear confident young girls speak about how little gender informed their life choices. And, although pay can still be unequal, they expressed a sense of freedom to pursue careers and explore other horizons in a way that would have been alien to their grandmothers and perhaps even to their mothers.

But society still exerts significant pressure on young women. In a bar in Ennistymon the 13-year-old granddaughter of the matchmaker Willie Daly talked about the way they carefully hone their image online – and the way their status derives from how many Facebook likes they have. The pressure to look and behave a certain way, to have Nicki Minaj's backside or to display Geordie Shore-style promiscuity was causing many young girls Eva knew to self-harm.

Perhaps the biggest question rural Ireland has to answer is how a sense of community will survive accelerating urbanisation. In Kilnaboy, locals said that when the post office closed it felt like a dagger through the heart of the community. A place of conversation, of social interaction, had been removed, harming neighbourliness and a sense of belonging. Not to be deprived, and led by the artist Deirdre O’Mahony, they reclaimed the space, and it became an artistic and creative focal point for interrogating what it means to be part of a community in rural Ireland today.

The lesson perhaps is that, as schools, Garda stations, rural pubs and transport services come under pressure, community cannot be assumed any more. In some cases it has to be forced.


On women's duties: "She must rake together such live ashes as remain in the slaked turf fire in the hearth, put down new sods for the fire, and rekindle the blaze. For the rest of the day she must keep the hanging kettle ready, for at any moment of the day she may be called upon to serve a cup of tea to her husband, children and any visitors."

On male interaction: "No work is too pressing to prevent the countryman from stopping on the road to pass the time of day. In the rural community such personal communication is an indispensable bridge across the social and physical space separating farm from farm."

Quoting an old man on diet: "The people in the old times had great teeth and, when they died, they would have every one left in their heads. Their teeth would be stronger than a horse's. When the people ate potatoes and bread three times a day, they were healthier and lived to a ripe old age. Now with all the better food they are not as well."

The Ties That Bind, presented by Brian O'Connell and coproduced by Grey Heron Media, will be on RTÉ Radio 1 from December 27th to 30th, at 3pm each day