Into the West – Romanticism in Irish rural sociology

Romanticism in rural sociology stems, in many ways, from the cultural idealism which the rural has had lumbered upon it. This essay attempts to outline the impact of this idealism on the sociological view of the rural, the prevalence of romanticism with regard to rurality, and to illustrate attempts to negate this romanticism. I hope to show that romantic Ireland, far from being dead and gone, is a fiction firmly lodged in the modern mindset and in sociological frameworks.

The rural has not always been romanticised by any means. In fact, Karl Marx pitied those forced to live in the “idiocy of rural life”(Slater, 1995:5). In fact it would be safe to conjecture that romanticism in the form that plagues rural sociology is traceable only post-eighteenth century, where the ideological revolution against the regulations of the Enlightenment led to the proposition that Arcadia was centred in the simplistic, virtuistic countryside. Suddenly the Industrial Revolution was being challenged by “the romantic version of rural life” which “defined it as being more profound and fulfilling than urban life, and more harmonious and virtuous”(Slater, 1995:2). The poets of the Lake District were illustrating the Zeitgeist when they lost themselves in the poetic bosom of the country. The desire of this period to study other cultures led to a veritable barrage of literary texts examining the “Other”, such as Kipling’s “Kim” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Even Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, while clearly describing fictitious lands, was playing into the hands of those fascinated by “the Other” and clearly recognised that “Their time is not Our time, and Their space is not Our space”(Peace, 1987:94). Soon there was a general mourning for the loss of Durkheimian mechanical solidarity through spiraling urbanisation, while the work of Tonnies began to be misrepresented so as the rural was positively teeming with Gemeinschaft relationships (Slater, 1995: 7). This led to the creation of a rural pedestal that the modern tourist still attempts to gaze upon.

As Gibbon, in his utter annihilation of a romantic study, is quick to express “The problem with ‘real’ communities is that they are never actually observed – they are always (coincidentally) going out of existence”(Gibbon, 1973:486). Arensberg and Kimball’s arrival in Co. Clare in the early thirties has done much to ensure that the death rattle of the West of Ireland reverberates through most of Irish sociology. It is unfortunate that such a thoroughly excellent ethnographic study as their Family and community in Ireland should have been held aloft as epitomising the culture of the nation when, not only was their study intended to reflect on Clare alone, but it was meant merely as an illustration of the usefulness of their structural-functionalism framework.

What Arensberg and Kimball found in rural Ireland etipomises the result of studying the ‘cultural Other’, as their fascination with cultural values permeates the work, in which “an ensemble of ethnographic facts, most of high curiousity value, is ordered to demonstrate how customary codes and norms, many of which seem irrational, can nevertheless reproduce a rational social order”(Peace, 1987:90). The fact that they are focusing on one segment of one social strata in their focus on the small farmers of Co. Clare appears to escape the myriad of studies trailing in their wake. Hillary Tovey expresses her concern that “for most of its development rural sociology in Ireland simply took for granted that ‘rural’ means ‘agricultural’ and that a sociology of rural Ireland must be first and foremost a study of farming”(Tovey, 1992:97). Nowhere is this more clearly recognised than in Arensberg and Kimball’s pioneering work, and it is deeply regrettable that they brought about the pursuit of the culture of Lough in all of Ireland. Granted, at the time of their study over sixty-three percent of Ireland’s population was living in rural areas, and the value of agricultural produce was nearly twice that of industry (Frankenberg, 1975:36). Still, it appears a testimony to their separation from the area that they were able to delude themselves that they were looking upon a society in ‘splendid isolation’, where “the forces operative within the structure are of such a nature as to allow the society of which they are a part to continue to function in essentially similar fashion through the welter of economic, political and other events”(A&K, 2nd ed., 1966:150). Understandably, this was not the case, and yet the absence of this continuity threw the field of rural sociology into disarray.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Arensberg & Kimball discovered a medley of colourful traditions, a joyful acceptance of patriarchialism, and an almost spiritual bond holding communities together, since romantic notions of Ireland had dogged descriptions of rural Ireland for generations. ‘Real’ Ireland had crept like a wounded dog from its Golden Vale location of the early nineteenth century, where writers such as Charles Kickham and Justin McCarthy had placed it, and collapsed in a heap in the West of Ireland during the literary revival of the 1890’s. Gibbon expounds on this, and how “ ‘real’ Ireland arrived…(about to be ‘lost’ of course)…and remained there (expiring) while the governments of the post independence years tried desperately to revive it” (Gibbon, 1973:485). As the urban world fantasised about retreating to the west “where peace comes dropping slow”, a sense of community supported Peig as she buried one appallingly named child after another. The trauma felt at the prolonged death scene supposedly being played out in the west is revealed in the romantic titles and subtitles of sociological works – ‘The Vanishing Gael’; ‘Change and Decline in the West of Ireland’; ‘The Life and Last Days of an Island Community’; ‘The Last Place God Made’ to name but a few (Peace, 1987:94). Little wonder then, that the essentially ‘tourist’ researchers should find much to fascinate in Co. Clare.

What is surprising is the veritable flock of followers that their study accumulated. Thomas Wilson sounds positively disturbed as he recounts the findings of the “many ethnographers, who also eagerly looked for ‘Clare’ culture throughout Ireland”(Wilson, 1984:6). What had been found in Clare had “led anthropologists to caricature Ireland as a dying society, a culture in demise, a social system characterised by pathogenic tendencies”(Peace, 1987:89), and therefore any failure on behalf of further studies to discover an Arensberg-esque culture was quickly explained away as a classic depiction of Durkheimian anomie. These studies “expected a homogenous culture and expected their studies to proceed from the assumed state of social life” (Wilson, 1984:3) and they were almost invariably disappointed. Hence we have works such as Brody’s Inishkillane, where he is quick to stress that “12 of the 231 households in Inishkillane contain people suffering from mental illness associated with isolation and concomitant depression…”(Brody, 1973:100). He then proceeds to graphically case study one Joseph Murphy’s descent into madness. One cannot help but pity Joseph Murphy and yet we are overwhelmed by the impression that his madness is merely imagery used to illustrate the mania of abandoning the rural way of life. Brody depicts a loss of solidarity in the community as a result of the decline in patriarchialism, the reliance on tourist affirmation of their status, and isolation compounded by the advent of rural electrification and resulting exposure to mass media. Certainly, “the restructuring of Irish rural society cannot occur without casualties and costs to individuals and communities” (Curtain et al, 1996:83), and Brody sees the outside world as having infiltrated his precious Arcadia with a view to restructure, and in the process destroy.

It becomes increasingly clear as one progresses through Inishkillane that parallels are being drawn between ‘traditional’ and ‘good’, and all the modern touches that have altered the traditional society are negative. It is clear Brody feels that the traditional community was a “caring and vibrant place which catered for the old and properly socialised the young: it was not economically prosperous but it was socially conscious”(Peace, 1987:94). Brody is not alone in this view, Peace identifies the Scheper-Hughes study on mental illness in Ireland as one which offers “a melange of impressions and images of an Arcadian universe pivotally constructed on ‘intense familism’… There was then once a healthy and robust culture whilst today there is an anomic and disabled one” (Peace, 1987:100).

Coming to rural sociology with a rather cynical eye, it is hard not to quote each word of two truly groundbreaking deconstructings of rural romanticism, namely Gibbon’s “Arensberg and Kimball revisited…” and Peace’s “From Arcadia to Anomie…”. Gibbon’s review of Inishkillane explodes Brody’s entire argument in one fell swoop, stating that “none of the novel ‘changes’ which Brody identifies is novel at all. All that they are novel in relation to is Irish rural society as it was romantically depicted by Arensberg and Kimball” (Gibbon, 1973:491). Out of context this is not especially harsh, but one must realise that he had just blown the A&K study out of the water. By revealing just how shallow their supposed trench of tradition was (such fundamental requisites to their ‘familial’ society as intense patriarchialism were shown only to be in place post Famine), and by exposing the underlying instability of the economy at the time, the last bastion of ‘traditional’ society emerges as a house of cards. Gibbon cites statistics showing that during the three-year period of their study the number of agricultural holdings in the lower category (under 15acres) decreased by 17.3% from 3195 in 1930 to a mere 2633 in 1933 (Gibbon, 1973:486). Their beloved ‘cooring’ is exposed as being a mechanism working to ‘the big guys’ advantage, while patriarchialism couldn’t possibly have been as close to the community’s heart as they suggested since for the children of less well-off peasantry “it represented nothing more than subjugation to indefinite and arduous unpaid labour with no foreseeable compensatory reward”(Gibbon, 1973: 490). This falls neatly into place with Hannon’s assertions that what kept the community cooring was not any deep love but a fear of being ostracised for having attempted to ‘rise above your station’. Supposedly ‘modern’ values were thus suppressed by ‘the system ideals…which would have defined the individualistic competitiveness of more commercially-orientated farmers as selfishness of greed”. So thoroughly convinced are we that we have been sucked in by an account which “ranges from the inaccurate to the fictive”(Gibbon, 1973:491), that we may be forgiven for echoing Yeatsian disillusionment with the ideal Irishman – he is “a man who does not exist, a man who is but a dream”.

Peace is more inclined to see cultural studies as a self reflective exercise, and reinforces the belief that cultural studies should be conducted from within a society, as “Social anthropology about any Other is never exclusively about Them: it is recurrently about Us also”(Peace, 1987:89). For him, the evolutionary perspective prevalent today explains our desire to preserve the traditional values still visible in places such as the west of Ireland as “the authentic Celt is increasingly conceptualised as a member of an Other population who epitomises in the present Our historical past”(Peace, 1987:91). This certainly seems valid in light of the many ‘quest for identity’ tourists Ireland receives each year. “Rural Ireland as an issue is not just about our past identity, it is also about our future”(Slater, 1995:2). Romanticism appears to have revamped itself in the guise of conservational and environmental issues, and though we may have exploded Arensberg and Kimball’s particular study, a nagging doubt that urban sprawl and dense smog must have an Arcadian rural flipside appears to remain.

© Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blogs author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathy Geagan and ‘A Slice of Hope’ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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