Since the 1990s, anthropologists working in Ireland have increasingly concerned themselves with ideas of class and class relations. Previously, the central themes were rural life, community, kinship and social structure. In 1932 Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball undertook a two-year study of small communities in Co. Clare. The resultant publications, An Irish Countryman (1937) and Family and Community in Ireland (1940), cast a long shadow. By the 1980s a caricature of Ireland had developed in anthropology. The Republic had become a kind of Western ‘other’, a mystical island of the ‘vanishing Gael’, ‘a dying society, a culture in demise, a social system characterised by pathogenic tendencies’ (Wilson 26).
A critical break from the Arensberb/Kimball template appeared in 1993 with Irish Urban Cultures, a collection of essays dealing with subjects such as factory life in Gilford/Dunbarton from 1825 to 1914, the urban place in rural Ireland from 1841 to 1989, homelessness, suburban lives, and local politics. The book was a direct challenge to the ‘two gate-keeping concepts in Ireland, those of the dying peasant community and those of the two tribes of Northern Ireland’ (Curtin, Hasting, Donnan 12).
One of the contributors to Irish Urban Cultures was the Canadian anthropologist Marilyn Silverman, who is a strong critic of Irish (and Irish labour) historiography. In the introduction to Approaching the Past (1992), Silverman, along with P.H. Gulliver, argued that ‘Irish history was an amalgam of local and regional events combined to create a unified and coherent whole held together by nationalist (and later, revisionist) ideology’ (Silverman and Gulliver 6). In other words, instead of a history based on the way society, culture and economy operated, historians used a skeletal, nation/state structure on which they hung ‘the facts’.
Silverman and Gulliver had undertaken a study of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, and found that certain categories of people never made it into Irish history – including the rural industrial proletariat of millers, brewers, tanners, maltsters, and self-employed artizans. They discovered cultural ideas and political and economic organizations on which Irish historiography was silent. ‘Clearly, Irish historians’ they wrote, ‘in their concern with events related to their own topical and chronological agenda, had constructed their own very partial version of society’ (Silverman and Gulliver 8). Silverman expanded on these findings in 2001 with An Irish Working Class, which involved the use of three distinct methodological templates: anthropological approaches to local-level political activity, Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, and Thompson’s notion of class experience. It is in stark contrast to the rigid Rankian methodologies of the majority of Irish political, economic, industrial, and labour, historians.
Silverman’s approach is not unique. In 1986 the Australian anthropologist, Eipper, produced The Ruling Trinity, a study of Bantry, Co. Cork, with particular regard to its oil refinery and associated businesses. Eipper’s work is unashamedly Marxist, and as with Silverman, draws heavily from Thompson. Eipper rejects the stratificationist approach of most Irish sociological and historical studies, in favour of a class relations framework. Quoting Thompson, he writes that ‘as a delineation of modes of social relationship, [class] possesses “a fluency which evades analysis” if not approached from an historical analysis’ (Eipper 11).
Class, in order to be understood, needs to be analysed in motion, that is, over time, and it needs to be grasped in both ideological and material terms. It reveals itself not only through the economic relations of capital and labour, but also through societal relations. Similarly, the local town, the micro level, can only be understood when it is seen that the macro-level structures and class relations do not impinge from outside, but rather are interwoven with the very fabric of the local community and parish. ‘A central feature of the nexus between church, state and business in Éire is that it has been forged and exerts its influence simultaneously locally as well as nationally’ writes Eipper. ‘In fact, the nexus is itself a product of, and in turn reproduces, the complex but continuous imbrication of nationally-general and locally-specific forces and events’ (Eipper 3).
Given that such an ideological and theoretical framework is out of step with the mainstream of Irish academic discourse, it is not surprising that the class relations revealed in Holy Trinity bear but little relation to the former’s virtually classless, but nonetheless socially stratified, world.
Eipper found that the national and transnational business interests which operated in Bantry were a reflection of the wider picture. His study revealed an Ireland where capitalist reproduction, government and religion were interlocked, where ‘their evolution and their futures were functionally coupled, and that because of this, changes within and between them were extremely important for the cohesion of the ruling bloc locally’ (Eipper 188).
As with Silverman, Eipper found that the hegemonic influence of this bloc was such that it was able to present its interests as representative of the interests and objectives of everybody. What was good for this particular bloc within Irish society was portrayed as good for all.
Furthermore, both Eipper and Silverman take as their starting point in analyzing Irish class relations the social, political and economic dynamics of Irish rural society. Ruling Trinity, for example, focuses on the capitalist structures of the agriculture industry, in particular the production and sale of cattle.
The dual economy thesis – wherein agriculture is seen as divided by the Shannon, with subsistence farming to the west and commercial farming to the east – is disregarded in the face of the economic relations between small farmers, who tend to produce calves, and the large ranchers, who buy and fatten those calves for export. The mainstream argument that Irish class relations were truncated by partition – with the industrial north severed from the agricultural south – is substantially challenged by both Ruling Trinity and An Irish Working Class. The fact that it took two academics working outside the Irish academy to produce such work is not without significance.
The dominant assumption of Irish historiography, that all facts must hang from the nationalist/revisionist tree, is not carried by Eipper and Silverman, who instead use Marxist theory to shine some light on the structures and dynamics of Irish society, both past and present. Their work shows that it is possible for labour historians to discover the mechanisms of Irish society through a Marxist template, that the combination of Marxism and Irish history does not have to lead automatically to a discussion on whether Connolly wore green or red socks.
Conrad Maynadier Arensberg, The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study (New York: Macmillan, 1937)
Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940)
Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan, The Anthropology of Ireland (Berg: New York, 2006)
Chris Curtin, Hastings Donnan, and Thomas M. Wilson (eds), Irish Urban Cultures (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1993)
Marilyn Silverman and P.H. Gulliver (eds), Approaching the Past: Historical Anthropology Through Irish Case Studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992)
Marilyn Silverman, An Irish Working Class: Explorations in Political Economy and Hegemony, 1800-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)
Chris Eipper, The Ruling Trinity: A Community Study of Church, State and Business in Ireland (Aldershot: Gower Publishing Company, 1986)
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