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Everyday life.


Social Change and Everyday Life in Ireland, 1850-1922.

Manchester University Press, 2007 (U.S. distributor, Palgrave). $24.95.

THIS SURVEY ORIGINATED in an undergraduate course at University College, Galway, entitled "gender, work, and family in Ireland 1850-1922," when its instructor found that there was no textbook that adequately addressed the social history of the period. Thus, reducing political history between 1800 and 1922 to four-page chronology and religion to a one-page explanatory note, she gets down briskly to the business at hand. This is to account for what it was like to be "in the thick of it": how ordinary people worked, where they lived, what they ate, wore, and what they sickened of, recovered from, or and died of. Making much use of first-person reports within elegant summaries of social science research, this account shows how they saw themselves when they were not voting or attending church or chapel, and without the benefit of our retrospection.

Each of its nine chapters considers a different sphere of daily life: agricultural and non-agricultural work, education, emigration and migration, marriage, public health, institutions, poverty, housing, food, and clothing. On each of these topics the author has assembled an impressive body of data informed by the most recent professional commentary, while raising new questions for the inquiring student. In all of this (and its notes and bibliographies) there is a rich body of material delivered with elegance by a fair-minded and lively guide. It is highly recommended for anyone with a serious interest in the quality of Irish life between the Great Famine and the Civil War. It will come as no surprise that its general conclusion is that this quality improved during the period, the result of forces outside this report. This account documents those improvements in particular, and sometimes piquant, detail.

A glance through the index will give an instant snapshot of the range of topics introduced: Argentina, asses, bacaigh, bicycles, blindness, William Bulfinch, collops, cousin marriage, culm, degeneracy, diet, dispensaries, endowed schools, hair, ladies' maids, Lady Dudley, language for animals, living standards, magdalen asylums, maternal mortality, night-lodgers, prison workers, smallpox, "sweating," turf, Ursuline sisters, water (although the index misses the very interesting discussion of meitheal, 8-9). There is something here for even the well-traveled cultural tourist.

There are highly informative discussions of the year's work on the farms: the relations between farmers and laborers and the gendered division of labor in rural Ireland. On the city scene, it accounts for the rise of the sweatshop and of urban slums. In this endeavor, it goes some way to correcting the Yeatsean denigration of the small grocer, redeeming the reputation of the pawnbroker, and vindicating the contribution of the overworked teachers in the National Schools. It makes the case that the availability of factory work increased women's self-confidence, that the risk of seduction by domestic servants is overstated in the popular literature, while noting that job insecurity still greatly trammeled the personal freedom of both men and women.

The treatment of education (more accurately ',schooling") surveys the rise and diversification of subjects and values. With rote-learning as the predominant method, it inculcated the values of loyalty and obedience. It outlines the rise of the vocational, private, and diocesan schools and the contribution of the teaching orders (especially sisters) to the steep rise in literacy. it makes many unexpected observations, such as the unwitting agency of schools in the spread of often ravenous disease.

On the subject of emigration, it observes that the primary motivator was personal betterment. A careful survey of the literature on this painful subject concludes that economics took precedence over emotions. Balancing the treatment between permanent and seasonal migration, it has many interesting things to say about the navvy and returned emigrant. It makes the unexpected observation that contrary to general opinion, the decline of the Irish language was stemmed by emigrants' remittances.

On the controversial subject of post-famine marriage patterns (proverbially late and loveless), it is cautionary about totalizing theories. It observes that while the Church encouraged celibacy and the small farmer could ill afford to subdivide his property, such hypotheses took insufficient account of many other factors: the reluctance of women to marry, the tendency of Irish autobiography to self-criticism, and the decline of cousin-marriage. Arguing that the communitarian character of Irish life provided "marriage substitutes," that marriage rates were similarly low among small and large farmers, Catholics and Protestants, and that matchmaking is thoughtlessly demonized by latter-day commentators, she argues that the jury is still out on this extremely complex question.

The major innovation in public health after the Great Famine was the establishment of the public dispensaries in 185 I--giving everyone the right to free basic medical service within a day's walk (surely an embarrassment to twentieth-first-century Americans). There were periodic outbreaks of measles and scarlatina, and serious epidemics of cholera in 1851 and of smallpox which killed 4000 in 1871-72. The greatest killer of the poor was tuberculosis: accounting for ever-rising numbers, peaking in 19 t 0. While each of these hazards, along with infant and maternal mortality, has well-understood causes, it remains a peculiar mystery why the numbers for blindness in Munster remained so singularly high.

The chapters on institutions--the prisons, workhouses, asylums and magdalen homes--are fascinating. Using the language of the time, "the talking cure," "mad-doctors," "alienists," "moral treatments," "dangerous lunatics," etc., they open a window into an aspect of Irish life relatively obscured from popular view (Ireland had no Dickens). For all their crudity, the good news about these institutions is that they saved tens of thousands from domestic violence and starvation.

On the subject of homelessness, she concluded that as the century progressed, public sympathy with vagrants and prostitutes decreased. The general observations that living standards improved and the embrace of entitlements widened, should be tempered by the admission that (unless statistics mislead us) they were accompanied by a corresponding growth in crime rates

This survey Shows that this little volume opens wide new vistas to the student of modern Irish history. Aside from the exclusions mentioned above which it considers well examined in "standard" histories, it nevertheless elides a few areas that deserve attention. Even materialist premises should not neglect leisure (sports and folk arts); similarly the subjects of language (the precipitous drop of Irish), alcoholism (its economic and social costs), transportation (the development of the railway system), and weather (the wet harvests and "big winds") deserve consideration since they bore so heavily on the lives of the millions memorialized, if at all, in scattered cemeteries.

In sum, this book Offers a congenial blend of social science research, exemplified by personal testimony and graphic examples. Students are continually presented with problems of historical interpretation and cautioned against rushing to judgments. Without grinding any obvious axes, especially in regard to issues in women's lives, the presentation is balanced, concise, and sophisticated. Much of the information is instructive in allowing today's readers to suspend unwarranted retrospective judgments which do not take into account how people saw their own lives-whether to marry, emigrate, to remain in school--without foreknowledge of the consequences. It raises many questions about received popular and scholarly wisdom about the conditions of Irish life in the ninetheenth century. It deserves a wide readership beyond the college classroom.

--George Mason University
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Title Annotation:Social Change and Everyday Life in Ireland, 1850-1922
Author:Owens, Coilin
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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