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Melancholy Accidents: The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland. (Reviews).

Melancholy Accidents: The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland. By Carolyn A. Conley (New York & Oxford: Lexington Books, 1999. xii plus 249pp. $40.00).

The historical study of crime in Ireland has been generally limited to activities which were perceived as threatening to the political order nationally or to the local social order. Carolyn Conley is the first historian of Irish crime to include in her study what Belfast residents call "ordinary decent criminals." For the period 1866--92 she has surveyed some 5,000 cases documented in criminal court records which survived the destruction of the Public Record Office during the Civil War: complete runs for four counties and fragmentary records for thirteen others. These data are supplemented by newspaper accounts and by two separate but not discrete official enumerations--the published Judicial and Criminal Statistics and the constabulary office's record of "outrages."

The British perception of Ireland as an especially violent society, Conley argues, is a "largely mythical" stereotype: homicide rates in Ireland were about one-third lower than in England and Wales in the late nineteenth century (as well as in the 1970s). What was distinctive about Ireland, she maintains, was the way in which Irish juries, and to some extent Irishj udges, thought about violence. A huge proportion of violence (42.3% of the 1934 homicides in Conley's dataset) consisted of brawls prompted by considerations of honor and usually lubricated by drink. If a death resulted from such an instance of "recreational" violence it was difficult for the crown to obtain a severe sentence, or perhaps even a conviction. Unless the perpetrator used a gun or knife, or committed theft in connection with the homicide, it was generally assumed that he did not intend to kill the victim; the death was simply a "melancholy accident."

In Ireland, as elsewhere, another major category of violence (22.7% of homicides) consisted of violent encounters within the family. A special element in intra-family violence in post-Famine Ireland, however, was the high priority given to maintaining the family landholding intact. The author suggests that many incidents of the "Land War" of the late 1870s and 1880s were actually disputes within extended families. Violation of family privacy by bringing such matters to court contravened community norms, and jurors tended to concur in the importance of maintaining intact farms. Violence between spouses was usually seen as occasioned by drink and therefore more or less unavoidable. Again, absent the use of a gun, knife or poison, jurors rarely accepted arguments for murderous intent.

Conley's research turns up some quite fascinating differences between the treatment of women in Irish courts and in their British (and American) counterparts. Irish judges and juries did not insist on conformity to a feminine ideal of domestic submissiveness; a woman who fought back was not treated as having forfeited her right to legal recourse by "unsexing" herself. Moreover, the author argues, in cases where sexual assault was alleged Irish courts accepted that a woman's "no" meant "no," discounted claims of female "provocation," and showed no favoritism toward male defendants of higher status than their female accusers. Even drink, that great extenuator of grievous bodily harm inflicted on the fairground, could not turn a rape into the natural outcome of uncontrollable impulses. Sexual violation, like theft, was taken as proof of evil intent. "Sexual gratification," Conley writes, "was even more unworthy than greed" (p. 104).

No doubt some questions will be raised about the representativeness of Conley's data and the rigor of some of her comparisons of Irish experience with that of England. However I expect the main lines of her argument to withstand scrutiny. The central problem which this important book will raise for Irish historians is how to incorporate its findings about the last third of the nineteenth century into our evolving understanding of social and cultural change over the whole course of that century. The famine of the 1840s ends a long period of rapid demographic growth and begins one of actual decline in total population. The huge pre-Famine agrarian underclass of landless and near-landless was virtually eliminated by the end of the century, and that structural change is closely tied to a number of other developments.

One such development (which Conley emphasizes) was a growing concern to maintain intact family farms and to make adjustments in nuptuality consistent with that objective. Others include a much more rapid decline in "outrages" reported to the police than in total population (which, curiously, Conley does not emphasize) and a substantial rise in levels of canonical religious practice among Catholics. Increasingly, post-Famine Irish rural society seems to be dominated by a new farming elite seeking middle-class respectability. Conley's work obliges us to imagine a nascent middle class which can tolerate lethal recreational violence among its inferiors but is prepared to mete out harsh justice to one of its respectable members who takes advantage of a servant girl. It will be a useful exercise of historical imagination.
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Author:Miller, David W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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