A World of Fine Difference: the Social Architecture of a Modern Irish Village

A World of Fine Difference: the Social Architecture of a Modern Irish Village – Book Review

Michael Allen

Adrian Peace. A World of Fine Difference: The Social Architecture of a Modern Irish Village. Dublin: University College Dublin Press. 2001. Pp.157, bibliog., index. [pounds sterling]35.95 (Hc.), ISBN1-900621-59-2; [pounds sterling]15.95 ISBN 1-900621-60-6.

In 1998 I published in this journal (TAJA Vol.9 No 1, pp.117-18) a eulogistic review of Adrian Peace’s first book (A Time of Reckoning. The Politics of Discourse in Rural Ireland) based on his research in a small coastal village in County Cork. Though derived directly from the detailed fieldwork that he had carried out between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, A Time of Reckoning, was in no sense a community study–instead, it focused on the documentation and analysis of an escalating political conflict between an American transnational company (Merrell Dow) that wanted to establish a large-scale chemical factory in the district, and a local protest movement that included amongst its supporters many residents of the village in which Peace was engaged in a community type study. Having once visited Peace in this village and on numerous occasions heard him talk about community life there, I awaited the publication of A World of Fine Difference, with high expectations. Those expectations have been more than fulfil led by an ethnography of exceptional quality and originality.

Whereas in A Time of Reckoning Peace was concerned to document the ‘heroic’ yet finally fruitless efforts of relatively powerless rural residents to resist the ambitions of international business and national government, in his latest book the focus is rather on the somewhat happier processes whereby the small village of Inveresk (a fictional name meaning ‘the inlet of the fish’) has succeeded in maintaining ‘ … its sense of social distinction, notwithstanding the comprehensive process of modernisation to which it has been subject in the late twentieth century’ (p.1). In other words, whereas in the first book the heroes, drawn from a number of different rural communities, seemingly lost out in their struggle against powerful external political and economic forces (I say ‘seemingly’ because ironically Merrell Dow was subsequently taken over by another multinational company that decided to abandon the Cork project), in the present book the heroes, drawn from a single community, have succeeded in a variety of interesting ways in maintaining a strong sense of community identity and cohesiveness, despite the many external forces which threaten to disrupt it. This rich ethnography documents in a most lucid manner just how this difficult goal has been attained. Once again we have a gripping tale of heroes and villains, though in this instance the villains are somewhat shadowy figures of less direct potency.

But Inveresk is not without substantial internal social and cultural differentiation; it is in fact three close-knit and in many ways quite diverse communities which Peace usefully describes as country (scattered farm families), village (shop-keepers, tradesmen, entrepreneurs etc) and pier (mostly fishermen and their families). Indeed, so strong are the ties of internal identity and external differentiation that one might well wonder in what contexts and by what means the larger Inveresk unity and identity is in fact generated and sustained.

Peace meticulously documents the principal social contexts in which the people of Inveresk both recognise and assert their identity and integrity, as well as its limitations. He does so through a detailed examination of both discourse and social action in a wide range of contexts,- such as pub and shop gossip, the meetings and activities of community associations, and cultural performances such as concerts and games. In context after context the reader becomes increasingly aware of the importance of the politics of discourse in generating the parameters of community identity and differentiation. Furthermore Inveresk residents ‘ …utilize a wide range of individual talents, organisational expertise and political skills to order their social relations, mount the associations and launch the events which variously articulate a collective identity. Most important of all, they make full use of the copious knowledge which they have about one another to present themselves on occasion as a coherent and moral communit y’ (p.122).

In other words, the ‘social architecture’ of Inveresk is an ever-changing product of social action and social commentary, not of commitment to either fixed jural rules or hallowed ‘tradition’. Though I am here using a term (social architecture) that Peace himself gives prominence to in his sub-title, curiously enough it nowhere re-appears in the text of the book itself. I note this because there were times when I felt the need for a more old-fashioned sense of social architecture, one perhaps more akin to the notion of social structure. For example, I felt that I would have gained a better understanding of how people conceptualised their identification with one domain rather than another, or as against Inveresk as a totality, if we had some basic information regarding two important structural matters–the inheritance of property and marriage. As regards the former, I would like to have known what happens (especially as regards place of residence) to siblings who do not inherit the main productive property, wh ether farm, boat or shop. Do they somehow also become farmers, fishermen or shop-keepers? Or do they, as so often occurred elsewhere in rural Ireland, emigrate elsewhere and pursue quite different careers? And as regards marriage, it would have been useful to have at least some idea of the incidence of domain endogamy as against exogamy, and likewise for Inveresk. That some inter-marriage occurred between domains is evident from examples referred to. Clearly, the more that it occurred the greater the consequences for the way people identified with domains.

There was one other topic that I felt might also have been relevant to issues of place identity, yet was touched on only lightly. I refer to the role of religion, for despite the undoubtedly increased influence of secular values in modern Ireland, religion is still a matter of very considerable importance, especially in small rural communities. Do most residents of Inveresk regularly attend church, and if so just how does such attendances affect their perception of the village as, perhaps, ‘ … a different place altogether’? Indeed, the role of the priest figures solely as an influential figure in the predominantly secular context of fund-raising for a worthy cause. This is to repeat a weakness that characterises the great majority of ethnographic studies of Irish rural communities. A notable exception is Taylor’s outstanding study of religion in a small fishing village in southwest Donegal (see L. Taylor, 1995. Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholicism).

To return to a more positive note, which is what I would most wish to convey to potential readers, I found Peace’s succinct comments on the importance of an ideology of egalitarianism in Inveresk to be most insightful. Though recognising the rapidly increasing importance of both class distinction and status differentiation in modern Ireland, including even Inveresk, though in a modified form, Peace stressed, I believe quite correctly, the concurrent importance of an ideology of egalitarianism. It is, indeed, this ideology which most especially underpins the success with which the status heterogeneity of the people of Inveresk is subordinated to a sense of common identity and common purpose. In short, there is little or no snobbery.

This book, especially when read in conjunction with A Time of Reckoning, constitutes a most important contribution to the still rather thin corpus of ethnographies based on research in Irish communities. It must be regarded as required reading for all students of contemporary Irish society and in addition raises issues of relevance wherever local communities feel that their unique identities are threatened by the potentially homogenising influences of global forces.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group