Saturday 25 October 2014

Summer slips away and the same old sadness returns to haunt rural Ireland

Gerard O'Regan

Published 23/08/2014 | 02:30

Large crowds gathered in glorious sunshine at the marina in Dingle for the Feile na Beile
Large crowds gathered in glorious sunshine at the marina in Dingle for the Feile na Beile

At the time she was a young American woman, and with her husband and three young children, she moved into a rented house on the Dingle Peninsula in the mid-1970s. Her choice of abode was a small village called Clahane, about 20 miles west of Tralee. Her mission was at one level simple - but also complex and controversial.

As a New York-born anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes was determined to try and find out at first hand why there seemed to be such a high rate of mental illness in rural Ireland. So she and her family lived among this rural Kerry community for well over a year. She was determined to sample, at source, the emotional undergrowth which influenced the lives of the local people. Her children went to school there, where her husband got a job as a temporary teacher.

Although she was greeted at first with some understandable suspicion, the locals gradually took her into their confidence. She would mix and converse with them in places like the local mart and creamery. Sometimes she would be the only woman in the fairly male-dominated pub of a night. The conversation, often stilted with the caution of the countryman, could sometimes be frank and free-flowing, hinting at some darker secrets. She listened, observed, went home and wrote up her notes. Eventually her anthropological study would be published in book form under the title Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics.

It was a searing, highly judgmental analysis of rural life over 30 years ago. The book is still widely regarded as a classic of its type - but for the people in this part of Kerry, many of its conclusions and findings were devastating. Basically she accurately sketched a time and place, when an old small farming-based way of life was in unstoppable decline, and which has now disappeared forever.

Back then, the local marriage rate was among the lowest in the developed world, driven by economic necessity, and a Famine-inspired legacy, which held that on no account could a farm be divided. The soulful presence of often mournful Catholicism - as it used to be in rural areas - weaved its own distinctive pall.

Emigration then, as it is now, was the great social safety valve. It was also a source of unrelenting heartbreak.

In her book, Scheper-Hughes is especially insightful on how this relentless drain of youth and energy from a community can sap its very lifeforce. And while the majority of each new generation would leave, she controversially suggested many families unconsciously 'selected' one of their offspring who would stay. He would keep the farm going and look after his parents in their declining years. She suggested carefully honed dynamics within the local community, such as the attitude of priest and teachers, connived in this form of social engineering.

Often the selected child, who personality-wise was likely to be the most malleable in a family, would be conditioned from a young age, that they were less intelligent than their siblings. In this way, the strategy became self-fulfilling and they usually underachieved at school. Meanwhile, brothers and sisters would embrace further education and eventually move away to Dublin or abroad.

The book also portrays a society ill at ease in confronting some of its other demons, such as alcohol abuse.

"The common Irish defences of denial and scapegoating served to protect village alcoholics from recognition and public shame," she wrote. Meanwhile, the whole area of mental illness remained a secret, shameful, world, where a "less said the better" approach was all-pervasive.

Yet last week, as the summer sunshine fought a successful battle against incidental showers, the Dingle Peninsula, outwardly at least, looked optimistic and at ease with itself.

The dank and dismal greyness of the 1970s, echoed in some of the grim conclusions arrived at by Scheper-Hughes, seemed distant and far away. The houses are now stylish and modern, signalling new times. All around there seemed to be a determination to make the very best of things before the dying days of this summer take hold. Foreign accents and laughter peppered countless conversations, with the visitors from the UK, the US, France and Germany - plus sundry other places - blending with the local sounds.

On surface level it seemed rural Ireland had found the vitality it so desperately needed. But underneath, some anxieties, old and new, still cast their spell. For most, full-time farming is no longer viable - and fishing has all but disappeared as a way of life. There is a desperate shortage of alternative jobs. The result is frightening levels of emigration. It also means Ireland is becoming an increasingly imbalanced country almost by the day. There is simply too much expansion and growth in the greater Dublin area - and not enough down the country.

The world in Clahane and rural Kerry that Nancy Scheper-Hughes studied over 30 years ago is no more.

Yet while much has changed - much remains the same. Mental illness and suicide continue to be a haunting force in some rural communities, even though the rustic ways of the 1970s have given way to the internet age. Soon, most of the summer tourists will be gone from the Dingle Peninsula; the seasonal light will darken.

Some will feel a sense of abandonment in the air. Recession-ravaged Ireland has forgotten our rural places. That's a sadness for the people living there. But it is also a loss for us all.

Irish Independent

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