In the 1930s, Ireland was the focus of an extensive survey known as ‘The Harvard Irish Mission’, produced by scholars from Harvard University who conducted a detailed study of family and community in three rural locations, one of which was Rinnamona in Killinaboy parish. The resulting publications, The Irish Countryman by Conrad Arensberg and Family and Community in Ireland by Arensberg and Solon Kimball, are considered to be ‘classic’ scientific texts and remain influential within sociological and anthropological academic spheres.[i] The local response to both texts was mixed. The books were widely read in the local community and, for some, the revelation of the private lives of their forebears was unexpected and unwelcome. In an attempt to limit the harm within the locality the texts were rarely discussed openly. Despite the insights they offered into recent local history, the memory of the study and its findings lingered; the books were publicly ignored and a communal silence fell over the anthropological study.
In the course of her research, sociologist Dr. Anne Byrne (NUIG) came across some of the original diaries kept by Solon Kimball when he stayed in Rinnamona. Handwritten in pencil on a fading school copy book, Kimball gives an intimate record of a rural community in the 1930s. He details the evening gatherings of the older men whom he refers to as ‘the Rinnamona Daíl.Byrne made contact with some of the successors of the Rinnamona Dáil – Mary Moroney, Sean Roche, John Ruane and Francis Whelan – and they came together in early 2008 to read through the diary and decide how to use the material.
Two of the group were already actively using X-PO and, having seen the opening archival installation, they asked if I would join them in making a public re-presentation of their story of Rinnamona in the 1930s. A full account of the history, academic context, exhibition-making process and re-presentation of the project is given in papers co-written with Anne Byrne called Family and Community: (Re)Telling Our Own Story (2011) and Revisiting and Reframing the Anthropological Archive ( 2013).
The authority and ownership over the exhibition-making process, audiencing and subsequent representation as academic papers rested with the group. A key priority of the Rinnamona Dáil successors was to ensure a correct and accurate representation of the community in the 1930s. Photographs of all the members of the Rinnamona Dáil were sourced, scanned and reproduced. The indexical power of photography, the ‘material trace’ and ‘disturbing presence of lives halted’ that Barthes noted, lent the images and their re-presentation the authority to interrupt the anthropological text. The memory of being measured and photographed by the physical anthropological strand of the Harvard Irish Mission was recalled with ambivalence by one visitor to the exhibition.[iii] .
The research, exhibition and mediation of this work interrupted the dominant representation of Rinnamona by Arnesberg and Kimball and created space for a more complex understanding of the ramifications of academic representations of local cultures amongst a broader public. Deploying the anthropological narrative for communal use meant the Rinnamona community was no longer bound by one version of themselves nor hass their own story ‘removed’ from them as in dominant representational practices or narratives. The interaction and the transdiciplinary meeting of the three ‘knowledges’ of sociologist, artist, and the local knowledge (in Gaelic dinnseanchas) of the research group members, combined to collectively tell a story-narrative of a people and place, rooted in history but connected to contemporary familial and community relationships.
[i] It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of another ethnography from a different country which so profoundly affected the analysis of that country’s society that all subsequent research for a generation had as its central focus, the testing of the ethnographic model of the original. Thomas Wilson ,quoted in Byrne, Edmondson and Varley, “Introduction to the Third Edition”, Arensberg and Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland LIX.
[viii] The Physical Survey of the Harvard Irish Mission was led by Earnest Hooton, best known as the author of two controversial publications concerning the relationship between personality and physical type, The American Criminal (1939) and Crime and the Man (1939). The survey carried out measurements of some 12,000 individuals, mainly in rural Ireland, where Hooton said people were ‘less likely to be mixed with recent foreign blood that would be the city dwellers.’ Hooton, qtd. in Byrne, Edmondson and Varley, “Introduction to the Third Edition”, XXIV.