Introduction: Writing Local




IRELAND has never experienced a shortage of historians, either local or national. Until recently, however, the energies of local historians, with a few notable exceptions, have been directed towards demonstrating the historical validity of local political or religious stances or chronicling rather than explaining the history of their own county, parish or town. Others have concerned themselves with the history of the local gentry or clergy or of some local person or event of national significance, the end-product often adding little to the understanding of the evolution of regional society. In many respects this was not unique to Ireland since similar works, motivated by local or personal interest, exist for most parts of Britain also. This situation can be attributed in some measure to a lack of direction or methodology in local studies in the past.

Over the last thirty years this situation has altered considerably, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there has been a realisation, by economic and social historians in particular, of the need to take account of regional variation when explaining past events. Secondly, local historians themselves have begun to define their task more carefully, and in doing so have realised not only the breadth but also the complexity of their subject. One result of this redefinition has been a greater understanding of what local or regional historians are studying and how it differs from the history of nations. We are concerned rather with the building blocks of nations - communities: groups of men and women who lived within a well-defined geographical area and shared common bonds and assumptions.' Common bonds and assumptions may be useful concepts with which to organise our view of society but for the practical historian working with sparse documentary evidence they are often difficult to identify. For this reason many of those who have undertaken local studies have used more easily definable units such as the parish, town, village or county and have described the sense of common bonds and assumptions about politics, religion, economics, society and culture which they found there.2

However, it is now recognised that no one type of community, such as the county, for example, can be studied in isolation.3 People belonged to many different types of communities, in which the common interests of the community were given conscious recognition. Some were geographical, others economic, and yet others political or religious. Even small geographical areas must be viewed as an amalgamation of different communities of interest. Villagers, for example, were part of a wider economic community through the network of markets and fairs in which they sold their surplus produce; they were part of a larger ecclesiastical community through the structures of their church, and part of a larger political and legal structure through the presence of the central government in the localities in the persons of sheriffs and justices of the peace. Clearly, even small regions must be viewed on a number of levels. Also, we can no longer regard the ordinary inhabitants of Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales as indifferent to the wider world or as mere pawns of national political, economic, religious or social forces. Rather, it is the interaction of peculiar local circumstances with wider national developments which gives the different but interconnected communities of interest their distinctiveness. It is in the interpretation and explanation of such interaction that part of the value of local studies lies.

In recent years, historians within Ireland have increasingly recognised the importance of these varying social, economic, cultural and political communities and have begun to study them on their own terms. Applying approaches developed elsewhere and refined in an Irish context, diverse local communities have been subjected to varying types of examination. The work of W.H. Crawford on eighteenth century Ulster and of J.S. Donnelly on nineteenth century Cork reveals the complexity of local regions and the variety of ways the different communities of interest within them reacted to economic, social and political change.4 Regional economic history also received a major boost with the publication of the Economic history of Ulster, while David Fitzpatrick's study of early twentieth century Clare demonstrates the value of local studies in interpreting Irish politics.5 In another sphere, Sean Connolly, Patrick Corish and Kevin Whelan have, in contrasting ways, looked at communities bound together by religious practice and their variations over time and space throughout the country.6 Local political communities have been studied in their wider context in Theodore Hoppen's study of landlords and politics, showing that the community of interest of landlords was not always bound by local considerations.7 Many landlords were also members of parliament and held office as magistrates and justices of the peace, thus acting as brokers between the central administration and local communities.

Despite this growing body of evidence, a great deal remains to be done. Our understanding of the history of the dynamics of the many different overlapping communities within the different regions of the island of Ireland remains sketchy. Indeed, satisfactory criteria for choice of units of local study which take sufficient account of the distinctiveness of the Irish context have scarcely been established. Unlike England, where the county, parish and village are old institutions forming well-defined administrative regions, and in some ways distinctive types of communities in themselves, in Ireland the relevance of these political and ecclesiastical divisions as valid units for the study of local communities must be questioned. The Catholic parish, for example, as an effective ecclesiastical unit, was a relatively recent innovation perhaps not predating the nineteenth century in some parts of the country, the religious needs of many Catholics having long been served by the regular clergy based in friaries. Likewise, outside the Pale and the south-cast, the county was a late sixteenth century imposition by English administrators, and not necessarily a reflection of local identities from its inception. The development of popular loyalty to the county evolved in some parts of the country as late, as the nineteenth century as a result of the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the rise of county newspapers and the changes in the voting system which made more people aware of the county as an electoral unit. However, little is known of the precise origin and evolution of local and regional structures such as the parish, barony and county in Ireland.8 It may well be that in the south and cast of the country the close relationship between old and new administrative and ecclesiastical units means that parishes, dioceses and counties may be useful social units for the local historians in that part of the country.9 The social significance of these administrative units remains unproven, however.

Furthermore, unlike England, the Irish population was not ethnically homogeneous, being made up of native Irish, Old English Catholic settlers and more recent colonists, and thus the interaction between ethnic groups added to the complexity of local communities. Again, Ireland's ambiguous constitutional status before 1800, neither in practice a separate kingdom nor quite a colony, had political, economic, and social repercussions at local and national level which had no parallel in England and added to the complex nature of local Irish communities.10 Defining the appropriate local communities for study in the Irish context is thus not an easy matter.

It is against these problems of definition and an awareness of the complexity of the history of different types of communities of interest and their inter-relationships that these essays came to be written. The choice of Mayo as a region of study, although in some ways accidental, is also fortuitous. It may be considered that Mayo is untypical of the Irish historical experience because of its poverty and its isolation from the main national trends, but it must be noted that this was not necessarily always the case and, furthermore, untypicality is surely not an argument against the study of a region. In local studies, each region must be studied on its own terms. We should not draw conclusions about the wider world from one or two local studies, for it is the diversity of regional patterns rather than their typicality which constitutes the main value of local studies. Arthur Young's description of Mayo as 'a various country' hints at another reason why Mayo is a particularly interesting region to study.11 There were considerable differences between east and west Mayo, the commercialisation of the south-cast contrasting with the near-subsistence agriculture of the north-west. Thus, within a small geographical area a wide range of social, economic and cultural structures can be studied in depth. It might also be noted that from the seventeenth century the relative isolation of Mayo, which cushioned it against the dramatic impact of national policies, is of particular value for the historian, for here we can see long-run development, such as commercialisation, or the vagaries of landlord-tenant relations, almost in slow motion.

As a unit for local study, Mayo provides a well-defined regional context which has a distinctiveness apart from its county status in which to set events. As Bernadette Cunningham's essay suggests, the county of Mayo as formed in the sixteenth century was a direct successor to the native MacWilliam lordship and thus a common history and the common interests of a group of people were carried from one order to another. Thus Mayo's uniqueness in a Connacht context is best explained in terms of its sixteenth century origins. Irene Whelan demonstrates another factor making for cohesion within the county: the bond of religion, which left the community prepared to repel all opposition. However, as she indicates, even in religion the region had a certain uniqueness, since the catholicism found there was not some antiseptic national brand but was rather heavily influenced by local folk beliefs and traditions - a phenomenon commented an by most nineteenth century travellers to Mayo.

In defining their areas of study the contributors to this volume have not restricted themselves to using the county community alone. Desmond McCabe highlights a different type of community - the estate - and for the earlier period Raymond Gillespie examines the fortunes of the landlord community. Gerard Moran studies the community of the Mayo electorate. The varying fortunes of fenianism within Mayo, for instance, which he highlights, indicates the existence of diverse political communities within the county in the late nineteenth century. Thus, far from being a uniform, well-defined region, the county of Mayo was in fact composed of a wide range of different overlapping communities. Rather than dealing with one community at any one point in time, we are in fact dealing with a changing network of interlocking communities.

This diversity of communities within the county provides the basis for a second theme in these essays: the interaction between diverse communities, and the moulding of men's behaviour within the larger unit. The value of regional studies emerges in the analysis of the sense of contingency which conditioned the response of people in past time to the crude realities of existence. Such an undertaking casts doubts, for example, on the value of an approach which places individuals in rigidly-defined ideological categories. Thus, the idea of an 'Elizabethan conquest of Ireland' in the sixteenth century which led inevitably to expropriation of property or political conflict on ethnically determined lines is questioned by Bemadette Cunningham's essay, which depicts not native Irish being subjugated by English colonists but a more subtle process whereby both natives and newcomers sought a modus vivendi by exploiting each other's strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, in the seventeenth century, as Raymond Gillespie shows, Mayo natives were prepared to conform to and exploit the institutions of the new order for their own gain. Gerard Moran demonstrates the problem of classifying individuals by a political creed, showing how Fr Patrick Lavelle's political attitudes changed over time. His essay also points to the diversity of political and religious attitudes within the county and shows how these changed over time under the influence of local circumstances, particularly the influence of the interaction between clergy and landlords.

The study of the relationships between the different communities of interest should therefore be the central concern of the local historian in Ireland, and it lies at the heart of this collection of essays. Bemadette Cunningham's essay is concerned with the relationship between different ethnic and political communities. Irene Whelan and Gerard Moran examine the relationship between religion and economic and political change respectively. Interaction between social groups is detailed by Desmond McCabe and economic interaction is explored by Raymond Gillespie and W.H. Crawford. In all cases the complex and changing nature of these relationships is revealed. Desmond McCabe, for example, shows how the unspoken assumptions between landlord and tenant - the 'moral economy' - altered with changing economic circumstances. Irene Whelan's case study shows how a change in religious balance fundamentally altered attitudes both within and outside the local community.

The changing pattern of relationships resulting from economic change through the development of markets and fairs and the road system is revealed in W.H. Crawford's essay. Important as these relationships were between the various elements within the county, these essays illustrate that communities within Mayo belonged also to a wider network of communities outside the region. In the sixteenth century the imposition of a provincial government structure acted as a catalyst in reshaping Mayo, opening the way for new accommodations between native and newcomer. Similarly, in nineteenth century Achill it was an outsider, Edward Nangle, who played a major part in destabilising local religious accommodations. However, the arrival of outsiders was not necessary for new ideas to be introduced into the county. Gerard Moran illustrates the role of local clergy and gentry as brokers between developments in Dublin and the provinces. Moreover, Gillespie and Crawford show how Mayo was gradually brought into close contact with a wider world through improved communications and markets.

The coming of the railway and the telegraph in the nineteenth century enhanced this process enormously. These developments had important political and economic implications. The localities could now be better supplied with food in times of shortage, and were increasingly drawn into wider political issues under the influence of brokers such as the clergy, graziers and shopkeepers, who had more direct access to means of communication. These essays do not, of course, exhaust the possibilities of those who could play the role of broker between the locality and the wider world. Returned seasonal migrants, for example, were of particular importance in introducing developments in the wider world to areas of Connacht. It is hoped that the- light thrown by these local studies on the Irish historical experience will demonstrate that it is no longer sufficient to write the history of a diocese, county or parish concentrating on the activities of would-be saints, or of bishops, gentry or clergy. The county can only claim to be one of many communities held together in a complex social, economic, religious and political network. It is only when we begin to unravel that network by studying how the various communities interacted and how conflicts of interest which developed between different communities were resolved that we will begin to understand the totality of history which is the local community.

If, as these essays suggest, the essence of local history is not a sense of place but rather a sense of social networks evolving within a socially distinctive region which may, or may not, be coterminous with an administrative division, then we must examine new ways of researching and writing local studies. These essays attempt two approaches which might be more fully explored by local historians. One approach is to examine a basic building block in a community, an individual or a family, over time, as in the essays by Bernadette Cunningham, Gerard Moran and Irene Whelan. These are not, however, conventional biographies or family histories but rather they seek to interpret the role of the individual or family in the different communities of interest to which they belonged. Thus the MacWilliam Burkes are seen not only as part of native society but also as individuals trying to manipulate the new social order to their own ends. Again, we see the views of Edward Nangle and Patrick Lavelle interpreted in the context of the changing economic and social pressures around them. This approach to local individuals need not be restricted to persons of repute. Histories of local families, farmers or shopkeepers, must take account of the different communities of interest within which the subject of study operated. In family histories, for example, genealogies must be seen not as an end in themselves but rather as an aid to understanding the sort of world in which people of the past lived. To understand the dynamics of family history, the social institution of marriage, for example, deserves much closer study in a local context. Given the permanency of kin obligations and the economic implications of marriage, marriage partners had to be carefully chosen to provide maximum advantage. It was through marriage that families were formed and provided with the framework for the passage of land and wealth from one generation to the next. The nature of such practices had a powerful effect on the shaping of society and so the nature of marriage patterns and inheritance practices and how and why they were adapted in past time must be investigated at local level. To do this we must look at the individuals or families we study in the context of their relationship with other communities. 12

Neighbours were probably one of the most important communities, since it was they who shared grazing land, labour and, by the nineteenth century, machinery for farm work, in return for reciprocal arrangements as required. Of course the importance of the neighbourhood community in a farming context depended on the type of agriculture practised. Thus, before we can begin to understand the precise role of social relationships in a locality we must look at the agricultural structure of the region, and analyse change in that structure over time.

Another important community which must be assessed at local level is that of the parish, taking into account the religious ideas which were preached there and the means by which those ideas were enforced. Even here we are not dealing with one homogeneous community, for there were many varieties of popular belief as well as the official religion and it was up to men to reconcile the two, although as yet we know almost nothing of how this was achieved. Of course relationships within and between communities were not always harmonious, and the anatomy of conflict is very important for the light it throws on the sort of ideas and assumptions which people held and, more particularly, for the order of importance they placed on the values or interests of the various communities to which they belonged. Thus, if the church demanded or forbade one set of beliefs, on a political issue such as fenianism for instance, but neighbours under other influences upheld contrary beliefs, what was to be the outcome? The investigation of such issues reveals the intricacy of the interaction between different communities of interest at local level.

If we were only to consider purely local factors, at one point in time, the picture presented would be a distorted one. Local communities were not static but changed over time in response both to internal forces and to pressures from outside. The interpretation and enforcement of theological rules in a parish community may well have been determined by the supply of clergy and the type of training which was provided for the clergy. Again, the importance of neighbours can be enhanced or reduced by technological change, depending on the type and cost of new technology, population changes and mobility, urbanisation, changing cultural factors as a result of educational change, or increasing prosperity as a result of economic change.

The study of people within the context of these different types of communities can usefully be applied to all aspects of an individual's life. Questions such as the relative importance of the immediate family, the wider kin group, the neighbourhood community, the church or the village in determining a man's ideas and questions as to how the relative influence of each of these changed over time in response to changes at national level can thus be tackled. By extension we can examine how changes were diffused into local society by the brokers of different communities: the landlord, the clergy, the shopkeeper, and later the newspaper and the returned seasonal migrant. In this way the study of a family is not merely the collection of a succession of names with, perhaps, a selection of curious facts about each but rather an explanation of the world within which that family and its individual members lived and died, and passed on its possessions both material and ideological to another generation.

A rather different approach to the problem of writing the history of interlocking communities is adopted by Raymond Gillespie, W.H. Crawford and Desmond McCabe. Here the centrepiece of the study is not an individual but a process. The aim of this approach is to look at different communities from outside to measure their reaction to different types of stimuli, such as economic, political and religious change. Economic change, for example, affected different types of communities in different ways. It had ramifications for both landlord and tenant and affected their mutual relationship. It also had repercussions for the various other local communities.

Economic improvement could produce a surplus of cash which could be spent on luxury goods or saved. People might have been afforded the opportunity of moving from one social group to another, becoming attached to another group of communities in the process. As men became able to afford to hire labour the importance of traditional institutions like the meitheal diminished, social bonds were weakened and new types of communities with different bonds were created. Economic decline could create other types of communities bound together by bonds of debt to local money-lenders, and could change the internal balance of power between local communities of interest. The power of the nineteenth century clergy, for example, was enhanced in times of crisis since they tended to adopt a leading role in the organisation of relief. Thus, economic change could bring about new tensions within different types of communities. It is important, therefore, to consider the repercussions of, for instance, increasing commercialisation on the different types of community to which a person belonged, the family, the immediate locality, the estate, and indeed the whole region.

Another example of a process which needs to be examined in the context of local communities is education. As people became more literate, what effect did this have on the various communities to which they belonged? In the parish community, increased ability to read could have reduced a person's dependence on the pulpit, and may have led some to question their faith or at least to seek more 'sophisticated theological explanations. In the political community, increased literacy coupled with the more widespread distribution of newspapers made the electorate more aware of events in the wider world, and may have created a desire to participate in or influence those events. Within the farming community, literacy enabled a man to read the literature of agricultural improvement and, if he had a sufficiently large farm, to implement some of the more straightforward ideas. Thus we should be able to see the education of an individual having ramifications throughout a series of different communities.

The list of processes which can be analysed in this way is extensive. Our understanding of political change the growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century for example would be much enhanced if we understood how different communities in different regions adopted or rejected various political ideas and how conflicts between different communities of interest were resolved in the political sphere.

These two approaches to the study of interlocking local communities of interest are not mutually exclusive. They offer ways of investigating the same society from different perspectives. The end result in both cases is a local history which is not a collection of near-random facts but rather a contribution towards explaining the nature of the regional societies which have characterised Ireland in the past, and illustrating how and why those societies have changed over time.

Approaches such as these are not new. Local historians have for some years now been trying to understand the significance of their regional studies and to relate them to wider trends.13 It is now more fully appreciated that the best local history has more than local ramifications. To date little has been done in an Irish context - the excuse being the lack of source material. The appearance of this volume is evidence that such arguments are not sufficient to explain this neglect. While lamenting what has been destroyed either deliberately or by accident, historians have often failed to take sufficient notice of what has survived. Thus, while there are no impressive collections of estate records for Mayo conveniently deposited in a library or archive, there is much to be gained from the study of other sources.14

In the final analysis, local history is not the accumulation of all available facts about a small area. Abundance of source material is of little value in increasing our understanding of the past unless we ask the right questions of those sources. The papers presented here are the preliminary results of asking rather different questions of the sources available for Mayo than have been asked before. The results are rather different to those provided by Hubert T. Knox in his History of Mayo published almost a century ago.15 That this is so is an indication of the new ideas and methods of dealing with evidence which have been developed in the intervening years. These essays are, however, not a history of Mayo in the way that H.T. Knox's volume was.

They are only the beginning of a working out of a different approach, and do not attempt to provide a definitive interpretation. The complexity of local studies, which are in a very real sense 'total history', from the politics of different local communities through their economic and religious experience to their social structure and cultural outlook, means that much more than one set of essays is required to understand the totality of the Mayo past. Above all, these essays are only one approach to the intricacies of local history, an approach whose validity can only be confirmed or denied by other local historians testing it in their own areas, and local historians of Mayo refining the interpretations offered herein. This will not be possible if local studies are left to a group of academic historians and geographers. It will only come about when local people begin to take seriously the complex problems involved in the writing of local history. Local history is too important to be left to the professionals.