Peter Sedgwick

Death of a Community

(4 August 1973)

Peter Sedgwick, Death of a Community, Socialist Worker, 4 August 1973, p.10. (book review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

INISHKILLANE by Hugh Brody, Allen Lane, £2.95.

EARLY in the morning, in an isolated farmhouse at Inishkillane, a village on the coast of County Clare in Ireland, Joseph Murphy, a destroyed man of 53 whose only companion, his mother, died five years back, kneels by the chair in which he has just spent a sleepless night, and tries to spew up his vomit.

He bursts into retching sobs, then rushes outside towards the sea and shouts that he will drown himself. After a while he returns to his chair by the kitchen range, sitting quietly with occasional cries of anguish and fits of bitter weeping.

It takes a thousand cuts to fell a man like Joseph Murphy. Ask him what is the matter, and he will be able to tell you only of the freshest blows, the latest twist of the knife, the insult that lashes a skin made tender by a lifetime’s injuries.

The villagers will not let him alone, they will not allow him to sell the parcel of land for which he is being bid by strangers, and the priest has just been round to put the pressure on. The strangers would be his neighbours, perhaps even his friends, and he has no neighbours or friends.

Hugh Brody’s study of the destruction of an Irish village shows that the years when Inishkillane was a community, offering support and material help as well as gossip and pressure, are long gone. It is now only a scattering of farmhouses on widely separated tracts, each house tenanted by an ailing last son or daughter or perhaps by a pair of solitaries sitting on the time-bomb of bereavement that will explode within a few years leaving a waste of desolation for the survivor.

In the parish of Inishkillane, which is typical of villages in the West of Ireland, people over 46 outnumber those younger by more than 2 to 1. There are few children, and most of these, and indeed all the younger generation will betray the village, emigrating and losing touch except for the occasional spectacular visit and the conscience money they send. The girls will leave sooner, as they have done for some time.

The Irish country people used to have the knack of fitting personal relationships, including marriage and the relations between generations, into the secure demands of a peasant economy, offering a season for songs and courtships no less than for sowing and for harvest. But the natural economy has been destroyed, and what remains gives to the young neither the prospects of ancient ceremony nor the chance of personal romance.

Those who elect to stay are losers, and the men of the tribe lose everything except their economic function, tilling a cemetery for their own dead bodies. Note that this is a free peasantry, emancipated from landlords and into misery.

Ask Joseph Murphy what is driving him mad and he will perhaps tell you some of this. But the wounds go back into Ireland’s history, and are clearly described by Hugh Brody in his earlier chapters on the destruction of the Irish peasantry by imperialism and trade.

The most concise word to describe the peasant remnants is ‘demoralisation’. Loss of morale is a social as well as an individual phenomenon, and Brody’s book manages to be sensitive both to the impact of historical violence and to the sum of small local desperations of Inishkillane.

He suggests there are links between the destruction of such communities and major mental disorder. Ireland has an unusually high rate of severe mental illness, especially among unmarried men, and this is particularly striking in the agricultural West. In 1963, for example, schizophrenia was 55 times as common among Irish farmworkers as among employers and managers.

The usual ‘radical’ case put forward to link family structure with mental illness is prone to assume that it is ‘the family’ – not specified in any particular historical context – that drives people crazy. Brody’s analysis spells out the role of a particular kind of family in a particular economy, and emphasises that it is the loss of family rather than the pressure of family that causes the severest stress.

Joseph Murphy was not in the end diagnosed or sent to hospital. His cousin Cornelius rolled up and talked with him enough to tide him over into a calmer phase of life. The family and the mental institution remain as the major alternatives of human shelter in the cold world of capitalism.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 16.1.2005