Comparison of Family Traditions and Identity of the Irish Family and the Georgian Family

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The pre-modern Irish family was controlled mainly by the church and the ideologies circulating around the clergy, there has been a shift in roles, ideologies and morals to the now, modern Irish family, the one we see today. The Irish family is not so different than any other European family as it followed the same patterns and while Ireland may have been behind following some of these patterns, there were moments in history where the Irish family was different, but it always caught up to everybody else around them. There is, however, a huge difference between the Irish family of today and the Irish family pre-modernity, we have come a long way, from being scared to stray from the safe family model instituted by the church, from now having our own set of morals conjured up by the Irish people themselves, not only the clergy. I will discuss the ways in which the Irish family has progressed throughout history and the turning points that lead the Irish family to be what it is today, I will also compare the Irish family nowadays with one that resembles the pre-modern Irish family, the Georgian family.

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Ireland pre-modern era was one that was ruled and run by the Church. People were religious and showed respect to the clergy, this could have been because there were threats put onto the people if you ‘stepped out of line’, the threat of being sent to hell, being punished by the law, the retraction of goods, food etc. Irish people and families abided by these rules set in place by the clergy because they did not know better, even if they thought the clergy were wrong, they did not feel like they had the power to argue, ‘Irish Catholics were not prisoners of their church. They were prepared to ignore those aspects of its teaching, such as its encouragement of early marriage, which did not suit them’ (Kennedy 2001:152(McCullagh 1991: 201)). 

Another factor was that, everything negative and sinful that happened day to day was kept behind closed doors, nobody else saw what was happening except of course the ‘sinners’ however, sins did occur in Ireland and unfortunately a lot of the time by the clergy themselves, the morals concerning certain parts of life largely contradicted themselves and did not coincide with what the clergy was preaching, as Ronan said, ‘sex is the only sin in Ireland. You can go to confession and say you got drunk or were uncharitable and it doesn’t matter. But anything to do with sex and the ‘gates of hell’ are wide open for you.’ (Kennedy 2001: 154 (Ronan 1969:75)) Decades prior to the Famine there was an exceptionally high number of early marriages and the fertility was also quite high, which resulted in large numbered families and a boom in population. The Famine and the Industrialisation of the UK brought the second ‘phase’ of Irish families, people began to marry later, there didn’t seem to be as much of a rush and due to the low morale of the general public after such a disastrous few decades, fertility rates dropped, and sexuality became controlled once again.

The shift from large families to small families with only 4 children per family (average) brought about yet another baby boom in Europe, families were once again getting larger however, Ireland stayed behind these patterns and started to slow down, Ireland was still following the European ways of family life however it was always a couple of steps behind. The Sexual Revolution brought about a shift in mentality, from a once, church ruled country, to a secular country with the power to re-invent themselves as a nation. Happening slightly after the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution brought about confidence, freedom of choice, happiness, a different kind of education and a more expressive Ireland. After being repressed for so many years, believing everything the church told you because they had a ‘higher power’ or so they made the laity believe, this new found power within the people brought about this revolution, as Kevin O’Higgins said, “We were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution” (Kennedy,2001: 151 (PDDE 2: 11)). The thing is, all Irish people are aware of the power they have as a nation however it is not always easy to just act and rebel, but when we do, we defy any odds people may have had against us, in Weber’s terms, ‘Irish Catholics are moving more towards an inner-worldly, ascetic-type of religion in which people work hard and focus on what is happening in this world’ (Inglis, 1998: 244)

Like previously mentioned, the Irish family is quite European-like, the only difference is that we are behind on a lot of important aspects. Contraceptives were introduced to Ireland in 1979 but were not fully utilised and accepted (mostly by the clergy) until 1994 whereas there was a widespread use of contraceptives by the Catholics, ‘It illustrates that religious doctrines will be disobeyed when they run strongly against the interest of church members’ (Kennedy, 2001:151(Becker 1989: XIV)), divorce was not legalised in Ireland until 1995 whereas it was introduced in Belgium in 1974, (under some ground rules). The point I am trying to make is that, yes Ireland and Irish families seem to be ‘behind’ on a lot of things, still to this day, but we are open and when changes get introduced, we, most of the time, accept and adopt them. While we are still very much behind on other issues, for example the issue of abortion in Ireland, which was not legalised until 2018/2019, it is also because we were, primarily and still are a Catholic country, even though we are not governed by the sovereignty (clergy) anymore, our morals are still first and foremost, religious, and while we have proved that a lot of religious ideologies are wrong, (in the sense of morally right and morally wrong), some Irish still think this way, hence why the votes between voting yes or no in relation to abortion was not necessarily one-sided (not fully yes or fully no).

A good example is something which I witnessed only a few days ago, Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent, a day which is holy is all its definitions, however, most of the people I spoke to on Ash Wednesday have followed the tradition of the cross on the forehead and lent until Easter but none of these people considered themselves religious in any way, it has just become a tradition that, every year on this day you get marked with a cross and you give up something ‘unhealthy’ for you, be it food, bad habits etc. Nobody knows the real reason they do it anymore, just that it has been the norm since ‘forever’ and they must continue following their traditions, which is the way many people live their lives, we are social creatures and we follow the majority. Obedience to the clergy has always been stressed in Ireland, more so back then however it is still present nowadays, ‘A priest is still respected nowadays but people are not in awe or reverence, his word is one of many’ (Inglis, 1998:244)

The Irish family roles also shifted historically, as with most other European countries, this shift completely governs how the Irish family is and stands for today. The ‘de Valera’ family was the stereotypical family in Ireland pre-modern era. The martyred mother, large number of children and the stern, kind, bread-winning father. With new ideologies, improved morals and a sense of individualization, the change began, ‘Irish families quickly becoming smaller, more democratic, less rigid in their division of roles, more expressive and affectionate and increasingly preoccupied with getting their children through higher education’ (Fahey 2014: 70). With the emergence of education and a sense of individualization by the public, genders became unbalanced, ‘The woman in the couple increasingly tends to be better educated and have a higher occupational classification than the man’ (Lunn and Fahey, 2006: 103-104) The new found-popularity of education made people more open to different aspects of life, i.e. Women can be the ‘bread-winner’s’ and men can be the stay at home parent, men are not necessarily meant to be the ‘hard lads’ they once were expected to be, women do not have to be the housewives anymore.

The stereotypes of a perfect family have been extinguished and nowadays people can adopt any role they wish to adopt, (except for a few cases). Irish people are typically nice, welcoming, inviting etc. The reason for this is because they are, for the most part, open-minded, and that is due to the shift in morale from religious to secular. Most ‘sinful’ things in life were completely forbidden; cohabitation, sex before marriage etc however they still took place and people were deprived from this freedom, the want to change and to enjoy life as much as you can really helped the Irish people build their identities. With the change in dynamic there is also a change in attitudes, since people were basically forced to marry in the past, there seems to be a rebellion against getting married and having kids, it isn’t compulsory nowadays, ‘The role of marriage in family formation is less dominant and clear cut than it once was’ (Fahey and Russell, 2001:10). The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is the country which still seems to follow religious ideologies. With most of the population considering themselves Orthodox Christian, they still follow the rules and ideologies set in place by the clergy. Having a reliable source of information from a Georgian friend of mine I can safely say that there are rules which resemble those of pre-famine and post-famine Ireland, laws such as, prohibition of sex before marriage for the woman, arranged marriages, marrying young, acting holy and being aware of everything you do as not to offend anyone.

The difference between Georgia and Ireland is that, unfortunately Georgians must still follow the clergy as their sovereignty, whereas, us Irish have moved on and have had the possibility and the chance to escape. There are of course a lot of differences between Ireland and Georgia, for example we are not threatened by wars whereas, Georgia is always under threat, with an unstable government, it would make sense as to why it can be compared to pre and post Famine Ireland. The typical Georgian family which I have witnessed a lot, is one which is quiet, secretive, aggressive and judgemental, the typical signs of a country that has been repressed and controlled. Comparing a Georgian family to an Irish family would not be fair as there are many factors affecting both, however, there is a huge difference and the lengths the Irish family has had to go through to get to where they are today requires some recognition. So, if I am to base my argument off the comparison of Irish families, Georgian families and other European families, I would say, yes, the Irish family is different, their journey has been different, their timing has been different and the way the Irish family represents itself now, is different to others.

I am originally Belgian and even though it is an advanced country, I can say for sure that Irish families are kinder than most and more welcoming than a lot and that has a lot to do with the changes it’s had to go through over the past couple of decades, the nation is unified when incidents occur and that is very important.

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