Cultural Anthropology


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In his article The River would Run Red with Blood', Larry Taylor attempts to understand and put forward the answer to what appears to modern society to be a puzzling question. He is doing ethnographic research into an economically depressed area in Donegal; a community known as Teelin where an actively progressive priest, Fr James McDyer provides the community with a possible solution to the economic downturn. However, the priest's proposal was, in every sense, overlooked. As rational as it appears to be the peoples of the community completely ignored it. Taylor attempts to discover and understand why, why a community would refuse or ignore such a rational proposition, one which could possibly provide great benefits to the said community? This question becomes even more puzzling when Taylor discloses that the proposal put forward by Fr McDyer would simply entail the commercialisation of a system which is already in place and appears to work extremely well. Taylor therefore wishes to discover why, if they were accustomed to such a system, were the fishermen so averse to the priest's suggestion that they more completely regulate their own fishery by first corporately buying it?' (1987:297).

Taylor successfully constructs a conceptual account of how the local people viewed the situation by looking at the community and its historical past. In Taylor's account it appears at first as if there are a number of reasons which when combined, provides an answer to the question at hand, however, a closer look at Taylor's work shows that the overall difficulty with the priests proposal it that of authority. The community as a whole appears to have difficultly with the notion of authority, and prefers to keep all forms of authority to do with the fishery external to the community. Or as Taylor put it, the location of ultimate authority outside such communities safeguards their egalitarian ethos and strengthens the conditions for cooperation among equals' (1987:305). Taylor points out that there are several historical precedents which provide evidence that Teelin, like many other Irish communities, was a centre for common property and landholding systems, so Fr McDyer's proposal should not have come as such a surprise to the community, as common property ownership was part of their historical culture.

This type of system was present up until the end of the eighteenth century when English landlords replaced it with individual tenancies, and it was at this point that external forms of authority developed. Since this time, the community of Teelin, although respecting the right to private ownership, had showed hostility towards external authorities, and it was this enmity which was culturally and historically carried forward. The rotation system may be relevantly new, but the underlying difficulty with authority appears to be an historical concern. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries priests held strong authoritarian positions in and around Ireland. The fact that Fr McDyer held an authoritarian position may prove to explain, in part at least, the communities' opposition to his proposal, as they may have seen it as the latest imposition of external authorities' (1987:301). As Taylor's research shows that riverine salmon have long been a privately or institutionally owned and managed resource', except of course in the case of Teelin (1987: 294). In 1959 with the objective to preserve the Gaeltacht area, Gael-linn purchased Teelin's River, and along with the Irish government they imposed certain rights and restrictions over fishing in the river with the hope of conserving the resources according to Taylor. However, due to the lack of man-power and being ill-resourced the regulations created by both the government and Gael-linn were rarely enforced.

Both Gael-linn and the Irish Government are sources of external authority in the eyes of the Teelin community, and as they do not enforce the rules and regulations, that which is their responsibility, the people of Teelin do not believe that their fishing activities are entirely illegitimate' (Taylor:1987:296). The community informally regulates the fishing activities within, and they do this without interference from external authorities' (Taylor:1987:296). To some, this informal regulation may seem to provide evidence that Fr McDyer's scheme would work, but this is to look at it from the wrong prospective. The reason the informal rotation systems works so efficiently is precisely because there is no internal authority, all are seen as equal within their egalitarian type society. Any form of authority is external to the community, and this is the way the Teelins wish to keep it. Through his research Taylor discovered that the community generally believed that their rotation system was not to do with formal organisation, but was rather what they considered the natural way' (1987:297). Many pointed out that the system was present before their fathers and their fathers before that, however, throughout the piece Taylor provides evidence to the contrary, and shows that the natural way' was almost certainly not the way it had always been, but rather the way the Teelins wished it to be.

This could be a case of what Eric Hobsbawm termed, invented tradition. Invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past' (1992:1). Hobsbawm argues that the invention of tradition is universal, but occurs most frequently during periods of rapid' social change, when functions' of invented traditions are to legitimise relations of authority' and to establish or symbolise social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities' (1992:4:9). The possibility is present that Taylor wished not to invoke the notion of invented tradition' in his article for the fear of challenging or openly questioning the cultural history of the people he was overtly researching. It is also a possibility that by presenting it as the natural way the locals believed the system would not be called into question, and therefore, they could avoid all the difficulties that change could bring about.

Within the rotation system, it is evident from Taylor's research that no one in the community is seen to have the powers to openly reprimand one who transgresses or breaks the rules; as no one wishes to take on such an authoritative role. When transgressions do occur the locals seem to selectively forget, just as they seem to have forgotten their historical past. As reports show that there was piscatorial strife, of herring fishermen shooting their nets across one another's, with resulting fights and even lawsuits' (Taylor:1987:298). It is possible that they have chosen to forget their historical pasts in order to create a new cultural identity, one without authority, unless it is external, and therefore, one without strife. What Fr McDyer did not realise when he suggested his proposal was that poaching in the eyes of the locals was not truly illegal; as they saw it, the external authority failed to impose those rules and therefore the locals had every right to use the resources within their community in whatever way they saw fit. Poaching was a valued tradition' amongst the locals which they were not willing to give up to Fr McDyer's proposal (Taylor:1987:300). It may be affecting the resources, which many locals accepted, but they did not see that it was up to them to prevent such. They believed it was for the external authorities to ensure poaching was prevented, and by not doing so, it legitimised it in their eyes.

The locals believed that Fr McDyer had confused the notion of common ownership with that of cooperation; furthermore, they could not comprehend how on the one hand he expected them to act as friends and equals and on the other to act as businessmen. As the locals saw it, businessmen act independently, in self-interest, whereas family and community work as one. Generally Taylor discovered that the locals had no objection to the idea of private ownership per se, it was more so, that they as a community did not want to take on such responsibility, as it would entail taking on authoritative roles, thus each one of them would become a bailiff to some extent. This was not an appealing proposal to the Teelin community who preferred to turn to external authorities when and if necessary. If they were to accept McDyer's proposal they would experience an uncommon restraint' in having to refrain from poaching which considering the tradition was most unlikely (Taylor:1987:303). Therefore, they would end up trying to police one another to try and ensure that poaching did not continue in the interest of the business, which, according to the locals would destroy the sense of closeness and cooperation present within the community. They believed, they would become everything that a community is not and ought not to be, and this was simply not acceptable, as one man said we're all to close here' (Taylor:1987:303).

Therefore, according to Taylor, the locals saw the proposal as creating serious role conflicts within and amongst themselves. If they accepted it, different authoritative positions would arise within their egalitarian community, were they presently saw and accepted one another as equals. To disrupt this equality and impose levels of authority would surely, they believed, cause the river to run red with blood' (Taylor:1987:303). Rather than work as a community using the present system, where each naturally cooperated with the next, each individual and or family would take on their own ideals, in the race for capital and its benefits. It is the fact that they, as a community, do not own the river and its resources, that enables them to cooperate so easily. Whereas, if they bought the river each individual would be driven to seek greater gain, as greater gain is the ultimate outcome of capitalism. They community at large believed in the current system where authority was located externally. Ultimately, Taylor shows that Teelin as a community is defined in relation to external sources of authority' and there rejection of the proposal was really the refusal of authority within the community itself (1987:303).

Hobsbawm, Eric John and Terence O Ranger. (1992), The Invention of Traditon. (Cambridge University Press).

Taylor, Larry (1987), The River Would Run Red with Blood''': Community and Common Property in and Irish Settlement', pp,291-307 in Mc Cay, B. and J.Acheson, eds, The Question of the Commons. (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press).

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