Ageing in Ireland

098

I've got a book review forthcoming in Ageing and Society – people interested in Ireland, ageing and multi-method social research might be interested in it. 

Carmel Gallagher, The Community Life of
Older People in Ireland
, Peter Lang AG, Bern, Switzerland, 2008, 383pp., pbk
£44.00, ISBN 13: 978 3 03911 386 6.

As one older person interviewed in this book notes ‘they [older people] kept the country ticking over until the Celtic Tiger arrived’ (184). Ireland’s recent rapid economic growth has stalled but it wrought huge social changes which impacted directly on older people. In the process the lives of older people have become central to debates about the social fabric of a changed country. Older people are at the heart of debates about issues such as rural isolation, declining cohesion and the role of the Church. 

Early on in this book, the author quotes  anthropologists Arensberg and Kimball ,who noted that rural Ireland in the 1930s had become 'in some ways an old person's country’. However, they suggested that ‘they live long because they have so much to live for’ (Arensberg and Kimball 1968: 162). Gallagher’s book examines the lives of older people, in a rural (Rathbeg, County Donegal) and urban (Rathmore, Dublin) context, and explores what it is that older people in these two pseudonymous field sites live for. 

Using both ethnographic and survey methods, Gallagher's account focuses squarely on the idea and reality of community in a rapidly changing society. She views community as a ‘pattern of social organisation and culturally defined way of life’ and stresses the importance of seeing it through the lens of geographic localities in which layers of multiple social networks (for example friends, families, neighbours and fellow Church goers) are bounded by everyday routines and interactions. The author’s avowed intent is to provide a humanistic account of ageing in Ireland and to focus on the meaning of life for older people. 

Gallagher is careful not to lift her two fieldsites out of context. The policy frameworks which shape the ageing experience are rendered in sufficient detail for the reader to understand the development of policy relevant to older people in Ireland during the last half century, and to grasp how this relates to the nature of communal provision of care and support that involve voluntary activity. Her aim is not to catalogue what care and support is provided, but rather to describe what people gain from involving themselves in its provision. However, in a context where, to quote the 1988 report The Years Ahead, ‘as much as half of the home help services, almost all of the meals-on-wheels and laundry service, and a sizeable proportion of day care centres…are run by voluntary organisations’ this contribution is not unimportant (1988: 25). 

The author structures much of her material around the survey data – moving from an overview of the contexts of ageing and old age in Ireland, and social policy, to provide an account of leisure and social activities, the meaning of place, and significant communal settings. The existence of ethnographic and survey data allows the author to restore to apparently mundane activities such as bingo, a sense of their positive unintended benefits in terms of social connectedness and shared social experience. The author is at pains to stress that all such activities have a value beyond the purely instrumental. She mobilises survey data to demonstrate that in both communities studied there is a strong relationship between older people maintaining interests and involvement in community, and their enjoyment of life. However, the broader exploration of place and relationships promises more than it delivers and the reader is left with tantalising glimpses of how the account and argument might be more fully developed. 

Those expecting a richly ethnographic account may be disappointed by this volume. Despite the praiseworthy attention to detail and the rigorous, sensitive and sophisticated analysis of multiple data types, the voice of older people themselves somehow fail to break through. Those unfamiliar with urban or rural Ireland might feel hard pressed to visualise the world Gallagher is portraying. The book contains no images and there are no case studies or cameos to help break the author's third person narrative grip. Many of the themes therefore feel underdeveloped, especially in relation to the author’s focus on meaning making. However, there is much to commend this book and readers will learn how older people in two very different parts of Ireland reside in, and create communities, through their involvements in local life. Students of Irish culture and society, and of ageing in Europe, will find this book indispensible in developing an understanding of the ageing process in modern day Ireland. This book is a welcome addition to the literature on social connectedness and social activities and their role in creating meaningful and positive experiences in later life. 

[1.] Arensberg, C. and Kimball, S. 1968. Family and Community in Ireland. Clasp Press: Ennis, Ireland. 

[2.] Department of Health. 1988. The Years Ahead: A Policy for the Elderly. Stationary Office: Dublin.