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A Social Scientist Goes Into A Bar

Not just any bar– This is Eileen’s Bar in the tiny village of Kilcrohane in West Cork, Ireland.

This is the center of the town. See the musicians gathered in a circle? They face each other, rather than an audience. That intimacy lets the music lift from a center, into the air. I pulled up a stool.

Then, they moved inside. IKarumba is the name of the band.

To the left, the floor slants up to the bar. The ceiling is low and there’s the feeling that the place was dug out of the earth instead of built with beams and stucco. I wondered, “Is it the people and the events in it that make a place into a place?” And I thought about how, when you really want to learn about a community, you have to be vulnerable to it. You have to accept that you are the stranger and even embrace that notion. It’s a version of “participant observation,” a practice that lets you observe while you let down your guard and join in. At the end of the playing, I took the guitarist’s hat and circled for donations. “Could you be our manager?” He said.

He’d pegged me for an American, I realized. We have the reputation of managing talents into cash, I supposed. We sat and told stories in that bar and I felt what it was like to be a part of something, something vibrant in a small place on a big spread of land that leaned into the sea.

Globalization on a small scale

I’ve been staying on the Sheepshead Peninsula in West Cork, Ireland. There, I met Charlie Donovan, a man who taught me about the land and his history there. Charlie is in his eighties and he came over to mow the field next to the house. Here he is:

Charlie was born in the house where he lives. “Six generations of us,” he says. When he was a boy, “six families made their living here,” he says. The farms were full of sheep and cattle and every family made a living. Charlie handed over his farm to his son Paul and Paul works for the electric utility by day and then farms after hours. He works hard. Even here, in the most remote part of Ireland, farmers have a tough time getting by.

I spent some great moments with Charlie– sipping whiskey, talking about growing potatoes, how he gets his dog, Skippy, to line up the cattle and life to come on the Sheepshead. From his stories, I could see the past and felt the chill of life to come in this place.