New research charts the evolution of the Irish family

Posted on: 08 December 2016

Through in-depth interviews with 240 Irish people, the research contained in a new book Family Rhythms paints an incredibly detailed picture of today’s family in Ireland. By contrasting families past and present, the authors demonstrate how families have become smaller, more diverse, with more involved fathers and with a greater reliance on grandparent support, but with ongoing differences in education and opportunity based on class and single versus double-parent households.

Some of the key findings described in the book include:

  • Older stereotypes of large Irish households dominated by authoritarian patriarchs or of ageing bachelor brothers living together in rural isolation no longer hold when it comes to families in Ireland today. Rather, diversity is the new norm, with a range of family types making up the familial landscape of contemporary Irish society. The traditional nuclear family continues to be prevalent. Yet alongside it are sizable numbers of single-parent families, migrant families, mixed-nationality families, gay and lesbian families, married couples as well as those cohabiting, living-apart-together (LATs) couples, and families split across countries by emigration.
  • In all these instances, each displays a remarkable resilience in times of crisis, coming together in new and often surprising ways to ensure the continuity of family life throughout turbulent periods.
  • As Irish demographic patterns have converged with those of our European counterparts – namely, falling fertility rates to an average of just under two children per woman in 2016 – the lives of children have altered considerably. Fewer siblings (lateral kin relations) means children nowadays search upwards for family bonds, oftentimes developing significant connections with grandparents (vertical kin relations). This is a major change in the nature of Irish childhood over recent decades
  • Yet there remain distinct varieties of Irish childhoods, with those from professional, middle-class backgrounds continuing to experience advantages in terms of negotiating success in the Irish educational system. This is partly explained by the widespread phenomenon among affluent households of ‘concerted cultivation’ – the deliberate investment by parents of time and resources in extra-curricular activities for their children. Children growing up in more disadvantaged backgrounds experience less of this concerted cultivation, subsequently reaping less rewards in educational outcomes.
  • Another sea-change has been witnessed in gender ideologies around what constitutes ‘good’ fatherhood in recent decades. Today’s fathers, especially, are much more involved in their children’s upbringing when contrasted with fathers from earlier generations. At the same time, like their forebears, today’s fathers express remorse over their absences from the home, as they continue to work considerably longer hours than mothers.
  • Of all family types, single parent female-headed households remain at the greatest risk of poverty.
  • Grandparents’ contribution to the provisioning of support to families – financial and care-giving – has been consistently underestimated in previous academic and policy reports. Without these grandparental supports, young families would struggle to ever secure a toehold on the property ladder, while childcare costs would become prohibitively expensive for many. This vital role played by grandparents, however, is generally stronger on the maternal than the paternal side.
  • Irish families are now broadly similar to European patterns – nuclear in form, small in size, often dual-income. This is a major change from only a few decades ago, where Irish demography was somewhat of an exception – often multigenerational in form, large in size, supported financially by a single male breadwinner.

Rather than looking at ‘the family’ as an institution, the authors follow new sociological approaches that consider families as complex configurations of practices between different actors. That is, they analyse a wide range of acts, both symbolic and mundane, that people engage in on a daily basis to make family life happen. In doing so, Family Rhythms considers all members of families – from parents, to children, to grandparents, to those beyond immediate kin like cousins, uncles, aunts, neighbours, and friends. It also situates Irish families within a broader European and international context.

David Ralph, Assistant Professor of Sociology Trinity College Dublin, said: “Most books on the family, implicitly or not, focus on people in their ‘middle years’ – people who are at the stage of family formation, where they find a partner, then decide to have children or not. Family Rhythms is careful to avoid this focus on just one generation, and expands to take in both younger and older generations, namely children and grandparents. What this intergenerational lens allows for is a wide-ranging survey of the Irish family – how it has changed, how it has remained the same – over the sweep of the last century.”

Jane Gray, Professor of Sociology, Maynooth University and co-author of the book, said: “It is necessary to avoid both over-estimating the challenges families face and over-stating the extent to which families are able to cope with whatever social and economic change throws at them. Most importantly, we must be attentive to how different groups of people have varying capacities to mobilize and achieve family relationships in ways that promote resilience in different socio-historical contexts.”

Family Rhythms is a user-friendly textbook situating Irish families within a broader European and international context. With an explicit focus on what is both commonplace and exceptional to the Irish family, it provides a wide-ranging introduction to the sociology of family life.

It also provides summaries of previous landmark research on the Irish family. It considers a number of contemporary studies examining the impact of both boom and bust on present-day Irish families, as well as looks to more classic, almost forgotten studies of the Irish family during the early decades of the 20th century.

Throughout, the authors discuss policy implications for families based on the latest insights from the sociological literature.

Family Rhythms: The Changing Textures of Family Life in Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2016), by Jane Gray, Ruth Geraghty, and David Ralph, pp.272, ISBN: 978-0-7190-9152-0, is available at all good bookshops, priced €19.99.

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