“Inis Beag” The fictious name Inis Beag refers to one of the islands located in the Irish Gaeltacht. During the 60’s, it was home to just 350 people, who were primarily farmers and fishers. John C Messenger, a cultural anthropologist, travelled to Inis Beag several times with his wife during the years 1961-1966, after an initial visit in the fifties. Messenger’s main goal with these visits was to document the technological, economnic, political, social, religious, esthetic, and recreational aspects of Inis Beag’s culture.
In this book, Messanger goes in depth to explain the ultural backgrounds of Inis Beag, as well as the current condition of the island. After spending nineteen months on the island, Messenger discovered many surprising aspects of the culture on Inis Beag that were unique to the rest of Ireland. Before Messenger delved into the more contemporary cultural aspects of the Island, he gave a brief overview of the Island’s history, starting with its prehistoric period, which began in 9000 BC, and ended in 500 AD.
No evidence of Paleolithic civilization has been found on Inis Beag, but the Mesolithic has been dated from 6500 to 3000 BC, which suggests that Inis Beag may have een inhabited by those of the Ice Age. The Neolithic period only lasted 1000 years, leaving remnants behind that point to a merging with the early Mesolithic and the late copper-bronze age forms. Evidence points to an Iron age culture after the arrival of the Celts at around 350 BC. By the year 431, the Iron age ended at the arrival of St. Patrick, who aimed to convert the Celts to Christianity.
After this, Inis Beag and its neighboring islands quickly became a huge focus for religious activity, with over a hundred saints having lived or visited there. St. Enda of the Aran Islands, St. Columbkille, St. Kieran, St. Brendan, and St. Kevin. During the mid-sixties, Inis Beag was inhabited by about 350 people who were divided into four villages from west to east, known as Low, High, Castle, and Terrace. On the island’s 1440 acres of land, there is a large beach, four rift valleys and a 90-feet deep fresh water lake, along with one small church. There is one school on the island, known as the “national school” which has seven grades.
One radio telephone can be found on the island which is used by residents between the hours of nine o’clock in the morning and six at night. The villagers get their water from four wells near each village, or from the water springs from back and along the shores of the island. While explaining the general lifestyle of the people, Messenger explains that “Health services are provided to the folk by a nurse, a doctor who lives in a neighboring island, and a medical and dental personnel from the mainland who visit the island occasionally for specific examination and treatment purposes” (17).
Usually, the doctor will come to Inis Beag once a month, visiting the seriously ill. In the case of serious mergency, the doctor is brought over to the island in a lifeboat. Messenger stated that the island’s climate experiences severe storms during the winter months, and that the overall climate of Inis Beag could be described as cool, humid, rainy, and windy. On the subject of clothing, most of the males on the island prefer to wear homespun vests and blue woolen shirts. Women wear ankle length red and blue woolen skirts.
Infants wear plain bawneen dresses, while boys wear shorts made from homespun wool, and white sweaters or blue shirts. Girls wear dresses and sweaters. This was considered to be the local dress, with only 11 adult males and 9 adult females having deviated from it. Most of these people had done away with the local dress customs while they were in the mainland or travelling abroad. The topic of sex in Inis Beag is among Messenger’s most recognized pieces of research. After reading Messenger’s reports on how sex was regarded on the island, many have dubbed Inis Beag “the most sexually repressed culture in the world.
Things like nudity are regarded as inherently sexual, which has led to many issues within the island, sometimes resulting in death. Messenger explains, “The sexual symbolism of nudity not only has resulted in the drowning of seamen who might have saved themselves had they been able to swim, but in the death of men who were unwilling to face the nurse when ill, because it might mean baring their bodies to her, and thus were beyond help when finally treated” (110). According to Messenger, Inis Beag had a great lack of sexual knowledge, leading to many misconceptions about subjects such as puberty.
In girls, experiencing menstruation for the first time can often be a traumatic experience, with their mothers not willing or able o explain it fully. The overall position the islanders take on sex may be the cause of their unusual views on marriage. Separation of sexes is rampant on the island, and as Messenger explains it, “With the separation of the sexes from late infancy on, the ubiquity of gossip and opprobrium, and the actions of priests-courting almost has disappeared, and it is not uncommon for a couple awaiting their wedding to have little personal knowledge of one another” (79).
When villagers were asked their opinions of marriage, one answered that marriage is simply a matter of “making a good living. According to Messenger, the relationship between married couples in Inis Beag is a very stern, somewhat distant relationship compared to other cultures. A commonly held belief on the island was that husbands and wives never walk together, although Messenger stated that there were two couples on the island that deviated from this idea. A woman’s role in the marriage is very traditional, leading to frustration with many women.
Messanger explained that, “Women commonly express jealously of and resentment against not only what they consider the less time onsuming and stressful work load of men, but also the greater freedom enjoyed by their husbands. Many time women confided to my wife that they are greatly distressed at being forced to remain home minding their children and performing tedious household chores, while their spouses range the entire island and the sea about it in their economic pursuits and are involved in numerous social activities forbidden by custom to women. (77). Messenger also added, that it was common for many married couples who had former disputes with each other to not speak to one another except formally, for years. The revalence of mental issues on the island was another topic Messenger discussed in his reports. Hypochondria and depression were common in Inis Beag, as was sexual puritanism and masochism. Due to the intense level of religious restriction, poverty, and societal expectations, many islanders have adopted a very negative lifestyle filled with jealousy and gossip.
Messenger added that “During winter months; numbing boredom and the dearth of social activities; for women, and the lack of freedom and of attention and affection from their spouses, as well as the necessity of enduring isolation and its epressive effects on the islanders, and the folk themselves constantly complain of being shut off from the world and prey to wind, rain, fog, and raging sea” (111. Although Messenger implies that the islanders may be experiencing a depressed mood due to their surroundings, he adds that other neighboring islands experience a similar environment do not experience the same incidents, implying that the cause of these problems might be rooted at the restricted lifestyle those living in Inis Beag are forced to endure. Inis Beag is a great example of a cultural tudy that displays one extreme view regarding sexual repression.
Messenger’s multiple year study on the island revealed many things about the civilization’s unique culture, including things such as how marriage is viewed from both genders, and the lack of sexual knowledge due to a very repressed ideology held by the islanders. Messenger also analyzed issues regarding the people of the island, regarding hypochondria and depression, and provided important nation to the public regarding how strict, traditional customs can lead to various negative effects if taken too far.