Culture is one of the factors contributing to the distinctiveness and social coherence of a region. It consists of a whole bundle of material and non-material traits which have built up over time, including tools and implements of economic and domestic activity as well as customs, language and beliefs.
Language is often held to be a key feature of cultural identity. The speaking of Irish Gaelic, or Gaeilge, has been fostered by subsidy and exhortation since the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, but only in parts of the West has it remained an active element in the way of life. Closely associated with the language in cultural survival and revival, is the music and dancing familiar to tourists, and the strong oral tradition of songs and storytelling.
There are also distinctive customs and behaviour in the West, including religious practices which blend the universalism of Catholicism with more ancient religious traditions at, for example, weddings and wakes (funerals), and in conjunction with the seasons, which were of intimate significance in a dominantly agrarian society. For example, St Brigid's day on February 1 ‘marks the beginning of the pastoral year… With many superstitious practices, more or less Christianised. The making of protective charms known as St Brigid’s crosses continues and illustrates how the Church has won over pagan symbols, for the “crosses” take the form of swastikas or lozenges which comparative evidence suggests are magical symbols of songs or eyes' ( E. Estyn Evans, 1957).
Such survivals of a peasant society and its folk culture emphasize a sense of continuity with the past, and are important in understanding the present distinctive character of the region.
Regional distinctiveness in the West of Ireland is not just cultural. There are other combinations of elements which in turn combine with one another and with the culture to make the region distinctive. For example, the West of Ireland is also characterised as ‘rural’ and predominantly agricultural. The pastoral tradition has dominated Irish life through the ages, and local culture and society have developed in relation to this. But the pastoral economy is not simply a response to the good growth of grass: it is related to the wider economic and political concept of the relationship with Britain and Europe. For those who have exported cattle, there has often been a good living, but for a very large proportion of the population, agriculture was the sole means of subsistence, the land providing food, fuel (turf) and building materials.
Now move on to read about The rural dimension – rundale in the West of Ireland.
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See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection
This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.