Authority in the Village from Italy to Ireland October 18, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
Beach lives today in a small village in central Italy. The village is isolated and there has been little marriage with ‘outsiders’. Up on the hills, barely disturbed by such inconveniences as the twentieth century – the Germans occupied for a couple of weeks and blew up half a dozen houses – the folk kicking around the village have long memories of the I-m-going-to-short-change-you-because-your-granddady-stole-my-granddaddy’s-cows kind. It is fascinating to watch these dynamics in action: like being in a very unusual version of Sims – all dogs and tractors, instead of remote controls and laptops. And one of the things that is most fascinating is the way that authority is spread around the village. Authority is a strange thing, overlooked by historians and sociologists who are far more interested in leadership, an overlapping but emphatically different trait. Leadership is not just the ability to lead people but also the desire to do so. Authority is the innate fact that you are respected by those around you and authority all too often seems to depend on the fact that the individual in question has relatively little interest in leading. A mile from where Beach is writing is an old man living alone with his wife, now both in their 80s. He is a classic example of village authority. He is admired, he is approached for advice and memories and when he raises his voice everyone listens. He is utterly unassuming though and if there was a mayor in this village he wouldn’t and would never have run for office: though some would have tried to push him into it. When he dies the church will be packed and three dozen extra folding seats will be set up outside: how many people come to your funeral is a village way of measuring these things.
Beach was reminded of village authority by a paragraph in the writing of that fine Irish folklorist, James Delaney who put tgoether some outstanding articles in the 1980s and has now sadly passed on. (One of the great lost Irish fairy books is JD’s The Lone Bush: A Collection of Legends of the Good People from the Irish Midlands and if any of James’ relatives read this we’d love to hear from you: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com) JD describes in his writing one of his very favourite informants Pat Condon of Meelgarrow. JD had been in touch with Pat, an extremely affable and helpful farmer for many years and JD had always been fond of the man. But he confessed to being amazed when, on Pat’s death, the widow sent the obituary of Pat from the local newspaper and he read about Pat’s other life off the farm. Pat the ‘simple’ Irish peasant had actually been a pivotal local figure. He had organized local Gaelic sports and had been ‘honoured with a Wexford jersey’, i.e. played for the county, a very big deal. He had been a chairman of the local council and the County health board. And the fact that says it all for his generation, he had organized the local volunteers (i.e. those prepared to fight for a free Ireland) from 1913 (not 1918 or 1920) and he was able to tell tales of his great uncles who had fought for a free Ireland in 1798: ‘though victory crowned not their fall with applause’. JD notes that he was amazed because ‘Egotism and self-laudation were foreign to his modest and unassuming ways.’ There is no doubt that those positions he held were ones Pat gravitated into or came to through a sense of duty: Pat certainly seems not to have had an ounce of ambition beyond his farm.
These figures are the salt of history, emerging in communities that don’t have instutional power structures or at least not effective ones. They will have been there among the hunter-gatherers who decided to plant grains and hang around to see what happened. They will have been there in the gangs pulling the pyramid stones into place. They will have been there in the populus in Rome and Carthage. They will have appeared in the medieval communes and in the early modern revolts. They were there in our grandparents time in the trenches and, of course, they are there in our own. What makes them particularly fascinating is that they tend to be invisible, simply because they don’t particularly want to be noticed. Yet anyone who has ever written a historical work will know they are lurking: they are the people who you keep bumping into in the charters, and the archive records, the names that come up at unexpected junctures and with an unaccountable frequency. They don’t write books but sometimes books are dedicated to them. It pains Beach to say this but probably Marxist historians have come closest to doing these individuals justice: particularly Gramsci. But, of course, there the human spirit was drowned in the treacle of dialectical materialism and these gentle folk were caricatured as ‘revolutionary leaders’, which is a little like calling bat urine ‘a flash of gold in the dark’. (PS that last bit has been stolen from someone but I can’t remember whom)
26 Oct 2013: The great Mike Dash writes in with a reflection on this. ‘When I was writing my book Satan’s Circus, on police corruption in early 1900s New York in the heyday of Tammany Hall, I discovered that the Hall’s great and undoubted authority was rooted in its ability to get out the vote, and that that vote was got out principally by local ward politicians whose job essentially was to be responsive to any and every need of their constituents. (Cold winter? Have some free coal, but remember to vote Democrat.) Now, these people were leaders, by your definition, not figures of authority. But the interesting thing was that they could not have done their job of liaising with the local community if it had not been for the existence of what were popularly known as locality “mayors”, people who were actually authority figures in, not even a street, but part of a street, or perhaps a block. They were often saloon keepers. They knew what was happening and who needed something on a family-by-family basis and acted as a conduit between the community and the Hall. Perhaps this function is a little more active than the one you describe, but I think the parallels are there and the interesting thing is that the mayors emerged by the sort of natural process that you describe. There was no election, the office was generally something someone held onto for life in effect, but everyone just “knew” who the mayors were and made use of them casually and naturally because it was an effective thing to do.’ Thanks Mike!