Our class were divided into groups of four and given a task to undertake an Ethnography project based on an area of our choosing. My first bias towards Kinvara surfaced when choosing the area to study. The photographer in me suggested conducting our study on Kinvara, a town that holds “one of the most photographed castles in Ireland”.[i] The other group members were happy to oblige my request. Our goal in the project was to understand the social interactions within Kinvara. I had a familiarity with the surrounding areas of Kinvara, but I knew little about the town itself. I wanted to learn if there was any feature of the town that would allow it to be seen as anything other than a shadow of Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.
Here is the video I shot, edited and narrated for this project.
Ethnography Study of Kinvara
My first bias towards Kinvara surfaced when choosing the area to study. The photographer in me suggested conducting our study on Kinvara, a town that holds “one of the most photographed castles in Ireland”.[i] The other group members were happy to oblige my request. Our goal in the project was to understand the social interactions within Kinvara. I had a familiarity with the surrounding areas of Kinvara, but I knew little about the town itself. I wanted to learn if there was any feature of the town that would allow it to be seen as anything other than a shadow of Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.
While I had not been to Kinvara before this study, there was a sense of familiarity when entering this small Irish town that stemmed from the similarity it has to other small Irish coastal towns that I know. It had the same amenity blueprint as towns in Co. Clare such as Quilty, Doolin and Liscanor. The similarity in space made me anticipate a similar experience in the place. I made myself aware of this anticipation early on in the project and was conscious of this throughout. Conditions were bleak on the first day we spent in Kinvara. We dodged in and out of sheltered areas to avoid the rain showers, however, it was much tougher to avoid the chill of the Atlantic wind as it blew in from the harbour. As with any coastal town I visit, my first point of action was to get to the water. The placement of the tourist information at the harbour signified that it was the tourist hotspot in Kinvara. The harbour satisfied two cravings I had. I was able to take a deep breath of fresh sea air for the first time in several months and I was able to add some extra landscape images to the gallery on my phone. A line of boats lay idle along the pier. The large one was a hooker boat that sat waiting in anticipation of the Cruinniú de mBád that is set to take place in August.
We navigated our way around the town, visiting the different landmarks, hoping for some sort of lightbulb moment to strike and provide us with a direction for our research. It was ironic to see that the first sign of life in the town stemmed from the large funeral of a local man, Michael McMahon. His company McMahon Oil, was a sponsor for the local GAA team as well as many other local events. He was a staple within the community. Several shops had signs on their windows noting that they were closed to attend the funeral. The funeral has always been an intrinsic part of Irish social life. Funerals act as a means of performing learned rituals which have been passed down through generations.[ii] Societies come together to perform rituals such as shaking hands, giving mass cards or in this case, proceeding to a local pub for remembrance drinks. Irish funerals are as much about celebrating the life of a community as they are about the mourning of a death. Dozens of mourners were present at The Pier Head pub. It was admirable to see how the town of Kinvara had paused its activity to pay their respects to a man who had been a pillar in their community.
A selection of art pieces on the walls alluded to a faint murmur of culture in the town. Each building was saturated with a distinct colour as if screaming out for the attention of the visitors in the town. The buildings made it feel like we were moving through a rainbow, but we had yet to find our pot of gold in this unusual place. (Figure 3)
After doing a lap of the town to get our bearings, we headed up along the N67 to Dungaire Castle. The castle was as picturesque as expected, however, the experience of being there, shielding ourselves from the chilling wind, listening to the ocean, was much more powerful than looking at a Google image from a couch. One of my initial perception of Kinvara was that its culture would revolve around the castle. On both trips, I made it a priority to visit the castle. I tried to associate myself with Kinvara by capturing this photo but in the process of doing this, I was disconnecting myself from the community and the culture of Kinvara. Like many tourists, I tried to certify my experience by taking a photo but I was also refusing the experience by limiting it to a search for a photogenic image. I converted the experience into an image, a souvenir that I could post on social media. [iii] Being a native in Ireland, I am numb to the existence of castles yet it was the thing that I prioritised the most when visiting the area. For a tourist who sees a castle as a novelty, this would be the defining element of their experience in Kinvara. They may not discover the community and creative culture within that community.
We stood there for a couple of minutes with our necks arched staring aimlessly up at the castle walls before exposing ourselves to the chilling wind once more. Our stomachs got the better of us and drew us into Keoghs, one of the local pubs on Main Street. Two men were hunched over the bar. It’s safe to assume that the cushions on their barstools had distinctive imprints from their frequent visits to the pub. Our waitress brought us menus while she chewed her gum aggressively in anticipation of her next cigarette break. After ordering we asked her for advice on what to do around Kinvara. She suggested leaving Kinvara to travel further west as one of the best things to do in Kinvara, describing the town as a ‘pitstop’ for tourists.
While there were interesting observations to reflect on, the first day did not provide us with a specific subject for our research. The second trip to Kinvara was taken by Fiona and Eilís. They were able to assimilate themselves more with the people in Kinvara and were successful in gathering insightful data. The open codes taken from the first two trips showed a prominent theme of community and interdependency in the town. Our strategies thus far were based on observations, casual conversations, participant observation and photography. Snowball sampling was the most effective way of getting insights into our field research. The people we spoke to directed us to different people and locations within the town to further our research. This in itself shows the intrinsic ties that the people of Kinvara have to one another.
I took the third trip to Kinvara independently. After an unpredictably complicated journey there, navigating my way through the narrow boíthríns that local flooding forced me to take, I finally arrived in Kinvara and parked down at the harbour car park. I was surprised to see that the place had a lot more life than on my previous trip considering Covid-19 restrictions were starting to be enforced. There was a ban on mass gatherings yet people were slow to relinquish their social interactions, moving about the town in small groups of 3-4. The purpose of my trip was to circle the town to gather more insights, interact with more of the locals, and collect more visual media.
On my way around Kinvara, I noticed that the people were much friendlier than the previous trip. I assumed that was either down to the finer weather conditions or it was a defence mechanism against the anxiety that surrounded the uncertainty amidst the pandemic restrictions. They smiled and said a friendly hello as they passed by. I ventured into P O’Dea’s craft shop on Main Street and got chatting about Kinvara with the lady behind the counter. Our conversation was casual and once we had an element of trust built between us I asked Suzanne if she would permit me to record the conversation, which she was happy to do. Suzanne had diverted her craftwork to making bottles of hand sanitizer, which was in demand at the time. I was unsure whether this was her way of helping out or an innovative way of cashing in on the ongoing pandemic. Either way, I was impressed by her tenacity. It showed a sense of self-efficacy that strengthened her place identity. She had a belief in her capabilities to meet situational demands.[iv] She contently worked on the sanitizer as we spoke. I interpreted a strong element of interdependency amongst the community in Kinvara from speaking with Susanne. She mentioned that when they opened their store they “wanted it to be more than just a tourist shop, we wanted to rely on the locals” as they are the main source of income in off-peak seasons. Susanne struggled to catch her breath in her excitement of speaking about the Cruinniú festival in Kinvara. The Cruinniú brings the town together to share music, culture, and history. It is a stage for the community to integrate and combine their identities into a collective presentation of the town.
And then came lunch. I sat in the car with the door ajar, observing the tourists who had just disembarked from the Paddywagon coach at the harbour. I wanted to observe and understand how a foreigner would use the space in the time they were permitted to spend there. Their pitstop activities ranged from standing by the water taking in deep gulps of fresh Atlantic air, while capturing images of the picturesque harbour, to racing around the corner to grab a quick coffee for the next leg of their trip. The young coach driver stayed in the driver seat aimlessly scrolling through his phone. His movement was limited as if he was numb to the frequency of these long journeys. Twenty minutes later, as if being reeled in from the nearby fishing boats the tourists scurried back onto the coach in tight formation. The unpredictability of coach stops adds an uncertainty of the duration a tourist has to spend in Kinvara. Their spending is unreliable. Therefore it is no wonder that the local merchants like Suzanne give the community priority over tourists. As I sat, eating my sandwich, observing the tourist activity, an elderly woman in the car next to me stared sceptically in my direction as if suggesting that I was up to no good. as if I was breaching the privacy of the individuals nearby who had parked up to take a minute of tranquillity with the captivating views. My next port of call was Dungaire Castle, which entered my line of sight as I watched the Paddywagon coach drive off into the abyss of the N67.
At the castle, I met a young couple walking up the entranceway wrapped up in large puffy NorthFace jackets, which weren’t quite appropriate for the mild weather conditions. I determined that they were American from their accents. Their sole objective was to get a selfie in front of the castle with the Kinvara bay in the background. While I cannot say that they did not experience Kinvara in other ways, I can contend that this was a defining moment of their experience as they had walked 10 minutes outside of the town to get this photo. They re-enacted my actions on my first day there by consuming Kinvara through a lens that was focussed on Dungaire Castle. This tourist gaze was a way for them to see and understand their individual experience of Kinvara.[v]
Before leaving I went into the Craft Shop and Gallery by the harbour. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman with an English accent, Jack Roberts. I got chatting to Jack for a minute and he also agreed to do a video interview with me. I asked Jack about Kinvara and he had plenty to say about the Cruinniú de mBád, the Hooker Boats and the old shops and creameries that once lined the streets of Kinvara. A customer entered while I was talking to Jack. I made my presence scarce during the period as I didn’t want to disturb any potential transaction. I had the impression that customers were few and far between in this little craft shop. When we got back to recording, Jack spoke to a large degree about the history of Kinvara. He showed a strong sign of continuity to the town. Different areas of the town provided cues for him to recollect memories and tell his stories, thus strengthening his tie to the place.[vi] For instance, Jack mentions the boats that used to anchor in the harbour and trade with the local merchants. The harbour in Kinvara signifies many memories for Jack and it is a good indicator as to why he has situated himself in a store that looks over it. After we were finished and I had the camera packed away, Jack started to show me his work on the Sheela na Gig carvings for Bandia Design (Figure 5). Jack showed a passion for the subject while describing the intricacies of his research. He made a point of noting that most people find the figures strange. While I was curious, I must admit that I was a prime example of “most people”. I asked him once more if I could record him speaking about the carvings but he declined my request as he had already rolled his post-work cigarette and was eager to close for the day.
The third day of fieldwork allowed us to combine the interview and video data with the data we had from our existing strategies. We were then able to conduct axial coding to generate prominent sub-themes. These were “Sense of place in Kinvara” and “what makes Kinvara come to life.” The Cruinniú de mBád acts as a stage for these two themes to be tied together. Through art & crafts, music and historical re-enactments, it celebrates what it means to be a part of the community in Kinvara. We then added theoretical sampling to give rationale to our observational data and give meaning to the analysis in our report. I concluded that, while Kinvara lives in the shadow of Galway and the Cliffs of Moher, there is a fruitful and intricate life to be seen within its community. From the mourning of the deceased to the participation in local events the people of Kinvara are tied to each other. The people we spoke to, all originated in different parts of the world yet they’ve managed to align themselves with Kinvara and gain a strong connection to one another through their shared passions and love of this quaint coastal town.
[i] Kennedy, N., 2019. The Essential Guide To Dunguaire Castle, Ireland. [online] TripSavvy. Available at: <https://www.tripsavvy.com/dunguaire-castle-ireland-guide-4163592> [Accessed 3 May 2020].
[ii] Ryan, S., 2004. Death in an Irish village – the resilience of ritual. The Furrow, 67(11), p.618.
[iii] Sontag, S., 1977. On Photography. USA: Penguin Books, p.9.
[iv] Wang, S. and Chen, J., 2015. The influence of place identity on perceived tourism impacts. Annals of Tourism Research, 52, pp.19.
[v] Dinhopl, A. and Gretzel, U., 2016. Selfie-taking as touristic looking. Annals of Tourism Research, 57, p.128.
[vi] Wang, S. and Chen, J., 2015. The influence of place identity on perceived tourism impacts. Annals of Tourism Research, 52, pp.18.