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Anthropology professor’s study analyzes Irish immigration

| Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ian Kuijt, professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, presented his findings regarding the importance of the hearth and its connection to the narrative of Irish immigration in the Snite Museum of Art on Saturday.

Kuijt’s research, titled “The Empty Hearth: Archeological Insights into Irish America,” centered on the documentation and analysis of archeological findings on Inishark, an island located approximately eight miles off the coast of the mainland and abandoned in 1960 in less than 24 hours.

The hearth is a fundamental concept in Irish narrative, Kuijt said.

“The hunts, the home and the life within the home, is centered on the hearth and the kitchen itself,” Kuijt said. “I’ve used the metaphor of the hearth, as a context under which we can think about histories, stories and narratives of memory. I want to think in terms of personal stories and personal changes at the small scale, and trying to think in some ways about the archeology of the famine within the context of the changes that take place in communities.”

Kuijt said the evidence found in the hearths provide insight into the complex stories of families facing the impacts of mass emigration from such a remote island.

“It is both horribly interconnected with the mainland, yet it is very separate”, Kuijt said. “In some ways, they take very different trajectories, and these trajectories are very powerful in terms of understanding the immigrant experience, understanding the mobility of people between islands and understanding the mobility towards America.”

According to Kuijt, the study’s record of the position and state of Inishark’s buildings as well as the presence of valuable remnants of ceramics and pottery suggest that the island’s inhabitants were well connected. Kuijt said the remains in the hearths also reveal population and housing trends on the island leading up to its abandonment.

“These are interesting buildings, first of all because they are rarely preserved; second of all, because they provide this sort of hybrid technology, well-made technology for this point in time”, Kuijt said. “This is a place that’s largely viewed as being a marginal context, yet this is showing us that these people had access to trade markets. There are all kinds of interconnections.”

Kuijt’s research documented descendants of the families whose hearths he originally examined, he said. The remains of the hearths and the stories of Inishark’s descendant’s revealed the sacrifice and fragmentation present in the process of immigration, indicating that the abandonment of Inishark had a lasting and profound impact on newer generations.

“The big picture out of all of that is that when you think about what’s gone on, these are stories of survivorship, of people surviving under very adverse circumstances,” Kuijt said. “Some of the most powerful stories we can think of is that this is the human condition — of people overcoming circumstance for the next generation.”

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