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NOW YOU DON’T SEE IT, NOW YOU DO: SITUATING THE IRISH IN THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF GROSSE ÎLE RHONA RICHMAN-KENNEALLY Material culture is culture made material; it is the inner wit at work in the world. Beginning necessarily with things, but not ending with them, the study of material culture uses objects to approach human thought and action. (Glassie, Material Culture 41) the following exploration of a historic landscape began with a souvenir greeting card in a gift shop (see cover).1 The site of the landscape, the subject of the card, and the location of the gift shop is Grosse Île, Quebec, an island in the St. Lawrence River, situated east of Quebec City. Grosse Île served as a quarantine station for ships crossing the Atlantic between 1832 and 1937, a period that includes the mass emigration of Irish men and women seeking refuge from the Great Famine. In recent years, cultural critics have been exploring Irish ephemera, such as postcards and souvenirs, as vehicles created and used by manufacturers of these products, by tourism promoters, and by tourists themselves in the construction, mediation, and appropriation of sites of Irish identity.2 Designed to provide information about or to serve as mementos of a destination , such artifacts are being analyzed as cultural markers that frame and fix the visitor’s perception of a landscape. The Grosse Île greeting card articulates a distinct reading of a site profoundly overwritten with Irish cultural affiliation and significance. But Grosse Île itself—its material culture, which includes elements of its physical landscape as well as its text-based resources—challenges visitors seeking an environment that foregrounds a uniquely Irish context. As a tourist destination or as a site of commemoration , Grosse Île offers no simple reading of its central and tragic role in SITUATING THE IRISH IN THE MATERIAL CULTURE OF GROSSE ÎLE 33 1 Souvenir card by James Dinan reproduced by permission of the artist. 2 See, for example, Gibbons; Lloyd; Graham 166–75; Negra; and Lyndenberg. the mass emigration of Irish Famine victims. Instead, presenting itself for interpretation, the site exists as an amalgam of simultaneous historic and cultural identities, not all of them immediately relevant to an Irish narrative . Thus a careful study of the material culture of Grosse Île as markerrepositories of history and memory is crucial as a means of interpreting how existing readings of Irish identity have been formulated by its visitors, and how additional readings might arise through a process of accessing, evaluating, and interpreting the island’s landscape and artifacts. Material culture studies offer a critical means of apprehending cultural traits, aspirations and ideologies. Jules Prown defines the field’s jurisdiction as embracing “objects made or modified by humans” that “consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society to which they belonged” (1–2). Researchers in this growing area turn to such artifacts because they have been generated not only by and for elite groups with a level of education and affluence presumably sufficient to appreciate them— as in the case of objects associated with the fine arts—but also by and for members of a wider social constituency. Objects scrutinized by material culture theorists include not only landscapes and buildings, but also clothing and household goods, tools, leisure products, and promotional materials . Focusing on such seemingly mundane articles provides access into the lives of those who did not achieve individual prominence—those who did not write diaries, appear in news media, or have their personal effects deposited in museums or archives. The multidisciplinary strategies for analyzing material culture borrow from fields such as folklore studies, anthropology, architecture, literary criticism, archaeology, and cultural geography. As Henry Glassie, one of the foremost practitioners in the field, insists, the interpretation of artifacts should be complemented by other materials, including text-based sources: “after all, documents are artifacts, and any serious historian will use all sources—oral testimony as well as artifacts with and without words—to get the tale told” (“Studying Material Culture Today” 254). Material culture related to tourism has an added dimension...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 33-53
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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