Going on holiday with your work brain

1 Jun

Academia makes it difficult to maintain a work-life balance. With no set hours of work, deadlines a plenty, and the ability to work from home, the work-life balance can be hard to strike. Work leaches into everything to create a work-life-home masala. It is the same, of course, in many other jobs – especially in an era when we all have to be seen to be uber-productive.

The mixing of work and life means that it can be difficult to switch off. The other day I went to see Kylemore Abbey, a Gothic Style house and walled garden in rural county Galway, in the west of Ireland. It was – unusually – a beautifully sunny day and I began it with a coffee and muffin at the café and gift shop before proceeding to the walled garden and then the Abbey. The Abbey is a nineteenth century stately home in spectacular surroundings, that was passed between a few gentry families before it became a convent and school for Benedictine nuns. It is now, more or less, exclusively given over to tourism.

So, all was set for a lovely day of relaxation. But it is difficult to turn off the work brain. If you spend a lot of time reading about, and thinking about, the structures that underpin inequality it is difficult to wander around a stately home without thinking about long historical trends in capital and accumulation. Even though this was a ‘day off’, I still felt that I was walking around with a political economy conscience. And, let’s face it, Karl Marx is not known for his gaiety. The history leaflets and signage produced by the current custodians of Kylemore Abbey was deeply annoying. It presented a narrative of servile gratitude towards Mitchell Henry, the English financier and politician who built the great house.

Henry began work on Kylemore Castle in 1863. The signage at the Abbey presents this as a much needed employment opportunity in a poor part of the world. But it is worth noting that this was an Ireland not long after the trauma of the famine when approximately one million people died and one million emigrated. And along comes Mitchell Henry to build a thirty three bedroom palace. This seems like appalling ostentation in a desperately poor country. Connacht suffered from a mini-famine in 1879 when there was widespread hunger. It was also difficult to avoid pondering what was on the land before Henry acquired it. In the not too distant past it would have been cleared of its peasants (doubtless under the coercive threat of law) and so was ‘available’ for purchase.

A major part of the Castle project was to build a walled garden. The gardens are indeed impressive, although the narrative from the Kylemore Abbey leaflet describes the garden creation project as making something beautiful out of ‘wild scrub’. It is difficult not to see this as horticultural colonialism: an attempt to discount the natural and wild and replace it with a tamed garden. Of course, the invasive biodiversity of the west of Ireland means that the ‘wild scrub’ is never far away. Like all colonial projects, it was founded on a conceit of ‘improving’ and ‘civilising’ and believing that the intervention is justified by the replacement of the inferior with the superior. The main part of the garden was a walled Victorian garden (fashionable at the time). But the walled aspect of the garden was interesting. Was the wall there to keep people out?

After Mitchell died the house was eventually bought by Benedictine Nuns who ran it as a boarding school. There was an exhibition on the nuns in the Abbey building. It was difficult to view this without thinking of the long Catholic ‘moment’ in Ireland’s history and the role the Catholic Church played in patterning social, cultural and political relations. This role was by no means without value (for example, many individuals receive spiritual succor from their involvement with churches) but the choice of location for an Abbey was interesting. This is an area of low population and the Order came here to be secluded from people, rather than live among them.

And then the final observation of the day was the coach loads of tourists. I was not aware of the truly industrialised scale of tourism in Ireland with coachloads being bussed between ‘attractions’. It got me thinking about the constrained and scripted nature of the tourists’ ‘Irish experience’. Their Irish experience is determined for them by the tour operator. Much is dictated by capacity: parking for the coaches, roads large enough to accommodate the coaches, toilets and gift shops etc.). One is reminded of Robert Chambers’ observation about field research bias in favour of research sites near main roads. This form of tourism is dictated by the road network. Moreover, in forms of ‘mimicry’ the tour operators feel obliged to offer an ‘authentic’ Irish experience in the form of ‘Irish stew’, ‘Irish coffee’, ‘Irish music’ and god-awful knitwear. We have this mutually reinforced in stereotype of a non-existent Ireland in which the tour operators and the tourists agree to suspend belief and buy into this notion of an Irish imaginary.

If you have a break this summer, be sure to leave your work brain behind.
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