Irish-Romanian Homes and the Anthropology of Uncertainty

Adam Drazin, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

“Freewill has to be experienced, not debated, like colour or the taste of potatoes” (William Golding 1959 p5)

How can we think about domestic materialities which effect a sense of deprivation or an absence of home-making?
I have been working since 2004 with people who have moved from Romania to Ireland, on the material culture of their homes. In many ways, this is a journey which typefies contemporary European experience: from post-socialism to a country which represents an economic and political renaissance within Europe; from a relatively cash-poor everyday life to one where salaries are higher. Most people make the move not as individuals but as families – a part of the project of family life and setting up home. Many people have married, many have had children, but cannot easily realise the aspiration to own a material home in Romania. Within Romanian culture, the drive to have a family and home are irresistable; ironically, many people feel they have to leave Romania in order to fulfil this project.
Consequently, the Irish-Romanian home might be expected to be a conscious celebration of materialism and a sense of liberation through mass consumption. Both Romania and Ireland are countries with a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ in their recent experience, and in each case it is the home and consumption which provides the key measure of where society and culture stand now. McWilliams (2006) draws attention to the importance of consumption and home-making after the celtic tiger, negotiating what class and identity comprise in the ‘new’ Ireland. One third of the houses in Ireland have been built since 1995, an immense change, and a large proportion of Romanian men in Ireland work on these building sites. Romania meanwhile is still in some accounts a country after socialism, where private property and the home is the site of negotiation of identity. In the moment of moving from Romania to Ireland, a person is under immense social pressure to know their own mind, and to make the form of the home a mirror to their conscious plans for their own relationships and identity.
What can the specific material homes of Irish-Romanians tell us about this situation? The dangerous temptation for the anthropologist is to read the domestic material culture of Irish-Romanians as having an inevitable social trajectory, like a destiny. A person is seen as a ‘migrant’ who is on a road to ‘becoming Irish’, or on a road to becoming a ‘happy family’.
Irish-Romanian homes however defy expectations. Firstly, they are immensely varied. One person has little in common with another. Secondly, in many cases, practically no effort has been made for any kind of home-making at all. Walls are bare or – worse – retain posters and objects hung there by previous tenants. Objects lie around from multiple previous tenants, developing a veritable archaeology of habitation but not inhabitation.
Many people in Ireland have not actually made the decision to live in Ireland, and their physical homes and consumption manifest this state of being.
It is not unusual to meet people who have a large house, or several houses, in Romania, but have no plans to ever move back to Romania, disillusioned with that country. Nor do these wealthy people seem to have plans to attempt to integrate into Ireland, but work long hours and in the evenings stay in bare, rented homes, eating cheap food and watching Romanian TV. The physical sensations associated with these flats are often the subject of jokes: poor ventilation; plumbing which is either hot or cold, never warm; globular bathroom lights which gather water inside; windows which form ice on the inside. Such things, the joke goes, must have been installed by a Romanian builder, but they are unfavourably compared with Romanian apartments.
Petru and Betty are one couple in this situation. So why did they build the house in Romania? “Ca sa aiba copii” Petru told me, “for the children to have it”. Their two teenage children were still in Romania, living with relatives.
“The Romanian is different from the Irishman…” Petru said, “that’s the stupidity. The Romanian works like an idiot. He builds his house and then he dies.”
Home-making is often interpreted as a rooted activity, in terms of its relationship with place. But interpreting Irish-Romanian homes in only these terms evokes confusing contradictions and ironies. During two years of fieldwork, most material consumption evoked a sense of building relationships not only across spaces and places, but across time. When Petru says that the point of the house is for the children to have, he is not only saying that the house builds a relationship with the place, Romania, but that it builds a relationship with the future. The future is of course unknown, but nothing can build a relationship with children existing in the future, even after one is dead, like a house.
The counterparts to the monstrous empty villas being built in Romania are bare flats in Dublin. Just like those houses, the physical surfaces of flats often seem to bear witness to the development of intentions with regard to the project of building a moral family and household, and the variety of means by which this is to be achieved.
Carmen for example has a map of Romania on her wall which recalls a process of disillusionment in moving to Ireland, and her new resolutions of how to live and save for her future. She originally moved to Ireland on a full work visa from Romania, to work for a cleaning company (although they did not tell her that when she interviewed in Bucharest). She lived with her husband in a house for some years, and the idea was to settle and fully participate in Irish life, eventually becoming citizens. They tried to make friends and integrate, socialising with work colleagues in pubs. Over their time in Dublin, however, they came to “live different lives”. The decision to “live” in Ireland proved fatal for their 13-year marriage, and they decided to divorce. Taking stock of their situation, they had not managed to save much, nor to buy a house, and their pub-based social lives had not blossomed into any deep friendships. They decided to move back to Romania to divorce and, having closed all their accounts in Ireland, said goodbye to everyone.
Through a process of painful realisation accompanying divorce, Carmen decided that actually, she wanted a new start. She returned to Ireland, and resolved to do things differently this time around.
When I talked to Carmen, she was intending to implement the second strategy of living in Ireland. She did not intend to socialise, spend money, and make a home. She intended to work hard, save money and build up capital in order to be able to have a house and family, probably back in Romania. In her second life in Dublin, Carmen was living in a rented bedsit in a converted Georgian house, inherited from another Romanian tenant. The main part of the room was occupied by a bed, table and single chair. In a corner was a sink and small kitchen area, where she cooked on a set of rings. In the other corner, partition walls enclosed a cramped shower and toilet. Above the fireplace was a map of Romania and the Romanian national anthem, which begins ‘Wake up Romanian’ (Desteapta te Romanule). These belonged to the previous tenant, and she purposely left them there to remind her to ‘wake up’ to her situation. The walls of her bedist are like a calculated time capsule, in which she will live for a time, barely socialising, barely emerging except to work, which will transport her to an unspecified future life and home.

The Anthropology of Uncertainty
The varied material culture of the Irish-Romanian home speaks of different ways of relating with the future. The future is unknown, but nonetheless degrees of certainty and uncertainty are evoked through the variation. It would be tempting to say that people have decided Not to make homes, but this would be deceptive because the decision Not to appropriate and consume is not casual, but very definitely intended, a sign of agency not lack of it.
Uncertainty is often interpreted as either a structural phenomenon, linked to the globalisation of the economy or to risk society (see Corocran 2006). On the other hand, it is sometimes considered to be a cognitive or psychological phenomenon, in which people have an absence of knowledge. An anthropology of uncertainty should consider that uncertainty and certainty are qualities which are operational within relationships, rather than globally or at the level of the individual. Of course, in an absolute sense, the future is always unknown and hence uncertain; but every day, in every action, existence necessitates degrees of certainty about the future. Even buying a cup of tea indicates intentions of a social future over the next half hour or so, and building a house over a much longer period. An anthropology of uncertainty also involves the acknowledgement that there is no single way in which people build relationships to the future (eg. having plans), rather there are many ways.
Secondly, the research calls for new ways of interpreting materialities which draw on Weberian approaches. Weber is much-cited with regard to abstract conceptions of meaning, but less when it comes to actual material forms and substances. His notion of theodicy generally raises the issue of how present-day suffering is lent meaning by different religious belief systems in relation to moral futures. Although grand religious schemae are not so relevant here, there is nonetheless a need to understand the significance of the physical feel of eating cheap food, using cheap towels, cold showers and badly-ventilated rooms, and having empty shelves. These things have pertinence in relation to a perceived project of the future home. As Brubaker comments, “Meaning and moral dignity serive from the systematic integration of individual actions into a unified life pattern based on certain fundamental values” (1984: 94).
People who move from Romania to Ireland occupy an intensely moral space of mutual support, in which every activity has sense in terms of relationships. Going shopping, buying a coffee, catching a bus rather than walking, all of these ordinary things should ideally follow agreed family policy. The internal surfaces of the home in this event come to be a particular significant site of mutual support in this moral project, a skin for the incipient household.
Corcoran, M. & M. Peillon (2006). Uncertain Ireland, Institute of Public Administration: Ireland.
Golding, W. 1959. Free Fall, Faber & Faber: London.
Humphrey, C. 2002. The Unmaking of Soviet Life: everyday economies after socialism, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY.
McWilliams, D. 2006. The Pope’s Children, Gill & MacMillan: Dublin.
Brubaker, R. 1984. The Limits of Rationality, George Allen & Unwin: London