gift and commerce: one

In June this year I was at the American Conference for Irish Studies at University College, Cork, at which Ray Cashman, folklorist and author of Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border, gave a keynote paper. The paper, focusing on Irish rural traditions, reached across time and space to chime resonantly with Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, a part-ethnographic, part-cultural, part-literary study of gift economies originally published in 1983. Reading The Gift earlier in 2018, I had been struck by its relevance to my work as an artist and writer and our work as quarto. Cashman’s exposition sparked further thinking along these lines. I outline my responses to both Cashman and Hyde in this post and the next.


Some years ago, living in Castlederg while carrying out research, Cashman went into a local electrical shop to buy a tape recorder. As he was leaving, the shopkeeper (and Cashman’s neighbour) stopped him and returned £1 of his payment for the machine. Cashman asked why, and was told it was luck’s penny. When he enquired about this tradition locally, he learned it was a way of preserving a human connection when money is changing hands within community for goods and services. He related it to ‘anxiety over the negative reciprocity inherent in capitalism’.[1] A Castlederg friend, Danny, explained to Cashman that he maintained lines of modest credit in a number of shops, most of those owned by his relatives, friends and neighbours. If he were to pay off his debt to any of these businesses, it would cause offence. It would signal that he wanted to pull free from the web of personal relationship and put his local transactions on to a purely monetary footing. On this commercial plane, he would buy a product or a service for the seller’s price and neither would be indebted – or connected – to the other when the buying and selling was done. As Cashman put it, ‘money can occasion a kind of performance of community’; or, indeed, a performance of non-community.[2]


In The Gift, Lewis Hyde explores the idea of gift economies, and what it means to measure status and even wealth by what you give away and not by what you keep. He gives examples of how these economies work, or have worked, in different times and spaces. Gifts must be consumed, literally or metaphorically; if not, they stagnate or rot, or lose their value. Gifts must be circulated; if not, there is no reciprocity, only accumulation. Gifts, because they are given freely with no guarantee (though often expectation) of return, rely on trust and bonds of community. Commodities, by contrast, are not only associated with ‘alienation’ but also ‘freedom’.[3] Gifts are exchanged within communities, while commodities are sold outside. Each system is double-edged. A gift economy can support but also restrict by making community members dependent on one another. Commodity capitalism can confer independence, but also isolate individuals and reduce the potential for relationships to develop and deepen around economic exchange.


I have been the recipient of luck’s penny, and only dimly perceived its meaning at the time. My husband and I rented a house in Leitrim from a local farmer for some four years. Monthly we would bring the rent and sit for a time talking with him and his wife and children over the detritus of their dinner, bacon rinds and potato skins. When we moved out, we asked him to do some digging work for us at our new place. We paid him, and he handed back €50 – a generous penny. Now I know that he was explicitly including us in his web of relationships and am touched anew from a distance of years.


Like Hyde, Cashman raised the question of circulation and flow, in the context of his research in west Tyrone. He talked of how luck’s penny – in whatever form – implicitly acknowledges that all we have is neither necessarily earned nor deserved, but may have come to us through luck. If we perceive ourselves to have been lucky rather than deserving, it is both easier and more appropriate to spread our wealth. Those who do not spread wealth in a gift economy receive disapproval. But Cashman asks what happened to the notion of luck, and an economy of gifts based on community bonds, when the spectre of starvation or destitution arose, as in the Great Famine. More than one quarto project has entailed research into folklore and rural traditions, and we are familiar with the concepts (and methods) of stealing luck, and preventing luck from being stolen. Hyde’s and Cashman’s work brings these and their genesis into clearer focus. In west Tyrone, in the Sperrins, in the Glens of Antrim and elsewhere, efforts to control luck must have stemmed at least in part from the inability of tenant subsistence farmers to control the social, economic and political forces keeping them on the edge of survival.

[1] Ray Cashman, ‘Luck’s Pennies, Witch Hares and the Hungry Grass: Community and the Social Environment in Irish Folklore’, paper given on 20th June 2018 at American Conference for Irish Studies, University College, Cork.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2007, p69.