Many customs in Irish cottage life have been traditionally dominated by superstitious beliefs, the greatest of which is the conviction that faeries exist. In this context they are not harmless little ‘fairies’ in the Disney sense but powerful unseen other-worldly beings capable of perpetrating acts of malevolence. It was believed that they must be respected and appeased or they could cause ruin. Rural Irish people so feared the faeries that it was considered bad luck even to refer to them by name, and they were instead called ‘The Good People’ or ‘The Other People’.
The unexplained: Also known as sióg, faeries were accepted to occupy a parallel universe, often conducted underground, and invisible to the human eye. There is no real consensus on what faeries were supposed to actually look like. It was believed that if faeries were upset by humans there would be repercussions in the form of ‘bad luck’: such as people’s farm animals becoming unhealthy or crops failing. Similar notions were typical in past rural farming societies that had little understanding of the real science of life, of weather and disease. Things that could not be explained were attributed to the Others; for example, when milk did not churn into butter, the faeries were blamed (they were thought to have a special fondness for stealing or disrupting the production of dairy products).
Abduction: But the really dangerous aspect of faeries was they could abduct certain humans and bring them to live in the ‘Other World’.
The term ‘away with the faeries’ was used in Ireland to describe someone suffering from mental illness, an apt description as such types of illness can leave a person depleted, ‘not themselves’, a shadow of their former selves.
The fear of children being abducted by faeries was prevalent. The belief was that faeries took the infant and left a ‘changeling’ in its place: this creature looked exactly like the child but acted strangely, was contrary or bad tempered. Mothers would sometimes tie a string to their wrist and the other end of it to their baby to ensure they were not stolen. It was common, when leaving a cradle unattended, to put the cooled poker from the fire across the cradle (iron was hated by faeries). Little boys were often dressed as girls to confuse the Others as it was thought that boys were more likely to be abducted (see picture above, from: National Library of Ireland).
Thwarting the faeries: The Roman Catholic church discouraged Irish belief in faeries, but faery-lore was too deep rooted, ancient and persistent. However aspects of Catholic piety were considered potent forces against faery activity. Crucifixes and prayers were considered great protection, as was Holy Water which was sprinkled copiously over most things: including ploughed land, doorways, hatching hens, sleeping children, and departing visitors.
To counteract their power, iron, which was considered particularly useful against faery activity, was placed (in the form of horseshoes or nails) over windows, doors and other ‘liminal’ areas – the openings, places that were thresholds of the home, where things could get in and out.
The colour yellow was supposed to be loathed by faeries and yellow flowers and objects were often used as deterrents.
Night was believed to be a time when faeries were particularly active and at their most powerful. When travelling at night a quenched coal or a hazel or blackthorn stick was carried for protection against them.
Appeasement: Appeasing the faeries also became important to building and everyday life. When planning the building of a cottage the selection of a site was not to be over a faery assembly place or near a path thought to be used by them. When a site was selected, and the house was marked out, a pile of stones was left on the four corners of the house-to-be. If the stones were left untouched for three consecutive nights it was considered the go-ahead for the construction from the Others.
Superstitions continue: Belief in faeries, in some form or other, persists in Ireland today. Lone whitethorn trees (thought to be the places where the Others meet) in fields are left untouched by most farmers and are prominent in the landscape throughout Ireland. Traditions surrounding the faeries continue: when milk is spilled accidently, the thought is that the faeries caused it because they needed milk; when distilling illegal poitín, the first drop produced is spilled on the ground 'for the faeries'; and when someone sneezes, the observer’s reaction should be to say ‘bless you’, because a fit of sneezing means imminent abduction by faeries.
Belief in 'something' today: Faery-lore was used in the past as an excuse for unexplained things that happened in life. Until the twentieth century and in the absence of scientific explanations belief in faeries filled the void.
The faith in faeries in Ireland is deep rooted. Long after the majority of Irish people converted to Christianity, belief in the Other People persisted. Today faery belief in Ireland has sharply declined. Many Irish will attest to ‘not believing’ and joke about the subject, however if pressed would profess a reluctance to, for example, damage a faery tree. A kernel of belief in the Others is still alive in Ireland.
In some regions of Ireland ‘hearth’ is pronounced ‘heart’, which is appropriate given that the hearth was in many ways the ‘heart’ of the traditional Irish home. Traditionally the hearth was used for cooking, boiling water, drying clothes and baking. It was also as much a social space as a functional area.
In early Irish houses, the hearth would have occupied a central point in the floor, like a campfire, with a hole in the roof above for ventilation. It’s position eventually migrated to a cross wall with a canopied chimney built above. The hearth was at floor level, rather than on a raised grate, as this was more suitable for burning turf – the most common type of fuel used in Ireland in the period.
Fuel and fire: The lack of timber across Ireland has been discussed elsewhere in this blog and log fires were not the norm in rural Ireland. Instead, ‘turf’ became the dominant fuel from the seventeenth century. Turf is a fossil fuel, a partially decomposed water-soaked organic matter, formed in ancient times in bogs. It was cut and left to dry, often heaped in ‘stacks’ alongside cottages. If turf was unavailable dried cow manure or furze (gorse or whins) sufficed as alternate fuels.
Many people believed that the fortune of the house was associated with the fire: it was ‘bad luck’ to allow the fire to go out and every effort was made to keep it lit. People would gather around the fire light to work on crafts. They would dine at the fire, converse and even sleep in front of the fire.
Hierarchical seating and gender: The seating arrangements around a hearth were hierarchical, like the European kitchen table, where the senior family members sat at the head. (In an earlier blogpost I discussed how the kitchen table is relegated to the role of a purely functional object while the fireside is traditionally where dining took place). Each member of the Irish-cottage-dwelling family had a seat in accordance with their importance. At either side of the hearth sat the heads of the households in fitted seats or armchairs; the rest of the family gathered around on súgán chairs, timber chairs with woven straw (súgán) seats. Younger, smaller members vied for a place at the fire on tiny stools, known as ‘creepies’. These little stools were small and low and allowed the user to ‘creep’ into available spaces to take advantage of the heat from the fire.
A visitor to the house was sometimes offered the honour of sitting in the chair closest to the fire, given up by the father or mother. It was considered rude for a visitor to seat themselves in these prime seats uninvited.
The male and female configuration is related to the ancient concept of dexter and sinister, Latin for ‘right’ and ‘left’ respectively. From the viewpoint of the fireplace, the fireplace’s right side was given to the male and the left to the female, or ‘lesser’, side. This is similar to the tradition of arranging subjects according to gender in European portrait paintings. Male and female ‘keeping holes’ built into either side of the hearth wall held pipes or knitting.
Cooking: There was an assortment of cooking paraphernalia around the hearth. The forged iron crane was essential in cooking since the nineteenth century. This was a fixed object that could be moved over the fire or away from it, while ratchets and iron chains allowed cooking utensils to be raised or lowered. Pots and the kettle could be hung from the crane at various heights. All the utensils were of iron and blackened with smoke over time. Baking was done in a pot oven for fire baking – this was a cast-iron pot with a lid. Prior to the use of soda bread, griddles were used to make unleavened bread. Glowing embers were used for baking bread and keeping items warm, these were piled around the pot oven. An important additional storage object near the hearth was the salt box. Foods such as bacon or fish could be smoked at the hearth or left up the chimney to do so.
Today the fire still occupies a central position in the Irish home. Large open hearths have been replaced with smaller and safer solutions. Many Irish homes have open fires or solid fuel burning stoves. Although more efficient fuels are available turf may still be used and the smell of turfsmoke is still a feature of many rural areas.
This blog often explores remnants of Irish pagan culture that remained in the lives of rural cottage dwellers from the mid nineteenth century on. The wake was a ritual that held onto many pagan rites that the Roman Catholic Church eventually banned completely. This article will describe some of the stranger customs involved in the Irish wake from that time.
What are wakes? The ‘wake’ or ‘waking the dead’ is an ancient ritual with its roots in Judeo-Christian religion. When a person dies, for three days prior to that person’s burial their family observes and sits with the corpse to ensure it does not awaken or ‘wake’. The Irish wake has changed much over the years but remains important and still involves the local community coming together to mark the death of one of its number. Irish wakes still attract large numbers of people to the deceased’s home. This differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served and stories and occasional laughter were welcome. On the third day, the deceased was taken to the church for a formal Catholic funeral service, followed by burial at a cemetery. Until the nineteenth-century, wakes were similar with added cultural customs that amplified the experience and that today’s observer may find bizarre and even grotesque.
Keening: The idea of paying a professional mourner to cry over your dead relative may seem perplexing to us today but this was considered a norm at many Irish funerals in the mid nineteenth century. Keening for the dead from ‘Caoineadh na Marbh’ was a type of mournful, wailing singing, and was performed by a female ‘keener’. A good keener needed to be dramatic looking, dishevelled, with loosened hair and bare feet. As they keened they would theatrically throw their arms up, tear at their hair, and rock themselves as if in deep grief. The wailing lament praised the deceased, but also chastised them for dying. This was in opposition to Christian funerary rites where the Resurrection is emphasised and so the Church discouraged the use of keeners at wakes and funerals. Keening was not practised outside of funerary rituals because of the fear that the ritual would conjure up the spirit world, and few recordings of real keeners were made.*
Clay Pipes: A wake was seen as a time for eating well and enjoying special treats for people with an otherwise frugal way of life. Special ‘wake provisions’ were bought for the occasion from the local grocer and a feature of this long shopping list (which included alcohol and food) was the large number of clay pipes. Clay pipes were filled and left out for visitors to the ‘wake house’ to take. People would light the pipes and exclaim “lord have mercy!” and inhale the tobacco smoke, which was considered to have curative properties. Non-smokers were expected to partake of this ceremony to help mourn the deceased. Any clay pipes left over from the funeral were broken and buried outside the house.
Wake Games: ‘Wake amusements’ kept mourners themselves awake through the nights prior to the funeral. These amusements took place in another room or in a shed. Young people ‘courted’ while music played, dancing took place, and matchmaking was carried out in a party-like atmosphere. Men would challenge each other to fights; and some forms of vicious horseplay were common. Waking ‘games’, included mock weddings, mock confessions and ‘kissing games’. The latter had erotic overtones and such unashamed assertions of sexuality was totally at odds with the prevailing prudent attitudes in Ireland at the time.
The weirdest of all was the ‘play’ that sometimes took place with the corpse. In the wake house, it was not unknown for a clay pipe to be placed in the corpse’s mouth, and there are stories of the corpse being made to talk, puppet-like, by mourners, and even taken up for a dance around the room.
Reverence: However, despite these lively customs, the overriding mood at a wake was of reverence for the dead, and wake ‘games’ were not intended to show disrespect. Merriment and amusements were completely dispensed with if the deceased was young, had died tragically or was a particular loss to the family.
It has been argued that these customs evolved from more primitive times when fear of the dead was very strong; and that the wake rituals came about as a type of appeasement of the dead from pre-Christian times. The transformation of the Roman Catholic Church from the mid-nineteenth-century had major repercussions on such Irish cultural traditions. As the Church’s influence grew keeners and wake games were abandoned and increasingly wakes became more solemn occasions than those discussed here.
For more on wakes and superstitions surrounding them see my forthcoming book, available this summer: Marion McGarry Irish Cottages, History, Culture, Design (Orpen Press, 2017).
Gearoid O Crualaoich ‘The Merry Wake’ in Donnelly, J.S. and Miller, Kerby A., Irish popular Culture 1650-1850 (Irish Academic Press, 1999).
Kevin Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press, 2004 ed.).
*A recording of an actual keener is available for visitors to hear at the National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
Recommended: ‘Songs for the Dead’ the Keening Tradition in Ireland (documentary BBC Radio 4, 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npx1f
This blog often revisits discussions concerning our cottage dwelling ancestors’ dual spiritual tradition: Christian and Celtic / Pagan. The Roman Catholic church tried and failed many times to get the Irish people to fully renounce their Pagan rituals and superstitions. In many instances the church simply combined Christian with Pagan festivals. A major Celtic / Pagan festival, Bealtaine which takes place in May and marks the start of the Celtic summer is the most significant to be combined with Christian traditions.
The meaning of Bealtaine: Just as the Celtic festival of Samhain (Hallowe’en) heralds the start of winter (the turning to the dark) Bealtaine (May) signifies the return of the light. Our farming ancestors relied on significant events of the calendar to give them reassurance; and to remind them when to sow and when to reap. Bealtaine is one of the four major Irish Celtic annual festivals along with Samhain (October), Imbolc (February) and Lughnasadh (August). It was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
'Altars in the home decorated with flowers replaced the tradition of Pagan offerings to the gods that have been in Irish homes since pre-history.'
To our ancient farming ancestors this festival marked the time on the farming calendar for cattle to be driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Fire played a special part in these rituals: it has been speculated that the fire in Bealtaine celebrations symbolises the return of the sun after winter. Other theories suggest that fire rituals are based on a type of imitative or sympathetic magic. Certain practices were to ensure a plentiful supply of sun for the growing season. Bonfires were lit and their flames, smoke and ashes were believed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and in some cases leap over the flames or embers. These fire rituals symbolically burned and cleansed potentially destructive influences, marking a new beginning in the farming year.
Irish cottage customs: By the time our farming ancestors had moved out of their raths, crannogs, timber huts and castles and largely dwelled in the cottages discussed here, worshiping under the Catholic religion in the nineteenth century, many elements of Bealtaine persisted.
The fire symbolism this time surrounded lighting the fire from the hearth which was the central focal point for all activities in the cottage. The fire at all other times of the year was never allowed to go out, but on May Day all household fires were ceremonially quenched and then re-lit with fire from the Beltane bonfire outside. At this time of year fire was not permitted to leave the house as it was considered likely that all luck of the house would also leave with it. Such beliefs dominated other important goods leaving the house, such as butter. Anything that was considered related to the profit of the house was not given away at this time as it was believed to do so was to give away the profit of the year. Out of respect for these beliefs, and to retain the luck of houses, water or fire was never asked for or taken from the home on May Eve or May Day.
The dew that occurred on the morning of May Day was important. Dew collected on that day (in a vessel) was thought to offer a cure for the rest of the year and washing the face with or walking in, the first dew of May day was believed to have curative properties. Water drawn from local holy wells at this time was considered especially potent. Flowers that were left at Holy wells on May Day were also considered to be restorative.
There were curious beliefs around housework in May; it was considered unlucky to dust the house or to whitewash the house. It was believed luckless too, to get married in May (June was preferred month in Ireland for weddings). May Day traditionally marked the start of summer hurling and in some parts of Ireland it was customary for women to present men with new hurling balls at this time. Not hearing the cuckoo in the month of May meant certain death for the non-hearer!
Marian worship and May flowers: From medieval times May became associated with the devotion to the Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many Pagan Celtic traditions were incorporated into Marian veneration, the most notable of which was the collection of flowers. Flowers were used to decorate grottoes, altars and Marian shrines as well as crowning statues of Our Lady in processions.
May altars in the home were also decorated with flowers: these holy places in the home, flanked by holy pictures of saints, Our Lady and the Sacred Heart, replaced the tradition of similar Pagan offerings to the gods that have been in Irish homes since pre-history. Seasonal bluebells, mimicking the blue associated with Our Lady were popular Above all, yellow flowers, such as primroses and gorse were seen as particularly potent against evil spirits and the Good People (faeries) who are renowned for their dislike of the colour. They were believed also to appease nature spirits and Pagan gods throughout Europe.
It was thought that during festivals such as Bealtine the power of those in the Otherworld was particularly potent. May flowers were spread on doorsteps (a common tradition in Ulster) and hung over doors (considered liminal areas) to discourage bad luck from entering the home.
May trees: Decorating a May Bush or May Tree was traditional in many parts of Europe. In Ireland a tree or bush was decorated with ribbons or shells near an individual house. It was usually white thorn, the most potent of faery trees and that which flowers in May, which paradoxically is considered very unlucky if brought indoors. Some believe that customs like these are a remnant of ancient Pagan tree worship.
The Irish rural thatched cottage has long been a combination that reflected the eked-out existence of an impoverished, but culturally rich people. By the mid twentieth century an Irish school of landscape painting was well established, with a sizable number of artists from Northern Irish, Protestant, urban backgrounds. These artists’ ‘national identities’ were at a pronounced remove from the wild unsophistication of the Irish west and the western cottage represented a shared cultural tradition through the medium of folk architecture.
The west of Ireland has a visual Otherness: the green patchwork of farmed fields which characterise the rest of Ireland do not feature in this area. It is dominated by purple mountain, brown bog, lakes and wild skies; orange grasses and a barren treelessness emphasised by the wild, ever changing weather coming in from the Atlantic Ocean.
An Irish school of landscape painting: In the early years of the twentieth century Irish artists portrayed the west and it became a place of pilgrimage for landscape artists. There was a certain dignity in the way the inhabitants persevered in the wild landscape that contrasted with times past. It gave a positive national identity for the rural Irish, where before little existed, celebrating the relationship of the people to the land they lived on.
The most influential was Paul Henry (1877–1958), a Protestant from Northern Ireland, who depicted traditional archaic turf stacks and potato pickers, in a modern way influenced by French Realism and Impressionism. Henry’s imagery of the west provided a view of rural Ireland that became recognised globally and was featured on travel and tourism publicity.
Artists from Northern Ireland: The Republic of Ireland (the South) was largely Roman Catholic, rural and had been neutral during the Second World War. Northern Ireland in contrast, as a part of the United Kingdom, meant Belfast and other towns suffered from German bombing raids. Northern Ireland was mainly Protestant, urban and industrialised.
To Northern Irish landscape artists of the mid twentieth century, the west of Ireland held a particular Otherly draw for artists such as Georgina Moutray Kyle RUA (1865-1950) Charles Lamb (1893-1964) and Frank McKelvey (1895-1974). Later, Rowland Hill (1915-79) and Maurice Canning Wilks (1911-84) portrayed tranquil cottages in their work against vibrant landscapes. Markey Robinson (1918-99), Gerard Dillon (1916–71) and Gladys Maccabe (b.1918) opted for traditional subjects with a pronounced modernity and like Henry (a generation earlier) chose to live amongst the landscapes they portrayed if only for a while.
Artists from Northern Ireland seemed especially compelled to depict the west of Ireland, perhaps in seeking difference, or in seeking a common cultural identity. It is pertinent that these artists did so in the mid twentieth century, prior to the worst of the sectarianism and the Troubles which had a devastating effect on Northern Ireland until recently.
The Irish cottage in art: By the early twentieth century, Irish politicians saw the west of Ireland depicted by artists like Henry, and the thatched cottage, increasingly associated with the idea of a Utopian unspoiled Ireland unsullied by British colonialism which might be revived. The cottage became a reflection of the lives lived within them and the opposite of Englishness and in this way became slightly politicised.
However, their vernacular architecture had the hand of no fashionable architects in their design but of local craft traditions handed down through generations. Although often vulnerable to the elements they had an eternal quality in that they clung to the landscape and grew from requirements of climate and availability of materials. The cottages in these ways represented in visual terms the identity of the Irish people on the island of Ireland.
Irish cottages, of three rooms, thatch and a central hearth were of a folk-architectural type known in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. In particular the ‘direct entry’ type discussed in this blog is an architectural type that characterises the rural places of the North East in Antrim, to as far south as Kerry. Irish Cottages truly were an expression of folk not politics, an all-Irish type of architecture with which all traditions could identify. It is little wonder then they provided aesthetic sustenance and allowed Northern Artists to identify with them.
The reaction of our ancestors to the scarcity of timber greatly influenced Irish cottage furniture and interiors. Until Elizabethan times Ireland had abundant ancient deciduous woodland, and was noted throughout Europe for its broad-leaved forests. Yet between 1600 and 1800 it is estimated that around 90% of Irish forests were cut down.
Throughout the seventeenth century much of the felled timber was exported and used for ship building, cooperage and iron smelting . Irish Oak had an excellent reputation and was particularly sought out by French and Spanish wine producers. Trees were not replanted in the same volumes as they had been depleted. This led to what the folklorist Kevin Danaher described as a timber “famine”  and Ireland became renowned in Europe from the seventeenth century for its lack of trees. Despite reforestation initiatives even in recent years, it remains one of the least forested areas of Europe.
There had once been a wonderful Irish appreciation of trees, shown throughout history. Our Ancient Pagan ancestors indulged in tree worship. The development of the Ogham alphabet was influenced by different species of trees. The Brehon Laws legislated for the status and protection of certain tree types up until the medieval period . However, the post-Tudor death of the forests meant that generally the native Irish lost this knowledge of trees and significantly, the old skills in woodcraft. The environment was also profoundly affected by the drastic deforestation: types of wildlife and birds disappeared. The climate of the country altered affecting the land itself: there was less shelter from the westerly winds.
As Europe was enjoying imported Irish timber, there was a general lack of the material in Ireland itself. Timber became a scarce commodity except for the rich, and local supplies were so poor that cheap timber began to be imported to Ireland. At times throughout Irish history even timber for coffins was unavailable or considered too expensive.
Throughout the eighteenth century, as the British colonial position in Ireland was consolidated the estates of the landed gentry were planted with broadleaved trees for shelter and habitats for game. These were surrounded by high walls, and known as demesnes. They provided a stark contrast with the surrounding treeless land outside the estate walls. In a general era of timber (and food) shortage in Ireland, demesnes contained gruesome man-traps to deter poachers and timber thieves. There were strict laws and harsh penalties regarding the theft of timber. If a person was found carrying a piece of timber they were immediately suspected of thieving and liable for questioning or arrest by the authorities.
This general lack of timber impacted furniture and interiors greatly in Ireland. Most Irish cabins contained little or no furniture. In the cottages discussed in this blog in the period given, furniture became symbolic of respectability and would have been made from any available timber, recycled from old or disused furniture and “found” timbers such as bogwood. There is evidence of driftwood salvaged from the seashore or shipwrecks being used in furniture and interiors of cottages. Green timber was also used in furniture construction, where readily available species such as salix or willow, in Ireland known as salleys, could be coppiced and used for furniture parts and weaving.
Furniture was often made by travelling skilled carpenters in exchange for food and accommodation. These were usually called in for the making of large pieces, such as settles and dressers, which were commonly made on site and needed quality making skills to last for years. There were also so called hedge makers, amateur carpenters who would make small primitive pieces of furniture (such as ‘hedge’ chairs) using small or green timbers.
Furniture in Irish cottages was generally was sparse and comprised chiefly of the settle, dresser, table, chairs stools and one or two box beds. Interiors evolved to make the most of cheaper solutions. Upcycling, recycling and multifunction have been long known in Irish vernacular furniture, for example settles that can convert to beds. At times of celebration doors were taken off their hinges and used for step-dancers to perform on. Alternative materials were used in interiors, particularly straw. Straw was used to make cosy armchairs (which could be disguised with fabric) and was also used to make draft excluders for worn gappy doors. It was woven to make mattresses and rugs, and such objects were replaced more frequently than ones made from timber.
Cheap sheeted timber, usually imported pine, was used for most furniture and paint became important in disguising faults of such wood. Paint also acted as a preservative and furniture was frequently overpainted, which had the effect of preserving pieces for long periods of time. Bright colours were used to counteract dimly lit interiors. Paint effects such as (graining and ‘scumble’) were used to make low-cost pine look like grander hardwoods. As furniture for damp cottages had to withstand years of use little innovations were built in to help preserve pieces: dressers and some settles had ‘sledge’ feet which could be replaced when they succumbed to damp, preventing damp travelling up the whole piece.
Little adaptations and innovations were small victories over the lack of timber in Irish cottages, and these influenced the overall look of our Irish ancestors’ humble but functional furniture and interiors.
References and further reading:
 For more, see: Irish Forests: A Brief History (Department of Agriculture, Ireland) at: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/forestry/forestservicegeneralinformation/abouttheforestservice/IrishForestryAbriefhistory200810.pdf
 Kevin Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier press, 2004 ed.) p.67.
 For more on the Brehon Laws and trees: Fergus Kelly, Trees in Early Ireland, Augustine Henry Memorial Lecture, (1999) in http://www.forestryfocus.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Trees-in-Early-Ireland.pdf
Whatever St. Patrick’s Day might mean to us today, to our cottage dwelling ancestors it was an important but simple celebration of one of our national saints.
As St. Patrick's Day occurs on March 17th it generally became thought of as 'the middle of spring' with the promise of good weather and longer evenings important to rural farmers. This also marked the time for planting potatoes but not on the day itself, which was a religious feast day, a day of rest and a welcome reprieve from Lenten fasting to enjoy meat, treats and alcohol.
For hundreds of years’ people in Ireland wore crosses to commemorate St Patrick on his feast day, with some wearing a sprig of shamrock on their hat, shoulder or lapel. According to folklore Patrick converted Irish Pagans to Christianity by using the three leaved shamrock to explain the holy trinity. In more recent times wearing the crosses became customary for children while adults wore shamrock. Over the years the crosses evolved into fabric circular rosettes decorated with crosses, harps or fabric shamrocks, and these may still be worn by Irish children today.
On the day itself, mass was attended, and afterward dinner containing meat (usually bacon, potatoes and cabbage) was eaten. As a day of rest, no farm work was undertaken and with Lent temporarily paused it became a day to enjoy alcohol for some. The alcohol consumed on St. Patrick’s Day was known as Póta Phádraig or ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’. There is a tradition known as ‘drowning the shamrock’ after a toast to St. Patrick some shamrock was tossed over the shoulder for good luck.
For many years the pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day but people still ‘found a way’. Because of this the day became a focus for the Irish Temperance movement, which was an anti-alcohol, religious association which exemplified good behaviour and national pride. From the mid-19th century they held colourful parades on St Patrick’s Day which offered a celebratory teetotal alternative to alcoholic pursuits. These parades spread to Irish emigrant communities abroad and they became embedded in the international celebration of St Patrick’s day.
According to folklore, on the day of Judgement Christ will judge all other nations, while St Patrick will be the judge of the Irish.
Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) St. Patrick’s Day (1856)
Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick's Day, (Routledge 2002).
After the Great Famine there was a gradual increased prosperity in Ireland and while the potato remained a staple in the diet, an emphasis on hygiene and new ingredients and methods altered foods served in the Irish cottage.
The common variety of potato was the ‘Lumper’ a waxy, flavoursome type that was however, prone to blight. Until the Famine Irish peasants were seen as better nourished than other Europeans due to their potato and buttermilk diet. Potatoes were cheap, easy to grow and contained vitamins and fibre. They were versatile, they could be boiled in their skins; mashed with butter and milk, made into potato bread; potato cakes or colcannon. Potatoes were boiled and drained in a large round wicker basket known as a skiob, and in some homes the family ate directly from this, sitting around the fire. Cottage dwellers from the 1860s, discussed here, would have been marginally better off than their poorer fellow country people and would have been able to afford to supplement their diet with a little more than just potatoes. Toward the end of the century more cottage dwellers dined using dinner plates and the common addition to those plates was bacon and cabbage.
Mealtimes and preparation: In an Irish house there were usually three meals a day, breakfast, dinner and supper. The ethos was that food be made fresh every day particularly bread. Food was prepared at the kitchen table and cooked over the open turf fire in the hearth using a ‘crane’ to hoist iron cauldrons and the kettle. The diet was simple: oatmeal, vegetables, dairy and bacon. Other meat and fowl featured on special occasions.
Dairy products: Ireland has excellent grass pastures suitable for beef production, yet beef was not historically a feature of the Irish diet, instead dairy products are. There were many variations of milk to drink, including buttermilk, fresh curds, old curds and ‘real curds’. There was "thick milk," which was milk that went solid, which was sliced and eaten. From medieval times Irish butter was a notable export to Europe and the churning of butter, a laborious task, was governed by Fairy superstitions. If you got on the bad side of the ‘Good People’ your butter might not churn, and it was considered a good idea to leave milk out to appease the Fairies at night.
Seafood: Fish did not feature hugely in the Irish diet which is surprising as Ireland is surrounded by vast fishing waters. Some coastal farmers in the late nineteenth-century merely supplemented their income and diet by fishing and used fish (such as salted herrings) when other foods were out of season. Much harvested seaweed was burned as a fertiliser and exported. Historically large-scale sea-fishing boats, nets and piers were an expensive outlay so fishing remained a hand-to-mouth exercise. Britain failed to significantly develop Ireland’s fisheries although there were some attempts to build and repair existing piers as famine-relief projects. The culture of fishing was never embedded in a Roman Catholic nation that saw fish as a ‘fasting’ food. However, in some seaside areas shellfish were harvested sand eels were caught using a hook, and boiled or fried. Seaweed, dillisk and Irish moss (carrageen) were also used.
Oats: Oatmeal was prominent in the Irish diet. Rolled oats were cooked as porridge and taken with a little sugar or salt (salt deterred Fairies). Oat cakes were baked on a griddle. Porridge could also be served as a watered-down gruel taken as a light supper. In one dish, cold porridge was allowed to harden, then sliced and wrapped in cabbage leaves, and baked.
Bread: Bread soda or baking soda made its appearance in Irish homes from the mid nineteenth-century. It was used as a raising agent for ‘soda bread’ which is still made using wholemeal flour, salt and buttermilk. ‘Soda cake’ was a sweetened version with dried sultanas. There was no time spent kneading or waiting for the bread to rise thus it could be baked quickly, in a bastable pot on the turf fire. It tended to go stale very quickly in comparison with the mass manufacture bread of today, so was made fresh each day.
Tea: Strong black loose leaf tea, left to ‘draw’ in the pot and served with milk, also became popular and remains a national favourite. Tea suppliers to this day chose stronger blends for the Irish market, as a dairy nation we tend to flood our strong tea with milk.
Foraged foods: Cottage dwellers had their own vegetable plots which contained the family’s supply of potatoes. They included cabbage, kale, turnips and onions, which were easy to grow in the climate. Vegetables were simply boiled or made into soups or stews. Some foods were foraged and nettles were a useful addition to the diet in Spring when other vegetables were scarce. Nettles were a rich source of iron and vitamins in Spring and added to food or made into soup. Children in Ireland today often feed garden birds in colder weather yet in the past children were given the job of trapping blackbirds, which provided an additional source of food in winter.
Pork and bacon: Many families raised and slaughtered a single pig every year allowing them to have a meat product quite regularly in the diet. The family pig therefore was a valuable asset to be treated well and special meals were sometimes made for the pig to fatten them up. Pigs were frequently taken into the home to allow them to thrive in the heat and shelter. In the nineteenth-century many saw this as further evidence that the Irish were ‘savages’: having a ‘pig in the parlour’ was a saying used to denigrate Irish people and contextualise them as animal-like. To the Irish however the nickname for the pig was ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’ a way of describing the value this animal had for families. By the end of the nineteenth century having a pig indoors became associated with a general lack of hygiene (and civilised manners) and sheds were built to accommodate livestock and fowl.
Salting and preserving the pig meat was essential in a time without fridges or freezers. Salted bacon, rashers, sausages and black pudding could be made and sides of meat could be obtained. All parts of the animal were used with nothing wasted. Bacon fat was preserved and ‘crubeens’ (pigs’ trotters) were eaten. The intestines were washed out with clear water to make cases for black pudding. This was made with blood, suet and oatmeal and was rich in iron.
Conclusion: The Irish diet discussed in this blog was monotonous. It revolved around soda bread, buttermilk, potatoes, bacon and porridge. Yet our ancestors did make many variations of these ingredients for meals, grew and made their food and wasted nothing. Cottages did not have the bins or waste collection services of modern times – livestock ate leftovers and anything else was composted. Until recently this diet was little changed for most Irish people although largely historic it is familiar to us today. The cottage dwellers’ diet was moderate, healthy, home-grown and full of organic produce, something that is espoused by dieticians and food experts today.
The painting (above): Aloysius O'Kelly (1853-1936) 'Expectation' West of Ireland.
Since farming began in Ireland around 5000 years ago agriculture has lefts its mark on the people and the landscape. Ireland’s beef and dairy industry has been an important part of the economy since Ancient times. This article explores the 'byre dwelling' a house for humans and cattle.
Good pasture suits the rearing of cattle as, unlike sheep, they need good land. Owning cattle became a symbol of prosperity, and they frequently feature in Irish folklore and history. Dairy featured more prominently in the Irish diet than beef and was a chief export, with Irish butter renowned for its quality since medieval times. As rustling was a constant threat the protection of precious cattle became ingrained in the Irish farmer’s psyche. The history of building in Ireland, from Bronze Age enclosures to medieval ‘bawns’ at tower houses, to the green patchwork of fields, is influenced by the management and protection of herds by our farmers throughout history.
Security: Throughout this period, it became accepted for humans to take shelter with livestock to guard them. This custom was not just known in Ireland but in many rural parts of Europe. However, the prolonged poverty of Irish farmers along with the small size of their holdings meant the practise continued well into the nineteenth century. This is evidenced in a common type of home in Ireland known as byre houses. These were homes that people shared with their cattle. Some of them were purpose built and some evolved to take livestock in to them, and many were one roomed and often could accommodate as many as four cows and one large family.
Design: As per the accompanying diagram, byre dwellings were divided by a sunken channel to allow effluent to be drawn from the building. The byre and dwelling areas were on either side of the channel. The front and the back door of the building were opposite each other allowing for traffic of the animals, for the channel to drain and to let varying winds circulate.
Cows were only taken in for milking and at night and were tethered to the wall to stop them roaming to the living area. Often byre dwellings were partitioned with curtains, and animals were given fresh bedding frequently, which included sweet smelling plants such as heather. The cows would thrive from the heat of the family’s open fire and enjoy shelter from the elements. The family would benefit from the additional heat given off by the bodies of the animals.
Reaction: This may seem impoverished and unsanitary to us today but these people would not have been the poorest of the poor because they owned livestock. They would have benefitted from this pragmatic living arrangement in comparison to other small farmers and there was certainly little social stigma at the time of living in such a dwelling, from their fellow countrymen at least. Colonial British commentators were generally horrified at the Irish tradition of living under the same roof as livestock, citing it as yet more evidence that the Irish were savage and incapable of self-governance.
Evolution: Eventually exterior byres were built to accommodate cattle and the old byre dwellings often evolved and were extended into bigger houses with more rooms. The former byres were partitioned with a wall, given a window and converted into a bedroom. Long after byre dwellings fell out of necessity, the practice of bringing farm animals into the house continued in some parts of Ireland. Cows were sometimes brought into the house for Summer milking as it was considered lucky for the creatures to see the fire. Smaller sick animals could be brought in to benefit from the warmth of the fire. Other livestock were common in homes, as evidenced in the chicken coop dressers in later Irish cottages and the factual basis for the ‘pig in the parlour’. The large part agriculture plays in the Irish economy, as well as the protection of farms and livestock, continues to this day, under rather more modern circumstances.
Painting above: Basil Bradley (1842-1904) 'Milking in a byre cottage, Connemara' (1880).
The conversion of the Pagan people of Ireland to Christianity began in the 5th century. The success of the missionaries is owed to their combining old Pagan practices with new Christian ones to assist people familiarise with the new religion. This article explores the combining of the Ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc with St Brigid's Day in Ireland and the customs and artifacts that remain today.
Christian events mirrored those important ones on the Pagan calendar: St Brigid’s Day coincided with Imbolc; St John’s Eve on 23 June was at midsummer; the Feast of Our Lady on 1 May was at the same time as Bealtaine and Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is connected with Lughnasa. In Ireland there was a greater emphasis on Catholic female saints because in Pagan worship female goddesses were of equal significance with the male. As a consequence of this we still see a firm devotional following for Our Lady in Ireland and to St Brigid: Until the mid-twentieth century Mary and Brigid were the most popular names for Catholic girls.
A ‘dual’ festival with the focus on a female deity is the feast of St Brigid, falling on 1 February which is also the time of Imbolc. St Brigid a conventional Christian saint from Co. Kildare (noted for her cloak) shares her name with Brigid, an Ancient Pagan goddess, both associated with fertility, health and good fortune. Imbolc is an old festival that heralds the start of Spring and celebrates the lambing season (it translates to ‘in the belly’). In Ireland the worst weather occurred between November and February so St. Brigid’s Day signalled better weather and longer days. To rural farmers it meant new life on the farm and a return to the growing season.
Traditions on St Brigid’s eve include visiting holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid to collect holy water. It was believed to be more potent if collected on her feast day, and was sprinkled on objects, people and animals to offer them her protection.
Some left a piece of cloth outside for the night of St Brigid’s Eve. The belief was that it would be touched by St. Brigid, and bestowed with her power. This was known as the brat bríde and was worn within clothing or applied to the sick to promote healing.
In some parts of Ireland ‘Biddy Boys’ went from house to house with a straw effigy of the saint, dressed in white, collecting for a party in her honour. Sometimes included in their procession was a ‘St Brigid’s girdle’ a belt for the occupants of the house to pass through to ensure health for the coming year. Irish emigrants took such traditions with them to their new homes. Here is a wonderful description of one riotous procession by Irish emigrants in 1830s London:
“[They] scandalised the local shopkeepers by marching their pagan corn dolly effigy up [Kensington] High St and thrusting her in through shop doorways, sending refined customers for the smelling salts. Police chose not to confront the mob, but arrested the dummy and locked her in a cell until a woman turned up asking to collect her sister’s dress adorning the Celtic goddess” .
On St. Brigid’s Eve, crosses were made from soft rushes by the family which offered St. Brigid’s protection for the household, farm and land. The tradition remains today with Irish schoolchildren making the crosses and which are sometimes hung in Irish classrooms, homes, even cars. The most popular style is the four armed cross and design variations occurred in different regions. Three-legged crosses were made for buildings which contained animals, so that they too would be protected by St. Brigid (see illustration below).
The design of the Brigid’s cross has ancient origins. It has similarities with the swastika, an ancient motif that features on some European Celtic carvings. In addition, the central pattern bears similarities to the lozenge shape seen carved on many stone monuments erected by the first prehistoric farmers in Ireland. This central feature underlines its female and fertility characteristics also seen in Irish carved-stone Sheela-na-Gigs from the early medieval period (see illustration).
. Martin Hedges, ‘The worst slum in London’ Posted on July 25, 2016, https://actonbooks.com/2016/07/25/kensington-jennings-rents-rookery/ accessed on 20/01/17.
Pen and ink illustrations by the author.