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