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