The darkness of evening to our cottage dwelling forebears meant a time to finish the heavy work and relax before bedtime. Conversation and craft were the main preoccupations after evening prayers were said. This part of life like all others was governed by austerity.
Everything in life was scarce or ‘running out’ for at least some of the time. People had to be sparing in their consumption of things we can take for granted today: ‘spare the fuel’, ‘spare the light’ were common sayings. In this context it is understandable that things of the everyday were minded, and repaired when broken, or ‘upcycled’ for their materials – to use a contemporary term – when out of use.
Around the fireside on long evenings sewing was a popular pastime – with both sexes. Making do and mending of clothing was done regularly in a time when clothing was scarce. From the Middle Ages clothing was designed to be used for many years: for example womens’ clothes and had adjustable stays to allow for pregnancies as they occurred. Throughout the eighteenth century there was a big market in second hand clothes in Ireland. Poorer people in Ireland were commonly dressed in ‘rags’ according to commentators, their clothing threadbare and held together by patches. A relative who emigrated might send a parcel of clothes back home which was much anticipated and valued by the recipients. By the nineteenth century techniques of mass production applied to textiles and the making of clothes meant they became more common, but they were still valued.
People owned one or two sets of working clothes and a set of ‘good’ clothes. The everyday clothes had to be constantly maintained, patched, stitched, sponged, dried, cared for.
Therefore people sewed, patched and maintained their clothes on a daily basis. When clothing was no longer viable it might be upcycled into bedding, such as patchwork quilts.
Patchwork quilts could be said to be an expression of frugality but in Irish cottages they were sometimes made as wedding gifts and for pleasure, or for home décor. Rooster red fabric was popular in the Victorian era and was often combined with used flour sacks to give a red/white contrast in dark bedrooms. Quilts are often seen as a grand expression of ‘mend and make do’ but often quilters would source and buy fabric especially for their quilts which showed that design rather than austerity was important. Some people supplemented their income by making patchwork quilts or by taking in the clothing repairs of others.
Irish patchwork was bought to the US by emigrants who brought with them styles from Ireland. The Irish chain is one of these styles that remain popular with quilters today. The Irish method of appliquéing a blanket between patched layers is also notable, but not often used today.
The Irish habit of hand sewing described is long gone, but it persisted enough into the twentieth century for many homes to adopt the sewing machine as part of the furniture, with Singer a popular brand.
James Brennan (1837–1907) Patchwork (1891) Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Double Irish Chain quilt, c.1904 (Nebraska State Historical Society).
The west of Ireland was traditionally seen as the ‘edge of the world’ by other Europeans. For some nineteenth-century European artists, there had been a fascination with ‘primitive’ societies and the character of the ‘noble savage’, a romanticised outsider, or Other, uncorrupted by civilisation and industrialisation. The west of Ireland was unsophisticated and largely untouched by the modern world and so held a particular fascination for artists, Irish and non-Irish. Inspired by these ideas, many sought to depict the Otherness of life in the west represented by the wild landscapes and Irish cottages in art. The isolated rural thatched cottage in the west of Ireland and its landscape was a combination which reflected the culture of its dwellers and the simple lives lived in the harsh landscape around it.
In the early twentieth century, politicians of the new state of Ireland saw the west of Ireland and the thatched cottage increasingly associated with the idea of a Utopian unspoiled Ireland unsullied by British colonialism which might be revived. Yet artists were drawn to it for this and for other reasons, the light, the rugged landscape which was a combination of lake, bog, mountain and coast. From Donegal down through Mayo and Galway the wildest parts of the coastal landscape and the cottage clinging to it were represented.
Connemara, particularly the areas around Letterfrack, Kylemore and Recess, was popular with artists. In depicting the cottages of the west of Ireland in art, artists left us an important record of our architectural heritage. For the Irish landscape they painted in the mid twentieth century was a culture and way of life that was fast disappearing like the moving clouds and light illuminating the land.
William Orpen (1878-1931) through his teaching had influenced a generation of Irish artists and he frequently depicted the west of Irish mood through landscapes and depiction of the people as Other. Sean Keating (1889 – 1977) produced among his other works images of the western seaboard. Jack B Yeats (1871–1957) also depicted the west but chose to show the cultural way of life rather than landscapes. Maurice MacGonigal (1910-79) also produced much work in the west of Ireland, showing the humble thatched cottage against the landscape.
To Northern Irish artists, some Protestant and some from urban areas, the west of Ireland held a particular draw. Charles Lamb (1893-1964), Paul Henry (1877–1958). Frank McKelvey (1895-1974), Rowland Hill (1915-79) and Maurice Canning Wilks (1911-84) are just some of the Northern artists who portrayed the west of Ireland and its rural farm dwellings in their work. They painted the landscape against the wide, vast skies, with thatched cottages hugging the land, almost representative of the inhabitants. Henry, the most famous, developed a style of painting that was considered modern for its time and based on Realism and Impressionism.
The American artist Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) spent 1926 in rural south-west Donegal in a derelict cottage that he rented from a local farmer. He showed the locals in their landscape in a series of paintings, containing magnificent sunsets and cottages, haystacks and turf stacks on the rugged coastal landscape. Although bathed in colour, the paintings make no attempt to romanticise the way of life, depicting the reality of existence in this area in the 1920s in a slightly Art Deco style. This harsh, stark, treeless environment, typical of the very westerly coast of Ireland facing the Atlantic Ocean, has recently become branded as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ and remains a tourist favourite.
Rowland Hill (1915-79) Bloody Foreland, Donegal.
Maurice MacGonigal (1919-79) Bringing home Turf.
Paul Henry (1877-1958) Doughruagh mountain, Galway.
Marie Bourke, West of Ireland paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland from 1800 to 2000 at http://www.nationalgallery.ie/en/Learning/Resources/~/media/Files/Education/Schools/West_of_Ireland_Paintings_at_the_NGI.ashx