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.
The twelfth day after Christmas Day, 6th January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, was known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). It was also known in parts of Ireland as Little Christmas. Tradition held that on this day roles were reversed in the home: men did the women’s work in the house while women rested and gathered together socially. The practise was stronger in rural areas, and in the Cork and Kerry areas of Ireland, with some in other regions professing to have never heard of the holiday.
From the mid twentieth century Nollaig na mBan died out but is slowly undergoing a revival. Hotels and restaurants are advertising ladies’ days and evenings out for the occasion, many featuring revivals of taking ‘afternoon tea’. The Herstory Project has chosen the date for their 2017 light projection festival which aims to highlight ‘ordinary women who did the extraordinary’, but who were forgotten by history.
The twelfth day of Christmas is noted in Ireland as the day before which it is considered unlucky to take down the Christmas tree and decorations. The date was also marked in history as the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ ( ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’) in 1839 when a devastating hurricane hit Ireland leaving an estimated 100 dead and thousands homeless with mass structural damage throughout the country. It is cited as a reason that many Irish houses and cottages were from then were built in areas sheltered from the wind.
A notable literary association with this day is that James Joyce set the short story The Dead (1914) on the feast of the Epiphany in Dublin. It is said to be the greatest short story of modern English literature. If you consider Joyce’s work daunting, just reading the last paragraph alone will invoke the beautiful sense of peace one can have at Christmas, and reading it would be a fitting end to the festive season and a nod to the fresh beginnings of the New Year.
From The Dead by James Joyce:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
For more on the hurricane of 6th January 1839 see this article by Bridget Haggerty http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACalend/BigWind.html
The Dead by James Joyce. The full piece is available here http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/?utm_content=buffer64a88&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
More on Herstory: http://www.herstory.ie/home/
Photograph of players in stage adaptation of The Dead by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
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
The typical nineteenth-century Irish cottage has been explored here, with its total of three rooms: one kitchen flanked by two bedrooms. On average family sizes were large, included grandparents, and the bedrooms usually held four beds – so what were the actual sleeping arrangements?
The answer lies in the nature of bed furniture in Irish cottages which was variously hidden, transformer, multifunction and the ways of sleeping which were pragmatic with a strong emphasis on maximising warmth and cosiness.
In the cottage of the period discussed here, bedrooms were on either side of the main kitchen. They were sparsely furnished and little used in comparison to the warmer kitchen which contained the fire. Because of the cold in bedrooms, beds were shared by family members: the boys shared one bed, the girls shared another, the younger children another and the parents had their own bed. Extra occupants availed of other beds in the kitchen.
Prior to the popularity of Victorian wrought-iron beds with sprung mattresses in the later nineteenth century, the main type of bed were wooden box beds on raised legs, enclosed on three sides with a wooden ‘roof’. The entrance could be curtained off for privacy and protection from drafts. Inside, the bed was ‘papered’ or lined to further reduce drafts. A basic straw mattress was used, wrapped in fabric. A similar type of bed known as a tester bed was covered with cloth curtains to protect occupants from dust or turf which fell from the interior of the thatched roof. Featherbeds (mattresses) were also popular, if more expensive: only the feathers of water fowl were used for these. Irish patchwork quilts were common. Blankets were cherished and made from wool, and pillows were not commonly used.
The other chief piece of furniture in the bedroom was the chest. Chests evolved from those with lift-up tops, to cupboards with worktops and drawers. Dowry chests in some parts of Ireland were given as wedding gifts. Many were carved and were prized as an heirloom and used to store precious fabric items. As having a 'parlour' became fashionable in homes, some chests could convert into a bed at night to facilitate the bedroom being used as a ‘good room’.
Sleeping in the kitchen
Sleeping communally in a room where the fire was, was a habit the Irish were used to and continued in some dwellings into the nineteenth century. In medieval Irish castles ‘the grand hall’ contained the open fire and was where the feasting and sleeping took place, all together with little privacy.
Irish one-roomed cabins generally predated cottages discussed here . These had no actual bedrooms or beds, and the common way of familial sleeping was in a ‘stradogue’: this was where everyone was wrapped in the same bedding (like a big communal sleeping bag) on a straw mattress on the floor beside the fire.
Out of the tradition of sleeping in the kitchen beside the fire evolved the use of the outshot bed. This was a feature of cottages in the North and West of the island, where it was also known as a ‘cailleach’ or hag. It was a small projecting extension to the rear of the cottage and near the fireside, used commonly by the elderly of the household. It had a fitted bed and some level of privacy was provided by curtains or doors. When infirm or bedridden, the elderly could continue to be a central part of the household by occupying the outshot.
As houses were modernised and notions of hygiene changed, sleeping in the kitchen by the fire died out, and became only the occasional preserve of house guests.
Transformer and multifunction furniture
There were multifunctional pieces of furniture such as settle beds and press beds that could be used as beds at night but that remained hidden during the day.
Settles were popular items of furniture in the Irish cottage, they are a long bench with a high back and wooden arms. They often included storage or dining tables and were located in the kitchen. Settle beds could be folded down to become a box-bed, which was given a straw mattress and bedding. It was a multifunction piece of furniture used for seating and often as a secure playpen for toddlers.
Press beds (or ‘Murphy’ beds, as they became known when brought to the USA by Irish emigrants in the nineteenth-century) were also used. This bed folded up into a tall cupboard or ‘press’ (as cupboards are sometimes referred to in Ireland and Scotland).
Roof spaces were often used for sleeping accommodation for children. The loft was sometimes left open and overlooked the main room or given a wall. It was suitable for children’s bedrooms (due to the small size) and when left open drew the heat up from the room. The loft could be accessed from a ladder or through a hatch door. Lofts were commonly lit by a small side window that is a distinctive feature of the Irish cottage.
For more see my forthcoming book, The Irish Cottage: Cultural Identity, Life and Customs, Architectural Design and Interiors, 1860–1960 (Orpen Press, Dublin 2017).
All photographs taken by the author 2016.
ABOVE - Twin wooden beds, Ulster American Folk Park, (Tyrone).
BELOW -Clockwise from left: Tester Bed; Outshot Bed (at Glencolmcille Folk Park, Donegal);
Twin wooden beds (at Sean McDermott Cottage, Kiltyclogher, Leitrim).
There are commonalities in cottage design throughout Ireland from the 1860s, the chief being that thatch, whitewash and linear design are used. Traditional houses were often rectangular, one room deep and three bays wide. Inside, there were three rooms which led to each other, and often the door and windows were on one side of the house only. The kitchen was the chief room containing a hearth. It was sparsely furnished and flanked by bedrooms either side.
Irish cottages are related to a type of European vernacular building known as ernhaus where the hearth is of major importance to the dwelling. They also inherited some characteristics of medieval longhouses[i] and features of medieval Anglo Norman building influenced some cottages in the in south-east[ii].
There is also evidence that Irish cottages are descended from so called “byre” dwellings[iii]. Agriculture was vitally important in Ireland and livestock was a valuable commodity to be protected from weather, thieves or predators. Most farmers did not have outdoor shelters and brought their livestock into the house at night. Their houses became known as “byre” dwellings, where animals lived on one end of the house and the family on another, with a sunken channel which took effluent from the building and separated the living quarters. The animals provided additional heat to the human family. When sheds were built outside to house animals, the byre evolved to become a bedroom or parlour, it was floored, whitewashed, given a window and absorbed into the house’s design, its original purpose never to be fathomed by later inhabitants. The channel evolved too, to become a pathway from front door to back door.
There are two chief differences in Irish cottage design regionally which were identified by Kevin Danaher as ‘direct entry’ and ‘lobby entry’. In the north-west and in upland areas, the chief type of cottage is the direct entry type; that is the main room (kitchen) is accessed by the front door, often the back door was directly opposite the front door, and the front door was at the opposite end of the kitchen to the hearth. The walls are of stone and roofs have raised gables and windows are on one side of the house. The bed outshot or “hag” is often associated with direct entry cottage types. This was a projecting back wall usually 3ft deep, which contained a fitted bed, close to the fire. Elderly or infirm family members could continue to take part in the life of the house in this area which was occasionally closed-off with a curtain or with timber doors for privacy.
Lobby entry cottages are found around the south east of the country. With these, a wall or partition separates the door from the hearth, forming an open porch inside the front door. This screen wall is parallel to front of the house and is variously known as the ‘spy wall’ and has a small low window which faces the visitor to the house on entry. The person sitting at the fire can see through this window to the visitor at the front door. The spy wall protected the fire from drafts and offered privacy to the occupants if the door was open, as it often was. These lobby entry cottages also had hipped roofs and often the material for the walls was tempered clay with stones, whitewashed. An overhanging thatch, hipped on both sides was also a characteristic of these cottages. (I will discuss whitewash and thatch in future blogposts).
Throughout Ireland entrance doors were traditionally made of sheeted wood, and a popular design was the half door. It allowed light, ventilation and kept animals and children in or out. It also allowed for conversation with passers-by or neighbours. Windows were minimal in size not more than 2 ft wide and usually located away from the prevailing wind, and rarely located on gables on ground floors. Window openings were often closed up with boards, fleece or straw, as glass was expensive and drafts were common. A window tax imposed by the British government on the number of windows in all dwellings was enacted but did not have a major influence in Ireland. In the late nineteenth century, casement windows were replaced by wooden sliding sash types with two-over-two pane format, as glass became more affordable. Sash windows became very popular on Irish cottages as living standards improved in the later nineteenth century, and their fenestration is part of the recognisable fabric of the Irish cottage.
Illustrations by the author, 2016.
The image of the thatched Irish cottage, three windowed and cosy, has been appropriated in a romantic light today, but life in them during the nineteenth century was undeniably harsh. Broadband, electricity, running water, central heating and basic plumbing are staples of contemporary domestic life and the lack of these in a cottage would have been immediately apparent to the contemporary viewer. It can be hard to imagine what the whole experience of actual cottage life was like, so this article focuses on one aspect: the olfactory experience of an Irish cottage, essentially how things smelled.
The immediate smell on entering a cottage would have been the ambient smell of the materials used on the thatch, semi-dried straw, reed or heather, then: the turf smoke. Cottage life revolved around the open fire which was used for cooking, heating the home and light in the evening. Turf smoke would have pervaded the atmosphere.
In the evening time the scent would also have been apparent of crude candles made of animal fat or tallow candles which were burned for everyday use (beeswax and better quality candles were saved for special occasions). Towards the end of the nineteenth century oil lamps became common and these omitted the odours of whale oil or paraffin, depending on the oil used.
The smell of pipe smoke would also have been common: in that period Irish women and men copiously smoked cheap clay pipes, and often substituted expensive tobacco with dried coltsfoot (an indigenous wild plant). Smells of cooking from the open fire, usually of pot-boiled salty bacon and cabbage also featured. Frequently fish was cooked by frying or boiling, and this and the smell of stewed tea and baking bread would have been apparent.
As the privy was located outside the cottage, occupants were mercifully spared the scent of effluent. The ‘outhouse’ contained a bucket which was emptied frequently. The chamber pot was not made popular with cottage occupants until the late nineteenth century, so until then all such practices took place outside.
When children were being toilet trained they might be confined to one area with straw underfoot to allow ‘spillages’ be easily cleaned up (contemporary readers note that disposable nappies or diapers were not invented and even cloth nappies were not often used). The average family size was of over 7 children, so many pragmatic mothers simply allowed untrained toddlers to ‘go’ and then deal with the consequences. All toddlers, including boys, wore dress-like smocks to make this process easier on them. From the 1860s, clay floors were increasingly replaced with flat stone flags, which were gently sloped toward the front door to allow floors to be washed down with buckets of water.
In addition, some livestock was permitted into cottages along with the odours they brought with them. With this in mind, one English visitor to Ireland in 1897 wrote of one poor cabin, that it was ‘full of flies and with the odour of a stable’.It was common for hens to be brought into the home at night for warmth, protection from foxes and for a supply of eggs within easy reach. These were kept in specially adapted dressers: plates of top, chicken coop on bottom. Near the turn of the twentieth century hygiene concerns along with the availability of government aid to build outdoor ‘foul houses’, discontinued the practise.
The most notorious animal to be kept in Irish cottages was the pig, which was much parodied in England and elsewhere and became a part of the ‘Paddy Irishman’ stereotype. Certainly for hygiene concerns pigs ceased to be kept in most homes by the late nineteenth century, but by that stage the ‘pig in the parlour’ notion of Irish domestic life had stuck with the foreign audience. The sole family pig had been kept indoors for pragmatic reasons, it was fattened up for either sale or for food for the family, then killed, salted and preserved, to do them for most of the year. The pig was regarded by the Irish as a precious commodity, nicknamed ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’. However, as most cultures view the pig as an animal associated with filth, this Irish custom merely underlined the English colonial overlords’ portrayal of the Irish as uncivilised savages incapable of governing themselves.
From the mid nineteenth century the washing of clothes in a nearby stream would have still been practiced, and this on dry days could be hung on bushes to dry, but would also have been hung by the fire to ‘air’ which may have omitted a clean laundry smell. The people of this period would have had only one set of clothes for everyday use, and one set of clothes for best wear. So laundry was not done as much as today, but mending was necessitated: stitching and repairing clothes, socks and underwear was undertaken most evenings by the fire by both men and women. Another common smell in the Irish cottage was that of damp: in rooms closed away from the open fire there a coldness and chill pervaded during the winter months.
The overwhelming smell left on visitors’ clothes would have been turf smoke, which clung to most things including food.
By the twentieth century Irish cottages, at least those three roomed dwellings owned by self-sufficient farmers described here, gradually took on innovations such as plumbing, cooking facilities such as ranges, electricity, house extensions and animal outhouses. Gradually, the heady combination of smells described here wafted away into the past forever.
  Clifton Johnston, The Peasants’ Ireland, The Outlook (1897).
The three windowed thatched roof cottage discussed here really only become part of the Irish landscape after the Great Famine (1848). Prior to that many rural Irish lived in ramshackle cabins, with no windows or chimneys. The post Famine cottage represents gradual improvements made to domestic Irish living standards, through increased prosperity and new trends in household hygiene.
Cottages were built from all local materials, stone, reed/thatch using craft traditions distinctive to each locality. In this way they are really part of the landscape of Ireland. They also demonstrate contemporary sustainable architectural theory and even unwittingly echo some of AWN Pugin's (1812-42) proposals about 'honest' architecture 'matching' the surrounding land.
In 1935 the Swedish researcher Åke Campbell undertook a survey of rural cottages. He observed: ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’
Because rural cottages suit the rugged Irish landscape so well they have at time represented Irish identity as a tourist icon, nationalist political symbol and as artists' 'muse'.
Many things in modern domestic Irish life started with our recent ancestors in the nineteenth century. This brief article explores our dining habits then and how they have evolved since, using the vernacular kitchen table from the Irish cottage as an artefact.
If we look at the design of the traditional Irish kitchen table we see a multi-function piece of furniture, and one of its less important uses is dining. As in the Old English, the word for table in Irish is ‘bord’; a flat surface for working on. The design of Irish cottage tables was simple, made of cheap sheets of pine, with four legs connected by two long stretchers running parallel to the sheets of timber on the table top. The table top was used as a work surface for food preparation and other tasks. Drawers underneath each end and stretchers were used for storage. Tables were even used for laying out a corpse for a wake.
Look also at the spatial arrangement of Irish cottage furniture – the table is pushed against the wall - as is the case for all furniture in the house – and not in the middle of the floor surrounded by chairs, so the chief function was not dining.
The table top was left bare and frequently scrubbed using abrasive materials (such as sand) for this reason many table tops were left unpainted while the legs and other parts had a painted finish. Linen table cloths were only really used for extra special occasions, Christmas, stations, wakes. Other cloths used were oil cloths as they were easy to wipe down.
If we look at the content and the time taken over food we also get an indication of why our ancestors did not linger over meals. Traditionally most cottage dwellers viewed dining as a means of purely getting sustenance. The main meal, dinner, was taken in the middle of the day, with work to get back to immediately afterward. Eating was a functional exercise, in big families diners ate and moved away to allow the next person to use the place at the table. In large families, space was limited. Children were usually fed separately from the adults. Irish tables were accompanied by long forum stools, to seat as many children as possible. The long stretchers underneath the table occupied little feet.
Sometimes the amount of dinner guests fluctuated in a house due to visitors and seasonal farm labourers needing to be fed. To accommodate these, some living rooms contained a hinged table top, which folded down from a wall. Some settle designs had a fold-down table in the centre of its back, to accommodate two sitters either side.
Before Irish kitchen tables became commonly used in cottages food was taken at the fireside. The diet consisted chiefly of boiled potatoes and buttermilk. Families ate potatoes directly from a large flat basket (known as a ‘skiob’) that had been used to strain the boiling water from them. Diners were either seated on low stools or sitting on the ground. In this situation plates and cutlery would not have been used and table manners were unknown! The increased emphasis on household hygiene in the nineteenth-century led to a change in such eating habits, and tables became more popular in cottages. But the habit of not lingering too long over food continued, and in many rural Irish houses to this day the kitchen table remains pushed against the wall.