The traditional Irish wedding was a far simpler occasion than the lavish weddings we see today. Until the early twentieth century, weddings were treated as occasions of celebration marked by feasting, but were low-key and often held in the home of the bride.
Amongst the Catholic rural peasantry, marriage was seen as a serious business rather than a romantic one. Marriage was tightly regulated by parents who used it to maintain or advance their family’s societal position, no matter how humble their means. The marriage of the eldest son was critical in maintaining the farm, and the marriage of the eldest daughter was also important. Arranged marriages were common well into the twentieth century – your great-grandparents’ marriages were likely arranged. Elopement was rare: if say, a marriage took place between a farmer’s eldest daughter and a landless labourer it would have been frowned upon and the couple would have had few financial resources to help them. By adhering to the traditional rules of marriage society was managed and structured.
Often, a hired matchmaker took care of the settlement and in doing so, had to consider the birth order of the bride or groom to be, rather than looks or personality. The Catholic rural Irish had families of a large size and had to carefully divide inheritance. In order to protect the most important asset - the family home and farm - and to provide parents’ care into their old-age, the convention was that the eldest son inherited. The farm was inherited in one piece, it was not broken up, with the implicit understanding that the eldest son would only inherit when he married and would manage the farm until his eldest child in turn would inherit. The eldest daughter got a dowry which allowed her to bring some means to a future marriage. The rest of the siblings in the family had to make their own way: many migrated to towns for work or became farm labourers or emigrated.
Below: A Wedding Dance (1848) by Daniel MacDonald (1821—1853) at Crawford Gallery, Cork.
Weddings could not take place during Lent or Advent and this led to the popularity of the June wedding. Many people believed that to leave a Child of Prague statue outside on the eve of the wedding would ensure good weather for the day, a tradition continued by many to this day.
A wedding ‘breakfast’ would be held after the church service (similar to receptions today), to literally break the fast that had been required before taking Holy Communion and this would take place at the bride’s parents’ house. The house had to be spring-cleaned, and all furniture freshly painted, and the interior and exterior whitewashed.
More prosperous brides bought a wedding dress but more usually, a new outfit was purchased which could be worn again on special occasions as ‘good’ clothes. The wedding ceremony would take place at the church used by the bride’s family.
Below: 'An Irish Bride is brought to the Church' London Illustrated, 1849.
The priest who conducted the church service was invited to the wedding breakfast at the bride’s house as were family and friends. It was believed that, for good luck, the wedding party should always take the longest route from the church. After the church service, a custom known as ‘The Drag’ took place in some areas: locals and guests would form a procession with donkeys, carts and horses, and would circuit the area making as much noise as possible. This is similar to how in Ireland today cars are decorated and the procession follows the wedding car from the church to the reception venue, sounding car horns. On entering the house, the newly married couple had to walk through the door side by side, as it was thought that if they went in one after the other, the one behind would die first. Another custom in some parts of Ireland is that bread is broken over the bride’s head by her new mother in law in a gesture of friendship (there were a wealth of wedding day superstitions).
Below: A bride dances with a Mummer (pic from the National Folklore Collection).
At the wedding breakfast neighbours helped with the food, and barns or sheds were used for extra seating and tables. Lavishness and generosity was and remains a feature of Irish weddings with lots of food and drink provided to guests.
Geese and bacon were popular meats accompanied by potatoes served mashed, followed by sweet cake and tea. Alcohol, such as porter, poitín and whiskey were served after the meal. Musicians were paid to play music and dancing was encouraged.
A highlight of the wedding was the appearance of the Mummers or Strawboys, ‘uninvited’ but expected guests to the wedding. They were a group of young men from the local community disguised with tall straw hats and costumes and their presence at the wedding was believed to bring good luck and health to the newlyweds. They would ‘demand’ to dance with the bride and amuse the other guests by their singing, dancing and feats.
Below: Print by Erskine Nicol from 'Tales of Irish Life and Character' (First Ed.) Book collection of Maggie Land Blanck
After the wedding the bride would go to her new husband’s house accompanied by her dowry. One tradition is that she was ceremonially given the tongs of the hearth to symbolise her new job of running her husband’s household, now that new couple were officially taking over the house and running of the farm from his parents.
If you enjoyed this article you may be interested to read more about our Irish ancestors in my book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017) available in all good book shops or at this link
In May 2018, as part of the National Famine Commemoration at University College Cork, a mud cabin - an Bothán - was constructed by the buildings and estates staff at the College (see below). Standing beside a building that dates from the same period, it serves as a blunt reminder of how the poorest people lived and died during the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852. It prompted me to write this piece on Irish cabins.
Irish cabins: rural slums
My writings on vernacular Irish architecture have focused on the traditional three roomed cottage of the post-Famine period and in understanding this it is important to acknowledge the cottage’s predecessor, what will be referred to here as the ‘cabin’. The two types of dwelling coexisted for some time in the nineteenth century before the cabin as a building type died out, largely due to the Famine.
The plight of those housed in the notorious ‘tenement’ slums of Irish cities in the nineteenth century and beyond has been well documented. In the same era there were also slums in rural Ireland. A census of 1841 showed that 40 per cent of rural houses were single-room mud cabins Like the urban tenements, the cabin was characterised by terrible poverty, overcrowding and filth.
Even though we associate ‘cottage’ dwellers as impoverished by our standards of living today, those houses were better built, usually well thatched and contained furniture. Cabins were associated with a much grimmer type of poverty and were ramshackle, muddy and primeval in comparison. Some were known as a bothán scóir, used seasonally by travelling farm labourers, but many large, poor families lived in cabins on a permanent basis. They were dotted across Ireland and would have been a common sight. Below: "Cottage, Achill Island", Alexander Williams (1846-1930) part of the Museum of Great Irish Hunger collection (Quinnipiac).
Unfit for human habitation:
The cabin of the early nineteenth century represented the reality of the terrible poverty of most of rural Ireland. Due to the tumbledown nature of their construction with earth piled around them, some cabins resembled smoking dung heaps, and these dotted the countryside across Ireland.
Cabins were basic, one-roomed and had few if no windows, a single lean-to door. There was a basic central hearth surrounded by stones, which was ventilated by a hole in the roof and used to cook food. Cabins were usually made of mud, sod, turf or scrap timber. Many were merely makeshift shelters, lean-tos with sods of earth for walls. Roofs were crudely thatched using heather or grass. They were draughty and damp and barely kept the weather out. There was obviously no electricity, running water or toilet in these dwellings. There was little or no furniture. Sleeping arrangements were pragmatic: the whole family, parents and children, slept together on the floor beside the fire. Cabin occupants had faces that were blackened by the fire smoke. Livestock, if any, shared these dwellings with humans.
Below: An Irish cabin by Arthur Young (Draughtsman) c.1790 From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Directly outside the entrance to most cabins was a compost heap, known as a ‘midden’, containing household waste. Entry was through a low door to a dimly lit, smoky single room, commonly ‘full of flies and with the odour of a stable’. The floor was of clay, uneven and littered with rushes or heather – a style unchanged since pre-medieval times. One English traveller commented on a cabin that the occupant shared with two cows: ‘It was more like a floorless stable that had not been cleaned for a week, than a human habitation.’
Owing to such living conditions and successive famines meant that the poorer population were more substile to illness at a time when fevers such as cholera and typhus were rampant throughout the country. In the early nineteenth century there was lack of medical understanding of these, compounded by lack of hygiene and medicine. Imagine giving birth in a cabin – little wonder rates of infant and maternal mortality were high. Or imagine trying to battle a disease such as cholera, and continuing to share the communal family bed, on the clay floor. Cabin dwellers did not stand a chance in such situations and suffered greatly during the Great Famine.
Cabins were the dwelling places of a wealthy landowner’s tenants. Tenants paid rent partly by working in the fields and raising livestock for landowners, a precarious existence. Tenants sometimes depended on the benevolence (if any) of the landlord if the weather was poor or their crops failed. The spectre of eviction always loomed.
After the Great Famine the cabin was ultimately overtaken by the cottage as the most common type of rural dwelling. As cabins commanded little rent, and the land was more profitable when used for grazing livestock over a bigger area. Many cabins, were cleared from the land in the post-Famine period their dwellers themselves swept off the face of the earth during these traumatic years. Hardly any trace of them remain.
Below: Owen Gray’s House by Artist(s): Jonathan Binns (Draughtsman), Louis Haghe (Lithographer), William Day (Lithographer). From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
My thanks to Ross O’Donovan, Buildings Maintenance Manager, University College Cork.
Also to the newly digitised ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Clifton Johnston, ‘The Peasants’ Ireland’, The Outlook (1897).
D. George Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland: the Search for Stability (Dublin, 1990).
Christmas to our ancestors in the type of rural Irish cottage discussed in this blog was much more subdued than it is today. It revolved around the Catholic Mass and respite from work but still was a festive, special occasion.
During Advent, the Christmas preparations included a great spring-clean of the house and farm buildings, involving cleaning and whitewashing, inside and out. Christmas cards and parcels from relatives abroad would arrive, containing necessities or fancies from the USA, Britain or more far-flung places. Then, days before the big day, the ‘getting of the Christmas’ occurred, which involved the family going out to shop. Rural families made the trip to local shops in towns and villages. The shopkeeper gave an annual gift of a package containing a small token of appreciation for loyal customers only, known as the ‘Christmas box’. This might be tobacco, a cake or a small bottle of spirits, and was always appreciated, and expected, by the customer. The custom of the ‘Christmas box’ continues in some form in Ireland to this day. The traditional Christmas shopping list included Christmas cake, whiskey and port or sherry. The Irish enjoyed some alcohol during these celebratory occasions, but rarely to the excess that the stereotype portrays. Drinking was confined to the pub and taking alcohol at home was for when a party occurred.
Above: Jack B Yeats' Christmas card for the Cuala Press shows a bird bringing a Christmas card over the sea from snow capped cottages to emigrants abroad
Houses were decorated with holly and a small tree, usually the top part of an evergreen or a branch potted up for the occasion. Children made paper chains. The important display was the Christmas candle, a white or red thick candle that was lit over the Christmas period and lasted as long. According to tradition, another smaller candle was placed in a window on Christmas Eve night to welcome the ‘Holy Family’ of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on Christmas Eve. It is also said the tradition came from Penal times as it indicated a safe place for priests to perform mass. Other candles would be placed in hollowed-out turnips and decorated with holly.
From the early twentieth century Santa Claus - known in Ireland as Santy or Santa - became a visitor who filled children’s stockings with wooden toys, ribbons and exotic fruits such as oranges.
In most homes in Ireland the traditional crib was also a feature, this was a set of plaster coloured statues of characters from the Nativity. The statue of the baby Jesus was never placed in the manger until Christmas day. On Christmas Eve people attended Midnight Mass to save church attendance the next day. In the local church, the crib would be a much bigger affair and would be a festive attraction for the congregation.
In the nineteenth century, most foods on the Christmas table of the rural smallholder was raised or grown by the family and cooked over an open turf fire. On Christmas Eve, a time of Catholic fasting, fish was eaten (traditionally hake was popular). On Christmas Day, pot roasted goose was the choice for dinner (turkey is a more recent addition to Irish tables popularised during the early twentieth century). From the twentieth century Stanley ranges and ovens took this job over. In Cork, Dublin and other parts of Ireland Spiced beef was also eaten.
The fowl was accompanied by a bread or potato stuffing made with butter and onions and flavoured with seasonal herbs such as sage, parsley or thyme. This would be accompanied by sliced boiled ham. Spiced beef, an Irish speciality, was part of the main Christmas meal in some parts of the country. Meats were accompanied by potatoes and winter vegetables such as cabbage and turnip. A large Christmas cake made using spices and dried fruit soaked in alcohol was considered a huge treat.
Here is a link to great recipe by Darina Allen for traditional roast goose with potato stuffing:
Above: Painting of Irish cottages in snow and moonlight by Dublin artist Ciaran Clear (1920-00).
St Stephen’s Day
The day after Christmas, known as St Stephen’s Day in Ireland, was when the ‘Wren Boys’, a group wearing disguises, would visit houses in the local area. One of the group would carry a dead wren, others a lump of coal, and they would collect money and drinks in exchange for music and song.
The twelfth day after Christmas, 6th January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany in other parts of Europe, was Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). This was the day when roles were reversed: men did the women’s work in the house while women gathered together socially.
I would like to thank all my readers for your continued support during 2017. It was a momentous first year for the blog which won Bronze at the Irish Blog Awards (arts and culture category). I published my book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (Orpen Press), which is being well received. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy Christmas / Nollaig Shona Daoibh and the very best for 2018.
The book is available in all good bookshops or direct from the publisher here:
Hallowe'en has always been an enjoyed festival celebrated in Irish rural homes. The Ancient Irish celebrated Samhain, the first day of winter, on November 1st. The eve of this day, Oíche Shamhna, October 31st is known as Hallowe'en. It provides a welcome break from lengthening Autumn evenings, and has traditionally been a time of feasting, dressing up and games.
Hallowe’en was thought to be a 'ghost night' when forces from the Otherworld came into our world, with spectres such as banshees, fairies and evil spirits abounding. The fear of being abducted by one of these led to people disguising themselves as ghouls, wearing scary masks or costumes.
The rural Irish were a superstitious and religious people and on Hallowe’en the ritual of sprinkling Holy Water in the home was seen as particularly important: especially around the threshold to guard against evil spirits. Little crosses made from wood or straw were made and hung in the house to increase protection. Recalling the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a hollowed out turnip carved with a spooky face was lit and left in windows and doorways on Hallowe’en night, to frighten away evil spirits.
On Hallowe’en night only, the souls of ones’ ancestors were believed to return to the family home. As discussed in this blog, the seats closest to the hearth were considered to be of honour in the Irish household, and an ancient custom was to reserve those seats for the returning dead.
Food: Two foods in particular are associated with Hallowe’en in Ireland: barm-brack and colcannon. The ingredients of both foods emphasise the bounty associated with harvest time. Colcannon is a side dish made of boiled potatoes, cabbage and chopped onions mashed together with butter.
The latter is a sweet bread containing dried fruit (‘breac’ means ‘speckled’ in Gaelic). Small objects (wrapped in fabric) were baked into the bread, these were said to predict events for the coming year: The slice containing the ring meant marriage; a coin or bean meant wealth; while a piece of fabric meant poverty.
Games such as ‘Snap Apple’ and apple bobbing were played and still form part of Halloween entertainment in Ireland. Many Hallowe’en traditions, such as those described here, originated in Ireland and were spread by Irish emigrants across the world and continue to this day.
Trying to predict the future was a popular Hallowe’en past time as it was believed to be the best time to do so. Some practices assisted in this; a blindfolded person might be given bowls of objects to select which foretold their future: the bowl containing water predicted emigration; food indicated prosperity; or clay meant death for example.
People also practised marriage divination at this time: it was believed one’s future husband or wife might appear in a dream on Hallowe'en night if certain objects were placed under the pillow (for example iron objects, apples, cabbages leaves, yarrow).
Paintings and sketches of ‘Snap Apple Night’ by Daniel Maclise (1811-1870)
Hallowe’en Turnip from the National Museum of Ireland (Folklife collection).
The Schools Folklore Collection
National Museum of Ireland
As windows, doors, walls, furniture and floors were progressively upgraded over time in Irish cottages, little record of the originals remain. This blogpost features the work of the Scottish artist Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) who was active in Ireland from the mid nineteenth century. Much of his work amounts to a 'fly on the wall' view of rural Irish life including architecture, interiors and furniture.
Nicol spent time in Ireland at the height of the Great Famine (1840s). He taught art in Dublin during this time and later in his life established a studio in Westmeath. During these periods he portrayed Irish peasants in his work, painting them almost exactly as they were. His work provides a great record of how Irish rural people looked, their dress, their customs and also offer a significant record of their houses and interiors. Nicol like so many formally trained artists, liked to show his artistic talent by painting scenes of great verisimilitude and varying genres, often including little still-lifes of objects.
It is said he had a great affinity with the Irish people and his poignant depiction of Irish Emigrants Waiting for a Train (1864) is painted with sympathy for the subjects. Yet other paintings show the Irish in a less sympathetic light: At Donnybrook Fair (1859) is a fine example of the nineteenth century stereotypical drunken and foolish Irish character.
Look carefully to the background of many of his cottage interiors for a valuable window into the world of the lives of Irish people of the time. He painted all the things discussed in blogposts here: settles, creepie stools, doors, windows, lofts and tables with great detail and accuracy. He also included items that were more delicate and perishable and did not survive, such as straw chairs, baskets, crockery, clothing and textiles. Nicol’s work provides us with a valuable record of Irish domestic design history and rural life.
Many articles on this blog have discussed objects from the Irish home, such as fireplaces, dressers, beds and tables. This article examines the structural and sometimes background items which also added to the character of Irish cottage interiors: windows, doors, walls and floors.
Doors: Interiors in general were small in scale, and small windows and narrow low doors ensured a dark interior. Initially in Irish interior doors were woven out of willow and hazel in a method similar to basket weaving. These lightweight doors were centrally hung and not hinged; they kept few draughts out and were primarily to define areas and for privacy.
Internal doors progressed when open plan single room houses evolved to three room structures (such as the cottages discussed in his blog). Hinges were used and the doors made of cheap, sheeted timber, usually imported pine from Scotland. Doors were removed from their hinges frequently in Irish cottages. Many illustrations from the era depict poorly fitted doors (see gallery below). External doors might be re-hung seasonally depending on the direction of the prevailing wind. It was not unusual for doors to be removed to be used as a type of ‘stage’ for dancers (it is speculated that Irish dancing styles evolved with the dancer’s arms held tightly to the body due to small interior space). Often doors were a poor looking and shabby affair by today’s standards, many required additional draught excluders (straw mats) to be hung over them when closed. External doors were normally half and half, with the top left open. The closed bottom section of the half-door offered privacy, to keep children in and livestock out, to allowed air into smoky interiors.
Walls: As with doors, wall partitions began in the Irish home as woven screens, that acted as partitions in one room dwellings, then later were constructed from wooden wattle and daub. As three-room cottages were built, internal walls were designed into them and made of stone, rubble or clay. Some screen walls were constructed of wood. Many cottages had exposed roof timbers and beams which showed the underside of the thatched roof, later these became enclosed with ceilings made of wood sheeting. Walls had lime plaster added and then were whitewashed (if in main rooms), and sometimes had sheeted timber panels added (in bedrooms and lofts).
Floors: Originally, many floors in cottage began as clay or turf (see gallery). During the nineteenth century, many floors of main kitchens were given stone flags that in turn were modernised using concrete as a base in the twentieth century. Flagstones (se gallery) were reserved for use in kitchens only, as they were durable and easy to ‘wash out’. Some kitchen floors were sloped towards one exterior door to allow for the floor to be washed out on occasion with water. This can be seen in some pictures in the gallery below, and the external door is angled to meet that slope. Bedroom floors were often made of timber.
Windows: Window tax (almost always cited as a reason for small cottage windows) did not affect Irish cottages as much as speculated. The damp weather, climate and the need to eliminate draughts had more of an influence. Hence in Ireland windows are traditionally small and few in number. Irish windows in domestic dwellings started out as casements, where windows opened outward like doors. Then sash windows became the fashion in Ireland and by the end of the nineteenth century the two-over-two pane style was the most popular. That is, when windows were actually used in dwellings: many smaller cabins often used animal hide or simply stuffed their windows with straw to keep draughts out.
Kevin Danaher, The Hearth and Stool and All! Irish Rural Households (Dublin, 1986).
Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Country Furniture (Yale University Press, 1993).
Marion McGarry, The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (Orpen Press, 2017).
Nessa Roche, A Legacy of Light: A History of Irish Windows (Dublin 1999).
This blogpost, along with the gallery of pictures below, shows the broad evolution of the hearth in Irish cottage interiors from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
Throughout much of the history of Irish domestic dwellings, fires were lit in the middle of the floor and ventilation was rudimentary. In thatched medieval roundhouses for example, there were no actual chimneys but rather the smoke left the building through the thatch. Over the years a hole in the centre of the roof was added to dwellings for further ventilation. This arrangement continued well into the nineteenth century in what I refer to as ‘cabins’ in my book ‘The Irish Cottage’.
Cabins were one room and squalid, and often made or rendered with mud. With the smoke emerging from their ramshackle roofs (often thatched with heather, gorse and other grasses) they were noted in the Irish countryside for looking like ‘smoking dunghills’ (see picture, below, from Arthur Young in the 1770s). Families within these dwellings would have gathered literally around the fire to warm themselves, and they also slept on the ground together around this centrally located fire.
As an architectural feature in most better off houses (like 3 roomed cottages discussed here), the main hearth eventually migrated from the central point of the house to a cross wall. At first, chimneys were made of wattle and daub, interwoven with twigs and covered with whitewashed earthen plaster, which formed a canopy, in order to draw the smoke up the chimney (see gallery, below). Later, proper chimney stacks were planned into the design of newly built houses. The hearth wall was deep and extended to the ceiling, with the chimney stack projecting further above the roof. Because of its strength, the chimney wall is one of the best preserved parts of many abandoned and ruined cottages we see in the countryside today.
A storage shelf on one side of the canopy was used to store dry foods, such as salt, and in the nineteenth century this evolved into a salt storage box made of timber. ‘Keeping holes’ in the fireside wall, either side of the hearth, stored small objects belonging to the mother or father of the house, such as pipes, knitting or sewing. Most early fires were grateless and so an ash hole was accommodated to one side and cleaned of its contents once a week. Clothes were hung up over the fire to keep them dry and free from debris from the clayfloors below and thatched roof above.
A hinged ‘crane’ was used to aid cooking on the open fire, this would have started out as a timber piece and by the nineteenth century was made from iron, as were the pots and kettles hung from it.
Furniture evolved to be used around the hearth and owing to the frugality of the times was made from recycled timber, straw or even turf. Creepie stools were a common type of small stool used to sit next to the fire.
Irish interiors were upgraded in general throughout the nineteenth century: clay floors were replaced with stone flags, the interior underside of thatched roofs were covered; and hearths and chimney were built up. There was increased conscientiousness of hygiene and general health improved. Over the years most hearths were closed in to increase fuel efficiency. Fireplaces were added and often a solid fuel range became the norm in Irish kitchens. Today wood burning stoves are popular. In Irish homes today the fire is not as multi-functional is it used to be, yet it still remains a primal focal point.
All of these mentioned items can be seen in the gallery of pictures accompanying this blogpost (below).
It is that time of year again when I begin my journey west. As a part time lecturer at GMIT Letterfrack I commute from south Sligo in a journey that takes 2 hours door to door. Past Westport, the Connemara landscape of quiet mountain roads are often punctuated with groups of sheep and the landscape is grim and windswept in winter. In summer I agonise behind slow rental car drivers and coaches in a part of Ireland that has drawn tourists since the nineteenth century. I console myself with the thought that (for a small window of the year when the mornings and evenings are bright) I get to drive through a three dimensional Paul Henry painting.
Henry was the twentieth century artist whose landscapes gave a modern and recognisable visual narrative to the rugged western landscape. He influenced countless later Irish artists and his work influenced the dissemination of ‘brand Ireland’ in tourism and representations of the country. The landscape today remains similar to when he portrayed it, with massive looming mountains, lakes and even turf stacks still featuring and in some parts.
The Other: As an urban Northern Protestant the west of Ireland must have held a particular Otherly draw for Paul Henry (1877-1958). In philosophical terms the Other is defined as ‘dissimilar to and the opposite of the Self’, and as the son of a Bapstist minister, Belfast born Henry was urban, relatively sophisticated from a place that was modern, built up and industrialised. He was also an English speaker in a place where Gaelic was spoken and from a different cultural and religious background (although his family did have some Irish nationalist leanings).
He studied art at the Academie Julian in Paris where he trained with James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). He absorbed the ideas of the artistic avant-garde, Realism and contemporary French thinking about valeurs and essential form. He was influenced by artists like Millet and Cezanne and movements such as Post Impressionism. He was a ‘modern’ painter even though to some his work looks safe and ‘traditional’ because it portrays an archaic subject.
He had been living in London and went on holiday to Achill island, Co. Mayo returning to live in 1912-19. He was accompanied by his wife Grace Henry who was an accomplished painter in her own right. In the 1890s writer J.M. Synge had gone to Achill in the 1890s and used the Otherness of life there as inspiration for his work and Henry was influenced by him. He certainly wasn’t the first artist to depict the west of Ireland, but he did it in his own distinctive way.
Work: Henry’s paintings are characterised by depictions of Irish rural peasant life with the landscape looming in the background, and he portrayed a type of rural Arcadia untouched by modernity. His work is not creative but his technique of using bold simple shapes with a clarity of brushwork which brought out the simple basic forms of the landscape was fairly original for its time. In his landscapes he used a hard horizon line with large skies: in many of his scenes his skies usually take over about a third of the canvas. The skies are populated by puffed up cauliflower-like clouds, large blue mountains and in sharp contrast tiny manmade thatched cottages or turf stacks or lakes. In his early work Henry portrayed the local peasants in rural scenes. However, his peasant subjects became uncomfortable being painted by him (Henry had to hide his sketchpad inside a book) and his subject matter evolved to take in inanimate objects, such as cottages and mountains. Although Achill was his base, he did venture to Donegal and Connemara, and Killary Harbour, Letterfrack and the surrounding area became featured in his work. Over time Henry's paintings became symbolic of not only these locales, but of the Gaelic speaking rural and unspoiled West, which was seen as the true, authentic Ireland.
Henry’s influence: Paul and Grace Henry moved to Dublin in the 1920s and he later worked chiefly as an illustrator, but his western landscapes before the 1920s were arguably his best work. The Henrys became involved the Society of Dublin Painters, members included Jack B. Yeats, Mary Swanzy, Harry Clarke and Charles Lamb. In later life Henry promoted the Paris School in Dublin.
From the mid 1920s the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway Company began to use his paintings for posters advertising holidays in Ireland. This led to his work becoming a metaphor for Irish identity in the early tenuous years of the new Irish state leading to him being described as ‘painter laureate of the Free State’ . His work was further disseminated onto prints, calendars, table mats, and to some commentators his imagery became associated with cliché. His subject matter certainly did not portray Ireland as a twentieth century country with the many thatched cottages he painted. Yet his recognisable style had made him regarded as Ireland’s greatest landscape painter and his work fetches high prices at auctions today. Recently, Potato Diggers, a large canvas of peasants digging in a west of Ireland landscape, made €400,000 at Adam’s Auctioneers. 
His importance is distinguished here by Dr SB Kennedy an expert on Henry and the author of a biography of the artist: "Almost single-handedly he defined a view of the Irish landscape, in particular that of the West, that remains as convincing to modern eyes as it was in his own time”. 
And here we come full circle, for as I drive through the Connemara landscape tomorrow and every time I do, I will be reminded of the work of Paul Henry. Many of the thatched cottages may be long gone, but the landscape remains.
 Fallon, B. (1994), Irish Art 1830-1990 Belfast, Appletree Press, p.99.
Dressers may seem a little twee and old fashioned to us today, but for well over a hundred years were the only concession to decoration in an otherwise sparse and functional Irish cottage interior. This article explores the Irish dresser in the nineteenth century cottage.
The interior of the Irish cottage discussed in this blog, basic and functional as it may seem to the contemporary reader was one which had an important decorative focal point: the dresser. This piece of furniture was a point of pride for the Irish housewife, and even in the poorest of homes people would have some sort of a decorative shelf on which to show their ‘good’ crockery.
Dressers may have originally been used in one room open plan cabins to partition space. As Irish cottage interiors evolved to the central kitchen flanked by bedrooms layout, dressers were usually placed on an outer wall. As one of the first key pieces of furniture to be installed in the cottage (along with the settle) dressers were usually as old as the house itself.
Style: Many dressers started out as simple open base cupboards used for storage, then had extras added to them over time. The elemental design of the Irish dresser is usually of two full length side panels with a cupboard below and open shelves above. Gradually glass doors may have been added to pieces as the family’s fortunes improved. These would have prevented dust and carved glazing bars would have added further decoration. Some decorative features are common to Irish dressers such as carved fluting, the fan motif and open fretwork. Holes in the dresser shelves are left for the display of teaspoons.
Paint and materials: As discussed elsewhere on this blog, timber was historically in short supply in Ireland, and craftsmen had to use cheap sheeted pine to make pieces like dressers. To make such timber appear more expensive paint effects were applied. Using two paint colours and the ‘scumble’ technique might make a convincing faux mahogany and it was fashionable to do so in the early nineteenth century. Dressers were painted brightly to counteract the dark cottage interior. They were often repainted for special occasions and overpainted (never stripped back) and the many layers of paint had the effect of preserving the timber for years. Claudia Kinmonth has pointed out that Irish dressers often had ‘sledge’ feet; replaceable timber feet that prevented damp (from earth floors) travelling upwards through dressers.
Contents: Irish dressers were linked to the status of the household as well as being decorative and functional. They stored most of the utensils of the house but only the ‘good’ crockery was put of ‘display’. By the mid nineteenth century this was commonly a type of mass produced china known as ‘spongeware’. This was a bulky and more robust, crude form of fine china. Today spongeware is produced by craft potters and has the association of cottage rusticity, and I hope to devote an entire blogpost to Irish spongeware in the future. Everyday items in the included wooden noggins and pewter vessels, and the spongeware was only used on special occasions.
Other functions: Although the dresser was primarily a decorative piece, it did not escape being given other functions, such as nesting areas for ‘clocking’ hens. These are called chicken coop dressers and enabled hens to be kept safely at night, a consistent supply of eggs for the household and to discourage them from roosting in the thatched roof. The National Museum of Ireland (Castlebar) has some very good examples on display).
Further recommended reading:
Kinmonth, C. (1993) Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950. Yale University Press.
Visit the National Musuem of Ireland (Castlebar) to see examples of Irish vernacular furniture, for more see:
I was compelled to write ‘The Irish Cottage’ due to what I saw as a dearth of factual books on Irish cottages that brought together architectural history, culture, interior design and history. This article discusses the impetus for the book, which came from spending family holidays at my grandparents’ homes.
Our parents had left their rural homes to live and work in the city, where they met, married and moved into a typical 1960s era semi-detached Dublin suburban house. My siblings and I were of the first generation of non-farmers in both families. We were thoroughly urbanised and Dublin accented, but did get to experience the countryside life of our ancestors when we spent summer holidays on the family farms. We alternated between the homes of my mother’s family in west Cork and my father’s in north Leitrim.
Regional variations: Both are in supremely beautiful areas, close to the sea, in places steeped in history – we were lucky that both were close to Clonakility and Bundoran, surely the best places in Ireland to holiday as children.
The Cork and Leitrim farmhouses had very similar entrances, they were at the end of long narrow country lanes with grass growing in the middle, but the resemblances ended there. In Leitrim the fields were small, boggy and surrounded by drystone walls. In Cork the landscape was characterised by large fields of lush pasture and noticeably milder weather.
The Cork farmhouse was two storeys, brightly coloured and surrounded by a courtyard of farm buildings. The Leitrim cottage was small (originally three roomed) facing onto the approach lane and had a small farmyard behind it. It was one-storey, painted a sober white with small windows and a dark interior. It is the true Irish cottage described in the book, of the archetypal ‘direct-entry’ style (see illustration) and such regional variations of vernacular architecture occurred around the island of Ireland.
Farm size: The methods of farming differed also, but mainly in size and scale. In Cork my widowed grandmother was retired while her daughter (my aunt) and her husband and seven children ran a large dairy farm, grew crops and often kept pigs and chickens. My uncle had brought the farm into the twentieth century with many modern additions (such as a high tech milking parlour) and his son continues this today, with computerised machinery and systems.
In contrast the farm in Leitrim, which had never been very big to begin with, consisted of two dairy cows which provided milk to the creamery and some ‘dry cattle’. My Dad’s aging sister and brother were the only occupants still living in the family home, my paternal grandparents long dead. When my uncle married late in life, my aunt continued to live in the house into her old age. She left the house when she became too frail to live alone and now, aged 104, resides at a nursing home.
In the past both farms had other means of income. Farming provided food for the family, other enterprises provided extra money. The Cork farm grew and processed flax for the linen industry as late as the 1940s, and later my uncle became involved in plant hire. In Leitrim, some family members would seasonally migrate to Scotland to work harvesting crops. Transhumance farming took place in the Dartry mountains nearby. My paternal grandmother’s sister was a lace maker and income from her craft provided money for her siblings to emigrate.
Modernisation: I began staying with my relatives at a time when many rural houses in Ireland were being thoroughly modernised. At the time we used to holiday on the Leitrim farm the thatch had only been recently been replaced with slate. They had yet to adapt indoor plumbing and still an outdoor toilet. The family donkey, once used to haul turf from the bog with creel baskets, had been made obsolescent due to the purchase of a Massey Ferguson tractor by my uncle, but continued to be kept as a pet much to the delight of visiting children.
Each new innovation was remarked upon and celebrated. My aunt was particularly delighted when they converted the back kitchen into a bathroom, and the small bedroom became a kitchen, with running water. My uncle built a new garage to accommodate the Massey. A main corridor was added, the old flagstones replaced by concrete, the fireplace was made smaller and so on.
Things were continually being moved around in Cork as well. My uncle added internal walls and an upstairs bathroom, an iron hayshed, a front extension as well modernising the windows, doors and heating. As their children grew older they converted the hayloft of the sheds adjoining the house into an ‘apartment’ to give some extra room and independence to the older children.
There was a wealth of vernacular furniture in both houses. The most notable in Cork was a traditional settle which had been made by a carpenter when the house was first built in the 1800s. In Leitrim, my grandfather had made much of his own furniture including built in cupboards and chairs. There was an ingenious spring mechanism timber rocking chair. All of these pieces had been repainted and overpainted for years, which aided their preservation. Gradually with the eager adoption of mod cons to both homes, new furniture was bought and the old was discarded. In the Irish people’s continuing race to adapt to domestic modernity many traditional things were lost in this manner along the way.
A lesson in vernacular architecture: These houses were my first lesson in vernacular Irish architecture. The reason for the differences between Cork and Leitrim puzzled me for years. Was it to do with the size of farms, the climate, the location? Who decided that the houses looked as they did? The answer is of course, with vernacular architecture, the people decide, not the architect or the modern concept of ‘individuality’. Vernacular architecture is defined by buildings that were designed without the intervention of a formally trained architect. People built their houses according to the idiom understood in their local community, and understanding this mind-set is important in figuring out folk dwellings.
Later when I studied architectural history I couldn’t find a book that satisfactorily explained Irish vernacular architecture to me. The Irish cottage was often only fleetingly mentioned, or supported by black and white pictures. Often there was no mention of the colour or culture of the lives lived within the houses. Visually the cottage became a backdrop to famine and eviction scenes, while paradoxically symbolising a romantic / or backward Ireland in paintings and postcards. The topic had been written about only from the point of view of architectural history, or folk cultural tradition, or art, or history, or politics, or was chiefly photographic. My book The Irish Cottage looks at cottages from the period 1860s onwards, synthetises these themes and provides a combination of drawings, photographs and images to support the text. I hope to draw attention to the culturally rich lives lived within the homes despite the harsh historical context of life in Ireland at that time.
The book is available at:
Illustration: Rowland Hill (1915-79), Sheephaven Bay.