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.
Many customs in Irish cottage life have been traditionally dominated by superstitious beliefs, the greatest of which is the conviction that faeries exist. In this context they are not harmless little ‘fairies’ in the Disney sense but powerful unseen other-worldly beings capable of perpetrating acts of malevolence. It was believed that they must be respected and appeased or they could cause ruin. Rural Irish people so feared the faeries that it was considered bad luck even to refer to them by name, and they were instead called ‘The Good People’ or ‘The Other People’.
The unexplained: Also known as sióg, faeries were accepted to occupy a parallel universe, often conducted underground, and invisible to the human eye. There is no real consensus on what faeries were supposed to actually look like. It was believed that if faeries were upset by humans there would be repercussions in the form of ‘bad luck’: such as people’s farm animals becoming unhealthy or crops failing. Similar notions were typical in past rural farming societies that had little understanding of the real science of life, of weather and disease. Things that could not be explained were attributed to the Others; for example, when milk did not churn into butter, the faeries were blamed (they were thought to have a special fondness for stealing or disrupting the production of dairy products).
Abduction: But the really dangerous aspect of faeries was they could abduct certain humans and bring them to live in the ‘Other World’.
The term ‘away with the faeries’ was used in Ireland to describe someone suffering from mental illness, an apt description as such types of illness can leave a person depleted, ‘not themselves’, a shadow of their former selves.
The fear of children being abducted by faeries was prevalent. The belief was that faeries took the infant and left a ‘changeling’ in its place: this creature looked exactly like the child but acted strangely, was contrary or bad tempered. Mothers would sometimes tie a string to their wrist and the other end of it to their baby to ensure they were not stolen. It was common, when leaving a cradle unattended, to put the cooled poker from the fire across the cradle (iron was hated by faeries). Little boys were often dressed as girls to confuse the Others as it was thought that boys were more likely to be abducted (see picture above, from: National Library of Ireland).
Thwarting the faeries: The Roman Catholic church discouraged Irish belief in faeries, but faery-lore was too deep rooted, ancient and persistent. However aspects of Catholic piety were considered potent forces against faery activity. Crucifixes and prayers were considered great protection, as was Holy Water which was sprinkled copiously over most things: including ploughed land, doorways, hatching hens, sleeping children, and departing visitors.
To counteract their power, iron, which was considered particularly useful against faery activity, was placed (in the form of horseshoes or nails) over windows, doors and other ‘liminal’ areas – the openings, places that were thresholds of the home, where things could get in and out.
The colour yellow was supposed to be loathed by faeries and yellow flowers and objects were often used as deterrents.
Night was believed to be a time when faeries were particularly active and at their most powerful. When travelling at night a quenched coal or a hazel or blackthorn stick was carried for protection against them.
Appeasement: Appeasing the faeries also became important to building and everyday life. When planning the building of a cottage the selection of a site was not to be over a faery assembly place or near a path thought to be used by them. When a site was selected, and the house was marked out, a pile of stones was left on the four corners of the house-to-be. If the stones were left untouched for three consecutive nights it was considered the go-ahead for the construction from the Others.
Superstitions continue: Belief in faeries, in some form or other, persists in Ireland today. Lone whitethorn trees (thought to be the places where the Others meet) in fields are left untouched by most farmers and are prominent in the landscape throughout Ireland. Traditions surrounding the faeries continue: when milk is spilled accidently, the thought is that the faeries caused it because they needed milk; when distilling illegal poitín, the first drop produced is spilled on the ground 'for the faeries'; and when someone sneezes, the observer’s reaction should be to say ‘bless you’, because a fit of sneezing means imminent abduction by faeries.
Belief in 'something' today: Faery-lore was used in the past as an excuse for unexplained things that happened in life. Until the twentieth century and in the absence of scientific explanations belief in faeries filled the void.
The faith in faeries in Ireland is deep rooted. Long after the majority of Irish people converted to Christianity, belief in the Other People persisted. Today faery belief in Ireland has sharply declined. Many Irish will attest to ‘not believing’ and joke about the subject, however if pressed would profess a reluctance to, for example, damage a faery tree. A kernel of belief in the Others is still alive in Ireland.
In some regions of Ireland ‘hearth’ is pronounced ‘heart’, which is appropriate given that the hearth was in many ways the ‘heart’ of the traditional Irish home. Traditionally the hearth was used for cooking, boiling water, drying clothes and baking. It was also as much a social space as a functional area.
In early Irish houses, the hearth would have occupied a central point in the floor, like a campfire, with a hole in the roof above for ventilation. It’s position eventually migrated to a cross wall with a canopied chimney built above. The hearth was at floor level, rather than on a raised grate, as this was more suitable for burning turf – the most common type of fuel used in Ireland in the period.
Fuel and fire: The lack of timber across Ireland has been discussed elsewhere in this blog and log fires were not the norm in rural Ireland. Instead, ‘turf’ became the dominant fuel from the seventeenth century. Turf is a fossil fuel, a partially decomposed water-soaked organic matter, formed in ancient times in bogs. It was cut and left to dry, often heaped in ‘stacks’ alongside cottages. If turf was unavailable dried cow manure or furze (gorse or whins) sufficed as alternate fuels.
Many people believed that the fortune of the house was associated with the fire: it was ‘bad luck’ to allow the fire to go out and every effort was made to keep it lit. People would gather around the fire light to work on crafts. They would dine at the fire, converse and even sleep in front of the fire.
Hierarchical seating and gender: The seating arrangements around a hearth were hierarchical, like the European kitchen table, where the senior family members sat at the head. (In an earlier blogpost I discussed how the kitchen table is relegated to the role of a purely functional object while the fireside is traditionally where dining took place). Each member of the Irish-cottage-dwelling family had a seat in accordance with their importance. At either side of the hearth sat the heads of the households in fitted seats or armchairs; the rest of the family gathered around on súgán chairs, timber chairs with woven straw (súgán) seats. Younger, smaller members vied for a place at the fire on tiny stools, known as ‘creepies’. These little stools were small and low and allowed the user to ‘creep’ into available spaces to take advantage of the heat from the fire.
A visitor to the house was sometimes offered the honour of sitting in the chair closest to the fire, given up by the father or mother. It was considered rude for a visitor to seat themselves in these prime seats uninvited.
The male and female configuration is related to the ancient concept of dexter and sinister, Latin for ‘right’ and ‘left’ respectively. From the viewpoint of the fireplace, the fireplace’s right side was given to the male and the left to the female, or ‘lesser’, side. This is similar to the tradition of arranging subjects according to gender in European portrait paintings. Male and female ‘keeping holes’ built into either side of the hearth wall held pipes or knitting.
Cooking: There was an assortment of cooking paraphernalia around the hearth. The forged iron crane was essential in cooking since the nineteenth century. This was a fixed object that could be moved over the fire or away from it, while ratchets and iron chains allowed cooking utensils to be raised or lowered. Pots and the kettle could be hung from the crane at various heights. All the utensils were of iron and blackened with smoke over time. Baking was done in a pot oven for fire baking – this was a cast-iron pot with a lid. Prior to the use of soda bread, griddles were used to make unleavened bread. Glowing embers were used for baking bread and keeping items warm, these were piled around the pot oven. An important additional storage object near the hearth was the salt box. Foods such as bacon or fish could be smoked at the hearth or left up the chimney to do so.
Today the fire still occupies a central position in the Irish home. Large open hearths have been replaced with smaller and safer solutions. Many Irish homes have open fires or solid fuel burning stoves. Although more efficient fuels are available turf may still be used and the smell of turfsmoke is still a feature of many rural areas.
This blog often explores remnants of Irish pagan culture that remained in the lives of rural cottage dwellers from the mid nineteenth century on. The wake was a ritual that held onto many pagan rites that the Roman Catholic Church eventually banned completely. This article will describe some of the stranger customs involved in the Irish wake from that time.
What are wakes? The ‘wake’ or ‘waking the dead’ is an ancient ritual with its roots in Judeo-Christian religion. When a person dies, for three days prior to that person’s burial their family observes and sits with the corpse to ensure it does not awaken or ‘wake’. The Irish wake has changed much over the years but remains important and still involves the local community coming together to mark the death of one of its number. Irish wakes still attract large numbers of people to the deceased’s home. This differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served and stories and occasional laughter were welcome. On the third day, the deceased was taken to the church for a formal Catholic funeral service, followed by burial at a cemetery. Until the nineteenth-century, wakes were similar with added cultural customs that amplified the experience and that today’s observer may find bizarre and even grotesque.
Keening: The idea of paying a professional mourner to cry over your dead relative may seem perplexing to us today but this was considered a norm at many Irish funerals in the mid nineteenth century. Keening for the dead from ‘Caoineadh na Marbh’ was a type of mournful, wailing singing, and was performed by a female ‘keener’. A good keener needed to be dramatic looking, dishevelled, with loosened hair and bare feet. As they keened they would theatrically throw their arms up, tear at their hair, and rock themselves as if in deep grief. The wailing lament praised the deceased, but also chastised them for dying. This was in opposition to Christian funerary rites where the Resurrection is emphasised and so the Church discouraged the use of keeners at wakes and funerals. Keening was not practised outside of funerary rituals because of the fear that the ritual would conjure up the spirit world, and few recordings of real keeners were made.*
Clay Pipes: A wake was seen as a time for eating well and enjoying special treats for people with an otherwise frugal way of life. Special ‘wake provisions’ were bought for the occasion from the local grocer and a feature of this long shopping list (which included alcohol and food) was the large number of clay pipes. Clay pipes were filled and left out for visitors to the ‘wake house’ to take. People would light the pipes and exclaim “lord have mercy!” and inhale the tobacco smoke, which was considered to have curative properties. Non-smokers were expected to partake of this ceremony to help mourn the deceased. Any clay pipes left over from the funeral were broken and buried outside the house.
Wake Games: ‘Wake amusements’ kept mourners themselves awake through the nights prior to the funeral. These amusements took place in another room or in a shed. Young people ‘courted’ while music played, dancing took place, and matchmaking was carried out in a party-like atmosphere. Men would challenge each other to fights; and some forms of vicious horseplay were common. Waking ‘games’, included mock weddings, mock confessions and ‘kissing games’. The latter had erotic overtones and such unashamed assertions of sexuality was totally at odds with the prevailing prudent attitudes in Ireland at the time.
The weirdest of all was the ‘play’ that sometimes took place with the corpse. In the wake house, it was not unknown for a clay pipe to be placed in the corpse’s mouth, and there are stories of the corpse being made to talk, puppet-like, by mourners, and even taken up for a dance around the room.
Reverence: However, despite these lively customs, the overriding mood at a wake was of reverence for the dead, and wake ‘games’ were not intended to show disrespect. Merriment and amusements were completely dispensed with if the deceased was young, had died tragically or was a particular loss to the family.
It has been argued that these customs evolved from more primitive times when fear of the dead was very strong; and that the wake rituals came about as a type of appeasement of the dead from pre-Christian times. The transformation of the Roman Catholic Church from the mid-nineteenth-century had major repercussions on such Irish cultural traditions. As the Church’s influence grew keeners and wake games were abandoned and increasingly wakes became more solemn occasions than those discussed here.
For more on wakes and superstitions surrounding them see my forthcoming book, available this summer: Marion McGarry Irish Cottages, History, Culture, Design (Orpen Press, 2017).
Gearoid O Crualaoich ‘The Merry Wake’ in Donnelly, J.S. and Miller, Kerby A., Irish popular Culture 1650-1850 (Irish Academic Press, 1999).
Kevin Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press, 2004 ed.).
*A recording of an actual keener is available for visitors to hear at the National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
Recommended: ‘Songs for the Dead’ the Keening Tradition in Ireland (documentary BBC Radio 4, 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npx1f
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.