In the past the production of linen was of major importance to rural communities in Ireland. Most farmers were involved with the trade (be it through growing flax and spinning it) and the rural built environment towns is still marked by defunct mills and linen halls. The logo for the Northern Irish Assembly is made of flax flowers which signifies the importance that linen production had in Ulster. In other regions throughout the country (notably Cork) linen was an important part of the rural economy. In modern times, the introduction of imported, cheaper cotton has seen the demise of the popularity of Irish linen, which today is produced on a lesser scale for luxury markets.
Linen is a natural fabric produced from the flax plant, which has distinctive blue flowers. From prehistory people produced the cloth domestically in Ireland and Irish linen was highly regarded. In the second half of the 18th century, factory production grew and by the 19th, power-driven machinery had become the norm for linen production in Ireland. Farmers supplied the raw or semi processed material to the mills yet many continued to process and weave the product in the traditional way, producing linen cloth as part of a cottage industry.
Below: Bleaching linen on the green: Photograph from the National Library of Ireland.
Growing flax for the linen industry or weaving linen supplemented many an Irish family’s incomes from farming. All the family were involved in the production. Apart from their farming duties, the women and younger children spun the yarn while the men and older sons harvested the flax or worked on their weaving looms (spinning was seen as women’s work and weaving was done by men). Most local trade was carried on by cottage industries, some with up to four looms in their homes. Traditionally, the bulk of the processing work was done on the farm. The rotted stem of the flax was beaten with a wooden mallet, then boiled before being rinsed and spun into a coarse yarn and woven into cloth.
Below: Woman in Co. Down, stitching linen. National Library of Ireland.
Irish linen is renowned for its superior quality. It is a cloth with a complex production process, that is delicately woven and intricately designed. The skills which were handed down over generations by Irish spinners and weavers led to a strength and fineness of the yarns and woven cloth. Irish ‘damask’ is woven from pure flax yarns in a way that shows up delicate patterns through the white cloth. Popular designs included chrysanthemum, shamrock and Celtic patterns. Although much of this was exported for the overseas market, some linen was reserved in Ireland for special occasions such as Station Masses and wakes.
Below: ‘County of Downe: Spinning, Reeling with the Clock Reel, and Boiling the Yarn’: an eighteenth century illustration by William Hincks from a series outlining the various processes involved in linen manufacture.
In the twentieth century mass-produced cotton led to the demise of the vast linen industry in Ireland, the production of linen persisted in some parts of Ireland on this same scale into the mid twentieth century. Irish flax production and linen spinning is no longer undertaken on the scale it was in the past. Some Irish linen continues to be mass produced to a high standard today.
Images below: Luxury Irish linen produced today by Francis M.
Tracing your ancestors? Information on the history of linen is today helping those undertaking research on their Irish ancestors who may have been involved in the industry. In 1796 the Irish Linen Board published a list of nearly 60,000 people involved in the trade. The list shows that spinning wheels and looms were awarded to homes based on the number of acres’ the farmers had planted with flax. The list includes the names and parishes of the farmers. The ‘Flax Growers List, 1796’ is available on-line and is essential reading for those who want to find out more about their Irish ancestors.
Above: Irish linen with Damask pattern by Francis M.
My recent blogpost, on Irish woodkerne, mentioned a curious portrait from 1594 showing an English army captain set in an Irish landscape, unusually with bare legs. The portrait is of Captain Thomas Lee: it was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636) and is in the Tate Britain.
Lee had been active on English military service in Ireland during a period of great political intrigue, and he was drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame. He was always involved in a conspiracy or convoluted drama of his own making. Although brave and chivalrous at times, he was also accused of terrible cruelty, of theft - even highway robbery - and on many occasions was imprisoned. Although it may look slightly ridiculous to the contemporary viewer, the painting includes complex symbolism which would have been understood by a Renaissance viewer. It was commissioned to show Lee in a good light to Queen Elizabeth I, at a time when he was accused of treason.
Lee (c. 1551 –1601) was of a middling rank and a cousin of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth's wealthy champion. In coming to Ireland as an army officer in the 1570s, Thomas Lee’s ultimate aim was to secure vast wealth and lands, and he was prepared to do anything to achieve that: when he did not he complained bitterly and loudly. Initially things went well: through marrying an Irish widow he came into some wealth including Castlemartin Co. Kildare. He proved his usefulness to the Crown and was given the role of Provost Marshall of Connaught. He initially advocated negotiating with the Gaelic side, especially the leader Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), Earl of Tyrone (pictured left). Lee came to consider O’Neill a ‘friend’ and the charismatic Gaelic leader had a type of hypnotic hold over him. However, in negotiations prior to the outbreak of the Nine Years War (1593 to 1603), he made an enemy of O’Neill and left one meeting lucky to be alive. This dangerous association with O’Neill led to accusations of treason from the English and to restore his reputation Lee later suggested that he assassinate O’Neill (he didn’t).
Through his various outlandish schemes, he made enemies on all sides quickly. On one occasion, he and his wife escaped a burning Castlemartin with just the clothes on their backs, an act he said was sabotage "by the means of lewd servants" possibly paid by his enemies. He spectacularly separated from his wife when she ‘betrayed’ him by informing of his plot to kidnap one of his adversaries. Curiously they remained on good terms and she later testified for him in court. He remarried an English woman in 1595, and he later abandoned her.
Below: The current Castlemartin in Co Kildare. It was rebuilt on the foundations of the old castle that Lee inhabited.
By now he owed the Crown large rents and decried that he was always in poverty, despite risking his life in the service of the Queen. He frequently complained to anyone who listened of being ‘slandered’ by his opponents. He became increasingly violent and was involved in some cruel acts and murders (most notably that of Rice O’Toole) and was even said to have pulled out the eyes of someone who was under his protection. He had Gaelic chieftains beheaded and had their heads sent to Queen Elizabeth personally. He gained a reputation as a successful, if notorious, assassin and mercenary intent on consolidating the English conquest of Ireland.
Pictured left: Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and the cousin of Thomas Lee. Painted by Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) in 1568, National Portrait Gallery, London.
After the resounding Irish victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598, Lee was imprisoned for treason. After arguing his case, he apologised on his knees before the council and was freed. Myers (1991) sees Lee’s quick release as suspicious: someone at the top seemed to be protecting him. Time and time again Lee landed himself in trouble only to be released or spared.
His feud with his arch enemy the earl of Ormond was his undoing in Ireland, and Lee left the country. By 1601, he was back in London where he again faced charges of treason, this time because of his support for his cousin the earl of Essex, who queen Elizabeth I suspected of treachery.
Prior to this Lee had tried to sway the queen’s opinion of him: he had commissioned the Gheeraerts portrait to show his loyalty and continued to protest his allegiance in letters to her and written documents.
When the queen ignored his pleas, he became desperate and hatched a bizarre plan: he hoped to ‘surprise’ her in her privy chamber at bed time and to ‘pin’ her there until she agreed to sign a warrant absolving the earl of Essex of treason charges (thus helping his own cause). As Lee sweated profusely and watched the door of her chamber in preparation for the assault, he was arrested by her guards who had been informed of his plans by a co-conspirator. In his subsequent trial, he tried to make out that he only meant, "to vex [the Queen] for half an hour, that she might live all the merrier all her life after". It all fell on deaf ears and he was put to death at Tyburn on 14 February 1601.
Decoding the painting:
Lee is depicted in a natural landscape (suggesting truth). Although he wears the visual markers of civilisation, his bare legs are a fantasy evocation of the woodkerne (a type of ‘wild’ Irish soldier renowned for their bare leggedness to facilitate their progress through the damp bogs of Ireland – see previous blogpost). In Renaissance times such nudity was associated with virtue and honesty. The verse on the painting refers to the Roman soldier Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who stayed true to Rome even when among barbarians. Thus, Lee protests, he is true to the Queen despite being acquainted with the barbarous Irish. The painting is currently in the Tate Britain gallery, London.
Myers, J. (1991). "Murdering Heart...Murdering Hand": Captain Thomas Lee of Ireland, Elizabethan Assassin. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22(1), 47-60. doi:10.2307/2542015
Sligo is a town located on the north west coast of the Republic of Ireland, in the county of the same name, amid a rugged beautiful landscape that famously inspired the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Yet, events in it's history also honed one of literature's most famous fictional characters: Count Dracula.
Sligo had a more than significant role in shaping Count Dracula than has previously been thought. The following is well known: the mother of the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, was Charlotte Stoker (nee Thornley) born in 1818. In 1832, Sligo was the worst hit town (in all of Ireland or Britain) by a devastating cholera epidemic. In just 6 weeks, an estimated 1,500 townspeople died from the disease. Charlotte’s family escaped, but she was forever haunted by what she witnessed. She wrote ‘Experiences of the Cholera in Ireland’ (1873) a first-hand account of events in Sligo. It is likely that Bram persuaded her to finally put to paper the stories she had told him throughout his childhood.
They were not just ‘stories’ however. I have found that Charlotte’s descriptions tally with what the Sligo historians William G. Wood-Martin and Terrence O’Rorke reported on the epidemic. It also appears that Bram consulted Wood-Martin’s account. By analyzing these sources and cross referencing the text of Dracula, it is apparent that Count Dracula himself can be partly read as the personification of Sligo’s cholera epidemic.
Cholera is a disease caused by the cholera bacterium (vibrio cholerae), which infects humans usually by ingestion of contaminated drinking water. In 1832 Sligo town's Garavogue river was contaminated by human waste yet was used for drinking water. Untreated, cholera advances within hours to cause death by painful vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. The disease still exists – in 2018 Yemen has seen a catastrophic outbreak - but thanks to scientific understanding people are less likely to die from cholera.
Below: A cholera victim drawn in the nineteenth century. Victims died within hours of contracting the disease and typical traits included blue lips and skin, sunken eyes and a deadened appearance. Source: Wellcome Images.
Summer 1832: the ‘Beast from the East’:
‘Asiatic’ cholera, from the East, had swept through Europe, laying waste to major urban centres. The belief was that cholera affected port towns and that it travelled by ships. By the summer, Sligo tensely watched as the disease struck Dublin, Belfast, Limerick then the smaller towns: Tuam, Ballinrobe, Castlebar. The people of Sligo thought they had escaped when the terrible news broke: the first victim died on August 11th. Wood-Martin wrote that this event was preceded by an unusual storm, with ‘thunder and lightning, accompanied by a close, hot atmosphere’.
August 11th: Dracula and Cholera:
The coming of the dreadful cholera from the East, which people knew offered a horrible death, is mirrored in Dracula. The Count, himself a contagion makes his journey by ship from the East, before his landfall “one of the greatest and suddenness storms […] the weather had been somewhat sultry, but not to any degree uncommon in the month of August” (Chapter 7, Dracula). He claims his first victim on English soil on August 11th . A chilling coincidence or an acknowledgement of Charlotte Stoker’s experiences? Other similarities to Count Dracula and cholera abound:
1. The heroic doctors:
During the Sligo outbreak approximately 50 a day died. Doctors were heroic in their attempts to treat the victims, yet most of Sligo’s doctors died from the disease. The scientific community lacked understanding of the causes or treatment of cholera in 1832. In Dracula the heroes of the book are doctors, who have to suspend their medical beliefs in order to understand and vanquish the vampire.
1. Mist and smells:
Charlotte says it was believed cholera travelled as a mist over land: Count Dracula too can change into a mist. When the epidemic eventually ended there remained a terrible smell in the town for months after. In Dracula places associated with the Count have a rotting smell.
2. Roman Catholicism as potent adversary:
To replace the deceased doctors and nurses, the Fever Hospital had to employ untrained staff. Charlotte described how they deliberately mistreated, even killed dying patients to free up beds. Father Gilern, a Roman Catholic priest, was so outraged by this he stayed at the hospital armed with a horsewhip to protect patients. Sligo’s Catholic clergy were thought miraculously immune to cholera: they suffered few casualties although they were in contact with victims. In Dracula the symbols of Roman Catholicism, such as holy water and the crucifix, are used to fight against vampirism.
1. The Undead
Charlotte wrote how the burial of victims was done within hours of death in mass graves for fear of the spread of the disease. In haste, many people were buried before they had died. Early in the epidemic, one victim awoke while the undertaker was trying to fit him into the coffin. A man pulled his wife’s body from a mass grave for a proper burial, only to discover she was still alive. In Dracula vampires are living while dead, using graves to sleep in. Stoker was a voracious researcher who undertook library research to give his work a factual basis. He took care never to divulge his exact inspirations but made a rare slip in an 1897 interview, admitting that Dracula was inspired by the idea of ‘someone being buried before they were fully dead’. His working title of the book had actually been ‘The Undead’, which the publisher changed to Dracula prior to publication.
The novel is a rich tapestry inspired by various events and people and until now his mother’s tales were viewed as merely one aspect of that. But the storm, the date of August 11th, the avenging doctors, Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead all bear striking similarities to Sligo’s epidemic and Count Dracula himself seems the personification of it. This serves to underline Sligo’s remarkable links to the most enduring literary character created, yet we should also take time to remember the victims who succumbed to the epidemic.
This article was originally published in the Sligo Weekender newspaper, August 11th 2018. It is an excerpt of Marion McGarry’s paper “Dracula = Cholera” which she will present at the ‘How Sligo Shaped Dracula’ conference on 10th November 2018, open to all. The conference will feature talks by a panel of experts on Sligo’s Cholera epidemic, Bram Stoker and Dracula. Follow for updates: Facebook: SligoBramStokerSociety / Twitter: @SligoStoker
Below: A cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin (Antoine Joseph Wiertz, 1854, Wikipedia Commons).
Ireland currently has the lowest forest cover in western Europe, a dramatic contrast to when our environment once was covered in woodland. By the seventeenth century much of this had disappeared, yet until that time Irish forests were the envy of Europe and a marker of Irish identity. The word ‘Gael’ as in ‘Gaelic’ is said to be derived from meaning ‘forest people’ (Koch, 2004) and Irish people were noted their high regard for trees*. That, at the height of the brutal Elizabethan reconquest, a time when Irish identity was actively being supressed, Irish rebels sought refuge and claimed association with the forests is significant. This article will focus on these 'woodkerne', and how their association with the rapidly declining Irish forests ultimately fuelled their demise.
Figure 1: Gallowglass with woodkerne in the background by Marc Grunert
By the late sixteenth century, the term ‘woodkerne’ came to be used snipingly by the English to mean Native-Irish. At this time, the subject of Ireland consumed the English more than even their wars with Spain or the Netherlands (MacGregor, 2012). Their plans to subdue Ireland was thwarted by the Gaelic lords and rebels who were powerful outside the Pale. They were exemplified by the image of the Irish woodkerne, a type of bogeyman to the Elizabethans (MacGregor, 2012).
Professional mercenaries: Woodkerne had started out as being ‘kern’: a type of foot soldier available for hire to anyone: English, Irish, whomever paid them to fight. But as the conquest of Ireland accelerated to become more murky and difficult, they were associated with Irish rebellion and became ‘woodkerne’: feral and animal-like savages who dwelt in the woods and bogs, where many of them were said to hide out.
But kern had not always had a bad image. For centuries they had been known as light infantrymen, their lack of heavy armour meant they were fast and light footed. They were considered excellent for skirmishing and their local knowledge of the land made them valuable scouts. They would launch surprise attacks, harry their prey and then retreat quickly into the woods. Although they would accrue an uncivilised image, many came from relatively privileged parts of Irish society (Cannan, 2011) and considered their profession as proof of status and honour.
Figure 2 Rory Oge, a kern and defeated rebel is shown in the forest with wolves, depicted by John Derricke (1581).
Naked soldiers: Their tactics, armour and skills meant they were highly effective fighters in the boggy, forested landscape of Ireland. Like all Irish soldiers they were renowned for being lightly armed, and lightly dressed. Long established stories that stretch to Antiquity of Irish warriors going into battle ‘naked’ should be taken to refer to their lack of conventional armour rather than actual nudity. Kern typically wore a heavy cloak over a loose tunic and a short coat. They were barelegged and usually barefoot as footwear would have been a hindrance when navigating the land.
“They return backe to the wood, from whence they came before” (Derricke, 1581).
Forest Fighters: Their services were valued by the English who appreciated their local knowledge and essentially used them as counter-insurgency experts (Cannan, 2011). But the woodkerne switched sides often when the money was right, and when they joined Irish rebellions in the late sixteenth century they became especially despised by the English. The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598 saw the Irish earn a powerful victory (Cannan, 2011) and the kern now became known as treacherous ‘woodkerne’: symbolic of the lack of full conquest in Ireland, always lurking in the woods, awaiting their opportunity to strike. When rebellion broke out in the later sixteenth century they ‘came out of the woods’ to take part and became ‘the archetype of the nightmarishly elusive, indigenous forest fighter’ (MacGregor, 2012).
Figure 3: Albrecht Durer, 1521, Irish soldiers.
Anti-fashion: The woodkerne looked suitably menacing too: the archaic way they dressed and wore their hair showed they were immune to ‘civilization’. Rather than worry about keeping up with the latest Renaissance fashion the Irish seemed to wear their outmodedness defiantly, as a marker of Irish identity. A great example of this is the ‘glib’: the on-trend hairstyle amongst the native Irish during the 16th century and much associated with woodkerne.
The glib involved the hair at the side of the head cut short, while at the front and top it grew long, with a long fringe falling over the face (Moriarty, 2013). This had the effect of semi-obscuring the face and, as it was like a horse’s mane, added a further ‘beastly’ demeanour. Two of Renaissance culture’s stars were involved in commentary on the ‘look’ of the kern: William Shakespeare refers to kerns as being ‘rug headed’ referring to the close-cut, carpet-like aspect of the glib style. Albrecht Dürer drew some from life (looking gloriously shifty and likely muttering in Gaelic) when he having spotted them at a port on the Continent. Because it was a marker for Irish sedition the glib was banned by the English: such Irish identity was associated with savagery and lack of civility and had to be stamped out, nonetheless many woodkerne continued to proudly wear it.
Figure 4: Angus MacBride, Scottish Gallowglass and Irish woodkerne.
Throughout the history of colonization, the narrative goes that the natives are beast-like and unable to govern themselves, providing justification for the colonizer to step in to remedy the situation by providing responsible governance. The vast Irish forests now became targets, as they represented the wildness of a country that must be tamed. They offered shelter to the last vestiges of Irish savagery and became obstacles to colonization; their destruction was beneficial on practical and symbolic levels to the English. The forests were hiding places to woodkerne, and other rebels and miscreants as well as wolves. The forest environment itself could be used as a weapon by them; if hostile forces tried to enter the territory, the practice of ‘plashing’ or using the woodland cover for ambush, and traps with sharpened branches were used to ruthless effect.
Far left: Fig 5: Captain Thomas Lee as a woodkerne by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), Tate Gallery, London
Centre and Right, Fig 5 and 6: Illustrations show Irish kerns by Angus MacBride.
Increasing deforestation along with great number of executions meant many woodkerne went abroad to serve foreign masters. By the seventeenth century around 90% of forests in Ireland were destroyed (Whelan, Aalen, & Stout, 1997). The English saw Irish forests as a timber supply (particularly for shipbuilding) extracting large quantities of wood. Many are quick to point out that some Gaelic chiefs sold off and exploited this natural resource just as enthusiastically, but not for the same security and symbolic reasons as the English did. By the 1650s the woodkerne ‘threat’ was more or less over and by the mid-eighteenth century the destruction of most the last of the ancient forests of Ireland was complete.
For a while the woodkerne represented what it was to be truly Irish according to foreigners, however negatively. Uncivilised, feral, ultraviolent, scary but also extremely efficient and highly connected to the natural environment, they sought sanctuary from the woodland and turned these vast dark areas into terrifying blurred space and no-go areas for encroaching outsiders. The woodkerne were aware of their terrifying reputation and revelled in it, but their time ran out. When the forests were cleared so too were they, and with them the last vestiges of Irish identity with the ancient woodland.
This blogpost is a from a feature length article written by me on the topic. For more on Irish forests and contemporary woodcraft please see the book See The Wood From The Trees written by me and Dermot O’Donovan, published by Artisan House (2018).
*Trees had been worshipped; the Ogham alphabet and Old Irish poetry was influenced by trees while Brehon Laws included harsh penalties for the destruction of certain tree types.
Cannan, F. (2011, Jan/Feb). ‘Hags of hell’: Late Medieval Irish Kern. History Ireland, pp. 35-40.
Derricke, J. (1581). The Image of Ireland. London.
Koch, J. T. (2004). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia. ISBN 9781851094400.
MacGregor, N. (2012). Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects. London: Penguin.
Moriarty, C. (2013, 08 08). 16th Century Irish Hipsters. Retrieved from Irish Archaeology: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/08/16th-century-irish-hipsters/
Murray, S. (2010, 08 06). The Robin Hood Of Laois. Retrieved from Laois People: https://www.laoispeople.ie/the-robin-hood-of-laois/
Tait, C. (2015, Nov 16). Civilising the hairy savage in 16th century Ireland. Retrieved from Wellcome Library Blog: http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2015/11/civilising-the-hairy-savage-in-16th-century-ireland/
Whelan, K., Aalen, F., & Stout, M. (1997). Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork: Cork University Press.
In rural Ireland from the nineteenth century cottage craft ‘industries’ were often used to supplement the home’s income from farming. There were two categories of crafts: products made for home use and goods made for sale or export. Crafted items made for the home included baskets, knitted goods, rush-work, minor tweed products, and patchwork quilts – these were items that were regarded as chiefly functional. The crafts produced for sale or export included lace and linen – these were regarded as luxury items and boasted great international reputations. However, the products were seldom enjoyed by their makers themselves. This article focuses on these luxury products made in humble Irish cottages.
By the nineteenth century, handmade Irish lace had become high-demand throughout Europe and America as a luxury product. Such cottage industries had evolved from philanthropy and the efforts of those who wished to ‘help the Irish poor help themselves’. Wealthy and socially connected women like the Marchioness of Londonderry and Countess of Aberdeen helped such industries enormously. Similarly, Catholic nuns and religious orders (such as Quakers) were involved, as were some individual enterprises that sought to profit. Schools were set up across Ireland to educate young girls in lacemaking.
Handmade Irish lace had a supreme reputation internationally for a time. There was a huge variety of lace styles from all over Ireland, many named after their place of origin. Some were distinctive and easily recognisable. Kenmare lace was a fine delicate needlepoint lace; Carrickmacross an intricate type of ‘appliqué’ lace; Mountmellick lace involved white cotton thread embroidered on white satin. Limerick lace was renowned for its daintiness, using a combination of ‘tambour and run’. Ardee lace was made by ‘tatting’, consisting of an intricate system of knots tied in circles using a tattle shuttle and thread. Youghal lace was influenced by Italian needle lace. A generic style of lace known as ‘Irish crochet’ was also popular, utilising thicker threads. Even to the untrained eye, the distinctiveness of each style is apparent. Clones lace was introduced as a Famine relief measure in 1847, a fact which poignantly reflects how dependent some of the poor producers were on the craft for income. Irish lace often used shamrocks and harps and other Irish motifs as design features. Celtic knot work and chrysanthemums were also popular patterns.
Lacemaking supplemented the household income of many families and was usually practised by women, for example, unmarried daughters or housewives. Having a lace maker in the family meant that money could be saved for expensive outlays, such as helping other family members to emigrate to better lives abroad. In cottages and homes where lace was made the cleanliness of the surroundings became all-important. In the homes of lacemakers, the underside of thatched roofs were closed in to protect against dust and debris falling onto the all-important product for example. Good light was also crucial to the lace maker, and oil lamps were invested in and windows in homes were made larger in order to assist the crafter.
The making of lace was criticised by some at the time as ‘interference’ in nineteenth-century domestic Ireland. The reality was the some of the poorest of the population were producing luxury products for the wealthy. Many workers were open to exploitation. There remains an uncertainty over the ‘philanthropic’ nature of these industries and whether they were fair to workers. Irish lacemaking as a countrywide craft industry had problems with bad management. Additionally, the majority of makers lacked education in art or drawing, thus were limited when it came to the design of their own styles. In the early twentieth century, machine lace replaced the need for handicraft, but by this time lace was falling out of general fashion and the Irish lace cottage industry went into rapid decline. However, the distinctive patterns of Irish lace are ripe for a broader revival, and lend the subtext of Irishness to any contemporary design.
Recent contemporary arts projects such as Hybrid: Limerick Lace Liminal Identity exhibition and conference (2016) represent a revival of interest in the topic. This event saw the Polish artist NeSpoon create a temporary web-like artwork paying homage to Limerick lace in the city, which was a truly stunning and innovative take on a worthy Irish craft tradition. Hopefully other contemporary designers will be inspired in a similar way by lace and other Irish craft traditions and incorporate them into forward thinking and innovative art and design.
‘The Lacemaker’ by Vasily Andreevich Tropinin (1776 –1857)
Nespoon, picture by Alan Place (2016).
Guild of Irish Lacemakers
Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland
Heritage Council of Ireland PDF on Irish Lace FREE to download below:
The month of June once marked the start of the traditional Irish wedding season, these were far simpler occasions than the lavish Irish 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. Read on for more fascinating facts about traditional Irish weddings...
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.