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.