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.