The image of the thatched Irish cottage, three windowed and cosy, has been appropriated in a romantic light today, but life in them during the nineteenth century was undeniably harsh. Broadband, electricity, running water, central heating and basic plumbing are staples of contemporary domestic life and the lack of these in a cottage would have been immediately apparent to the contemporary viewer. It can be hard to imagine what the whole experience of actual cottage life was like, so this article focuses on one aspect: the olfactory experience of an Irish cottage, essentially how things smelled.
The immediate smell on entering a cottage would have been the ambient smell of the materials used on the thatch, semi-dried straw, reed or heather, then: the turf smoke. Cottage life revolved around the open fire which was used for cooking, heating the home and light in the evening. Turf smoke would have pervaded the atmosphere.
In the evening time the scent would also have been apparent of crude candles made of animal fat or tallow candles which were burned for everyday use (beeswax and better quality candles were saved for special occasions). Towards the end of the nineteenth century oil lamps became common and these omitted the odours of whale oil or paraffin, depending on the oil used.
The smell of pipe smoke would also have been common: in that period Irish women and men copiously smoked cheap clay pipes, and often substituted expensive tobacco with dried coltsfoot (an indigenous wild plant). Smells of cooking from the open fire, usually of pot-boiled salty bacon and cabbage also featured. Frequently fish was cooked by frying or boiling, and this and the smell of stewed tea and baking bread would have been apparent.
As the privy was located outside the cottage, occupants were mercifully spared the scent of effluent. The ‘outhouse’ contained a bucket which was emptied frequently. The chamber pot was not made popular with cottage occupants until the late nineteenth century, so until then all such practices took place outside.
When children were being toilet trained they might be confined to one area with straw underfoot to allow ‘spillages’ be easily cleaned up (contemporary readers note that disposable nappies or diapers were not invented and even cloth nappies were not often used). The average family size was of over 7 children, so many pragmatic mothers simply allowed untrained toddlers to ‘go’ and then deal with the consequences. All toddlers, including boys, wore dress-like smocks to make this process easier on them. From the 1860s, clay floors were increasingly replaced with flat stone flags, which were gently sloped toward the front door to allow floors to be washed down with buckets of water.
In addition, some livestock was permitted into cottages along with the odours they brought with them. With this in mind, one English visitor to Ireland in 1897 wrote of one poor cabin, that it was ‘full of flies and with the odour of a stable’.It was common for hens to be brought into the home at night for warmth, protection from foxes and for a supply of eggs within easy reach. These were kept in specially adapted dressers: plates of top, chicken coop on bottom. Near the turn of the twentieth century hygiene concerns along with the availability of government aid to build outdoor ‘foul houses’, discontinued the practise.
The most notorious animal to be kept in Irish cottages was the pig, which was much parodied in England and elsewhere and became a part of the ‘Paddy Irishman’ stereotype. Certainly for hygiene concerns pigs ceased to be kept in most homes by the late nineteenth century, but by that stage the ‘pig in the parlour’ notion of Irish domestic life had stuck with the foreign audience. The sole family pig had been kept indoors for pragmatic reasons, it was fattened up for either sale or for food for the family, then killed, salted and preserved, to do them for most of the year. The pig was regarded by the Irish as a precious commodity, nicknamed ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’. However, as most cultures view the pig as an animal associated with filth, this Irish custom merely underlined the English colonial overlords’ portrayal of the Irish as uncivilised savages incapable of governing themselves.
From the mid nineteenth century the washing of clothes in a nearby stream would have still been practiced, and this on dry days could be hung on bushes to dry, but would also have been hung by the fire to ‘air’ which may have omitted a clean laundry smell. The people of this period would have had only one set of clothes for everyday use, and one set of clothes for best wear. So laundry was not done as much as today, but mending was necessitated: stitching and repairing clothes, socks and underwear was undertaken most evenings by the fire by both men and women. Another common smell in the Irish cottage was that of damp: in rooms closed away from the open fire there a coldness and chill pervaded during the winter months.
The overwhelming smell left on visitors’ clothes would have been turf smoke, which clung to most things including food.
By the twentieth century Irish cottages, at least those three roomed dwellings owned by self-sufficient farmers described here, gradually took on innovations such as plumbing, cooking facilities such as ranges, electricity, house extensions and animal outhouses. Gradually, the heady combination of smells described here wafted away into the past forever.
  Clifton Johnston, The Peasants’ Ireland, The Outlook (1897).
The three windowed thatched roof cottage discussed here really only become part of the Irish landscape after the Great Famine (1848). Prior to that many rural Irish lived in ramshackle cabins, with no windows or chimneys. The post Famine cottage represents gradual improvements made to domestic Irish living standards, through increased prosperity and new trends in household hygiene.
Cottages were built from all local materials, stone, reed/thatch using craft traditions distinctive to each locality. In this way they are really part of the landscape of Ireland. They also demonstrate contemporary sustainable architectural theory and even unwittingly echo some of AWN Pugin's (1812-42) proposals about 'honest' architecture 'matching' the surrounding land.
In 1935 the Swedish researcher Åke Campbell undertook a survey of rural cottages. He observed: ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’
Because rural cottages suit the rugged Irish landscape so well they have at time represented Irish identity as a tourist icon, nationalist political symbol and as artists' 'muse'.
Many things in modern domestic Irish life started with our recent ancestors in the nineteenth century. This brief article explores our dining habits then and how they have evolved since, using the vernacular kitchen table from the Irish cottage as an artefact.
If we look at the design of the traditional Irish kitchen table we see a multi-function piece of furniture, and one of its less important uses is dining. As in the Old English, the word for table in Irish is ‘bord’; a flat surface for working on. The design of Irish cottage tables was simple, made of cheap sheets of pine, with four legs connected by two long stretchers running parallel to the sheets of timber on the table top. The table top was used as a work surface for food preparation and other tasks. Drawers underneath each end and stretchers were used for storage. Tables were even used for laying out a corpse for a wake.
Look also at the spatial arrangement of Irish cottage furniture – the table is pushed against the wall - as is the case for all furniture in the house – and not in the middle of the floor surrounded by chairs, so the chief function was not dining.
The table top was left bare and frequently scrubbed using abrasive materials (such as sand) for this reason many table tops were left unpainted while the legs and other parts had a painted finish. Linen table cloths were only really used for extra special occasions, Christmas, stations, wakes. Other cloths used were oil cloths as they were easy to wipe down.
If we look at the content and the time taken over food we also get an indication of why our ancestors did not linger over meals. Traditionally most cottage dwellers viewed dining as a means of purely getting sustenance. The main meal, dinner, was taken in the middle of the day, with work to get back to immediately afterward. Eating was a functional exercise, in big families diners ate and moved away to allow the next person to use the place at the table. In large families, space was limited. Children were usually fed separately from the adults. Irish tables were accompanied by long forum stools, to seat as many children as possible. The long stretchers underneath the table occupied little feet.
Sometimes the amount of dinner guests fluctuated in a house due to visitors and seasonal farm labourers needing to be fed. To accommodate these, some living rooms contained a hinged table top, which folded down from a wall. Some settle designs had a fold-down table in the centre of its back, to accommodate two sitters either side.
Before Irish kitchen tables became commonly used in cottages food was taken at the fireside. The diet consisted chiefly of boiled potatoes and buttermilk. Families ate potatoes directly from a large flat basket (known as a ‘skiob’) that had been used to strain the boiling water from them. Diners were either seated on low stools or sitting on the ground. In this situation plates and cutlery would not have been used and table manners were unknown! The increased emphasis on household hygiene in the nineteenth-century led to a change in such eating habits, and tables became more popular in cottages. But the habit of not lingering too long over food continued, and in many rural Irish houses to this day the kitchen table remains pushed against the wall.