The typical nineteenth-century Irish cottage has been explored here, with its total of three rooms: one kitchen flanked by two bedrooms. On average family sizes were large, included grandparents, and the bedrooms usually held four beds – so what were the actual sleeping arrangements?
The answer lies in the nature of bed furniture in Irish cottages which was variously hidden, transformer, multifunction and the ways of sleeping which were pragmatic with a strong emphasis on maximising warmth and cosiness.
In the cottage of the period discussed here, bedrooms were on either side of the main kitchen. They were sparsely furnished and little used in comparison to the warmer kitchen which contained the fire. Because of the cold in bedrooms, beds were shared by family members: the boys shared one bed, the girls shared another, the younger children another and the parents had their own bed. Extra occupants availed of other beds in the kitchen.
Prior to the popularity of Victorian wrought-iron beds with sprung mattresses in the later nineteenth century, the main type of bed were wooden box beds on raised legs, enclosed on three sides with a wooden ‘roof’. The entrance could be curtained off for privacy and protection from drafts. Inside, the bed was ‘papered’ or lined to further reduce drafts. A basic straw mattress was used, wrapped in fabric. A similar type of bed known as a tester bed was covered with cloth curtains to protect occupants from dust or turf which fell from the interior of the thatched roof. Featherbeds (mattresses) were also popular, if more expensive: only the feathers of water fowl were used for these. Irish patchwork quilts were common. Blankets were cherished and made from wool, and pillows were not commonly used.
The other chief piece of furniture in the bedroom was the chest. Chests evolved from those with lift-up tops, to cupboards with worktops and drawers. Dowry chests in some parts of Ireland were given as wedding gifts. Many were carved and were prized as an heirloom and used to store precious fabric items. As having a 'parlour' became fashionable in homes, some chests could convert into a bed at night to facilitate the bedroom being used as a ‘good room’.
Sleeping in the kitchen
Sleeping communally in a room where the fire was, was a habit the Irish were used to and continued in some dwellings into the nineteenth century. In medieval Irish castles ‘the grand hall’ contained the open fire and was where the feasting and sleeping took place, all together with little privacy.
Irish one-roomed cabins generally predated cottages discussed here . These had no actual bedrooms or beds, and the common way of familial sleeping was in a ‘stradogue’: this was where everyone was wrapped in the same bedding (like a big communal sleeping bag) on a straw mattress on the floor beside the fire.
Out of the tradition of sleeping in the kitchen beside the fire evolved the use of the outshot bed. This was a feature of cottages in the North and West of the island, where it was also known as a ‘cailleach’ or hag. It was a small projecting extension to the rear of the cottage and near the fireside, used commonly by the elderly of the household. It had a fitted bed and some level of privacy was provided by curtains or doors. When infirm or bedridden, the elderly could continue to be a central part of the household by occupying the outshot.
As houses were modernised and notions of hygiene changed, sleeping in the kitchen by the fire died out, and became only the occasional preserve of house guests.
Transformer and multifunction furniture
There were multifunctional pieces of furniture such as settle beds and press beds that could be used as beds at night but that remained hidden during the day.
Settles were popular items of furniture in the Irish cottage, they are a long bench with a high back and wooden arms. They often included storage or dining tables and were located in the kitchen. Settle beds could be folded down to become a box-bed, which was given a straw mattress and bedding. It was a multifunction piece of furniture used for seating and often as a secure playpen for toddlers.
Press beds (or ‘Murphy’ beds, as they became known when brought to the USA by Irish emigrants in the nineteenth-century) were also used. This bed folded up into a tall cupboard or ‘press’ (as cupboards are sometimes referred to in Ireland and Scotland).
Roof spaces were often used for sleeping accommodation for children. The loft was sometimes left open and overlooked the main room or given a wall. It was suitable for children’s bedrooms (due to the small size) and when left open drew the heat up from the room. The loft could be accessed from a ladder or through a hatch door. Lofts were commonly lit by a small side window that is a distinctive feature of the Irish cottage.
For more see my forthcoming book, The Irish Cottage: Cultural Identity, Life and Customs, Architectural Design and Interiors, 1860–1960 (Orpen Press, Dublin 2017).
All photographs taken by the author 2016.
ABOVE - Twin wooden beds, Ulster American Folk Park, (Tyrone).
BELOW -Clockwise from left: Tester Bed; Outshot Bed (at Glencolmcille Folk Park, Donegal);
Twin wooden beds (at Sean McDermott Cottage, Kiltyclogher, Leitrim).
There are commonalities in cottage design throughout Ireland from the 1860s, the chief being that thatch, whitewash and linear design are used. Traditional houses were often rectangular, one room deep and three bays wide. Inside, there were three rooms which led to each other, and often the door and windows were on one side of the house only. The kitchen was the chief room containing a hearth. It was sparsely furnished and flanked by bedrooms either side.
Irish cottages are related to a type of European vernacular building known as ernhaus where the hearth is of major importance to the dwelling. They also inherited some characteristics of medieval longhouses[i] and features of medieval Anglo Norman building influenced some cottages in the in south-east[ii].
There is also evidence that Irish cottages are descended from so called “byre” dwellings[iii]. Agriculture was vitally important in Ireland and livestock was a valuable commodity to be protected from weather, thieves or predators. Most farmers did not have outdoor shelters and brought their livestock into the house at night. Their houses became known as “byre” dwellings, where animals lived on one end of the house and the family on another, with a sunken channel which took effluent from the building and separated the living quarters. The animals provided additional heat to the human family. When sheds were built outside to house animals, the byre evolved to become a bedroom or parlour, it was floored, whitewashed, given a window and absorbed into the house’s design, its original purpose never to be fathomed by later inhabitants. The channel evolved too, to become a pathway from front door to back door.
There are two chief differences in Irish cottage design regionally which were identified by Kevin Danaher as ‘direct entry’ and ‘lobby entry’. In the north-west and in upland areas, the chief type of cottage is the direct entry type; that is the main room (kitchen) is accessed by the front door, often the back door was directly opposite the front door, and the front door was at the opposite end of the kitchen to the hearth. The walls are of stone and roofs have raised gables and windows are on one side of the house. The bed outshot or “hag” is often associated with direct entry cottage types. This was a projecting back wall usually 3ft deep, which contained a fitted bed, close to the fire. Elderly or infirm family members could continue to take part in the life of the house in this area which was occasionally closed-off with a curtain or with timber doors for privacy.
Lobby entry cottages are found around the south east of the country. With these, a wall or partition separates the door from the hearth, forming an open porch inside the front door. This screen wall is parallel to front of the house and is variously known as the ‘spy wall’ and has a small low window which faces the visitor to the house on entry. The person sitting at the fire can see through this window to the visitor at the front door. The spy wall protected the fire from drafts and offered privacy to the occupants if the door was open, as it often was. These lobby entry cottages also had hipped roofs and often the material for the walls was tempered clay with stones, whitewashed. An overhanging thatch, hipped on both sides was also a characteristic of these cottages. (I will discuss whitewash and thatch in future blogposts).
Throughout Ireland entrance doors were traditionally made of sheeted wood, and a popular design was the half door. It allowed light, ventilation and kept animals and children in or out. It also allowed for conversation with passers-by or neighbours. Windows were minimal in size not more than 2 ft wide and usually located away from the prevailing wind, and rarely located on gables on ground floors. Window openings were often closed up with boards, fleece or straw, as glass was expensive and drafts were common. A window tax imposed by the British government on the number of windows in all dwellings was enacted but did not have a major influence in Ireland. In the late nineteenth century, casement windows were replaced by wooden sliding sash types with two-over-two pane format, as glass became more affordable. Sash windows became very popular on Irish cottages as living standards improved in the later nineteenth century, and their fenestration is part of the recognisable fabric of the Irish cottage.
Illustrations by the author, 2016.