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.
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.