The Irish rural thatched cottage has long been a combination that reflected the eked-out existence of an impoverished, but culturally rich people. By the mid twentieth century an Irish school of landscape painting was well established, with a sizable number of artists from Northern Irish, Protestant, urban backgrounds. These artists’ ‘national identities’ were at a pronounced remove from the wild unsophistication of the Irish west and the western cottage represented a shared cultural tradition through the medium of folk architecture.
The west of Ireland has a visual Otherness: the green patchwork of farmed fields which characterise the rest of Ireland do not feature in this area. It is dominated by purple mountain, brown bog, lakes and wild skies; orange grasses and a barren treelessness emphasised by the wild, ever changing weather coming in from the Atlantic Ocean.
An Irish school of landscape painting: In the early years of the twentieth century Irish artists portrayed the west and it became a place of pilgrimage for landscape artists. There was a certain dignity in the way the inhabitants persevered in the wild landscape that contrasted with times past. It gave a positive national identity for the rural Irish, where before little existed, celebrating the relationship of the people to the land they lived on.
The most influential was Paul Henry (1877–1958), a Protestant from Northern Ireland, who depicted traditional archaic turf stacks and potato pickers, in a modern way influenced by French Realism and Impressionism. Henry’s imagery of the west provided a view of rural Ireland that became recognised globally and was featured on travel and tourism publicity.
Artists from Northern Ireland: The Republic of Ireland (the South) was largely Roman Catholic, rural and had been neutral during the Second World War. Northern Ireland in contrast, as a part of the United Kingdom, meant Belfast and other towns suffered from German bombing raids. Northern Ireland was mainly Protestant, urban and industrialised.
To Northern Irish landscape artists of the mid twentieth century, the west of Ireland held a particular Otherly draw for artists such as Georgina Moutray Kyle RUA (1865-1950) Charles Lamb (1893-1964) and Frank McKelvey (1895-1974). Later, Rowland Hill (1915-79) and Maurice Canning Wilks (1911-84) portrayed tranquil cottages in their work against vibrant landscapes. Markey Robinson (1918-99), Gerard Dillon (1916–71) and Gladys Maccabe (b.1918) opted for traditional subjects with a pronounced modernity and like Henry (a generation earlier) chose to live amongst the landscapes they portrayed if only for a while.
Artists from Northern Ireland seemed especially compelled to depict the west of Ireland, perhaps in seeking difference, or in seeking a common cultural identity. It is pertinent that these artists did so in the mid twentieth century, prior to the worst of the sectarianism and the Troubles which had a devastating effect on Northern Ireland until recently.
The Irish cottage in art: By the early twentieth century, Irish politicians saw the west of Ireland depicted by artists like Henry, and the thatched cottage, increasingly associated with the idea of a Utopian unspoiled Ireland unsullied by British colonialism which might be revived. The cottage became a reflection of the lives lived within them and the opposite of Englishness and in this way became slightly politicised.
However, their vernacular architecture had the hand of no fashionable architects in their design but of local craft traditions handed down through generations. Although often vulnerable to the elements they had an eternal quality in that they clung to the landscape and grew from requirements of climate and availability of materials. The cottages in these ways represented in visual terms the identity of the Irish people on the island of Ireland.
Irish cottages, of three rooms, thatch and a central hearth were of a folk-architectural type known in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. In particular the ‘direct entry’ type discussed in this blog is an architectural type that characterises the rural places of the North East in Antrim, to as far south as Kerry. Irish Cottages truly were an expression of folk not politics, an all-Irish type of architecture with which all traditions could identify. It is little wonder then they provided aesthetic sustenance and allowed Northern Artists to identify with them.
The reaction of our ancestors to the scarcity of timber greatly influenced Irish cottage furniture and interiors. Until Elizabethan times Ireland had abundant ancient deciduous woodland, and was noted throughout Europe for its broad-leaved forests. Yet between 1600 and 1800 it is estimated that around 90% of Irish forests were cut down.
Throughout the seventeenth century much of the felled timber was exported and used for ship building, cooperage and iron smelting . Irish Oak had an excellent reputation and was particularly sought out by French and Spanish wine producers. Trees were not replanted in the same volumes as they had been depleted. This led to what the folklorist Kevin Danaher described as a timber “famine”  and Ireland became renowned in Europe from the seventeenth century for its lack of trees. Despite reforestation initiatives even in recent years, it remains one of the least forested areas of Europe.
There had once been a wonderful Irish appreciation of trees, shown throughout history. Our Ancient Pagan ancestors indulged in tree worship. The development of the Ogham alphabet was influenced by different species of trees. The Brehon Laws legislated for the status and protection of certain tree types up until the medieval period . However, the post-Tudor death of the forests meant that generally the native Irish lost this knowledge of trees and significantly, the old skills in woodcraft. The environment was also profoundly affected by the drastic deforestation: types of wildlife and birds disappeared. The climate of the country altered affecting the land itself: there was less shelter from the westerly winds.
As Europe was enjoying imported Irish timber, there was a general lack of the material in Ireland itself. Timber became a scarce commodity except for the rich, and local supplies were so poor that cheap timber began to be imported to Ireland. At times throughout Irish history even timber for coffins was unavailable or considered too expensive.
Throughout the eighteenth century, as the British colonial position in Ireland was consolidated the estates of the landed gentry were planted with broadleaved trees for shelter and habitats for game. These were surrounded by high walls, and known as demesnes. They provided a stark contrast with the surrounding treeless land outside the estate walls. In a general era of timber (and food) shortage in Ireland, demesnes contained gruesome man-traps to deter poachers and timber thieves. There were strict laws and harsh penalties regarding the theft of timber. If a person was found carrying a piece of timber they were immediately suspected of thieving and liable for questioning or arrest by the authorities.
This general lack of timber impacted furniture and interiors greatly in Ireland. Most Irish cabins contained little or no furniture. In the cottages discussed in this blog in the period given, furniture became symbolic of respectability and would have been made from any available timber, recycled from old or disused furniture and “found” timbers such as bogwood. There is evidence of driftwood salvaged from the seashore or shipwrecks being used in furniture and interiors of cottages. Green timber was also used in furniture construction, where readily available species such as salix or willow, in Ireland known as salleys, could be coppiced and used for furniture parts and weaving.
Furniture was often made by travelling skilled carpenters in exchange for food and accommodation. These were usually called in for the making of large pieces, such as settles and dressers, which were commonly made on site and needed quality making skills to last for years. There were also so called hedge makers, amateur carpenters who would make small primitive pieces of furniture (such as ‘hedge’ chairs) using small or green timbers.
Furniture in Irish cottages was generally was sparse and comprised chiefly of the settle, dresser, table, chairs stools and one or two box beds. Interiors evolved to make the most of cheaper solutions. Upcycling, recycling and multifunction have been long known in Irish vernacular furniture, for example settles that can convert to beds. At times of celebration doors were taken off their hinges and used for step-dancers to perform on. Alternative materials were used in interiors, particularly straw. Straw was used to make cosy armchairs (which could be disguised with fabric) and was also used to make draft excluders for worn gappy doors. It was woven to make mattresses and rugs, and such objects were replaced more frequently than ones made from timber.
Cheap sheeted timber, usually imported pine, was used for most furniture and paint became important in disguising faults of such wood. Paint also acted as a preservative and furniture was frequently overpainted, which had the effect of preserving pieces for long periods of time. Bright colours were used to counteract dimly lit interiors. Paint effects such as (graining and ‘scumble’) were used to make low-cost pine look like grander hardwoods. As furniture for damp cottages had to withstand years of use little innovations were built in to help preserve pieces: dressers and some settles had ‘sledge’ feet which could be replaced when they succumbed to damp, preventing damp travelling up the whole piece.
Little adaptations and innovations were small victories over the lack of timber in Irish cottages, and these influenced the overall look of our Irish ancestors’ humble but functional furniture and interiors.
References and further reading:
 For more, see: Irish Forests: A Brief History (Department of Agriculture, Ireland) at: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/forestry/forestservicegeneralinformation/abouttheforestservice/IrishForestryAbriefhistory200810.pdf
 Kevin Danaher, Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier press, 2004 ed.) p.67.
 For more on the Brehon Laws and trees: Fergus Kelly, Trees in Early Ireland, Augustine Henry Memorial Lecture, (1999) in http://www.forestryfocus.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Trees-in-Early-Ireland.pdf
Whatever St. Patrick’s Day might mean to us today, to our cottage dwelling ancestors it was an important but simple celebration of one of our national saints.
As St. Patrick's Day occurs on March 17th it generally became thought of as 'the middle of spring' with the promise of good weather and longer evenings important to rural farmers. This also marked the time for planting potatoes but not on the day itself, which was a religious feast day, a day of rest and a welcome reprieve from Lenten fasting to enjoy meat, treats and alcohol.
For hundreds of years’ people in Ireland wore crosses to commemorate St Patrick on his feast day, with some wearing a sprig of shamrock on their hat, shoulder or lapel. According to folklore Patrick converted Irish Pagans to Christianity by using the three leaved shamrock to explain the holy trinity. In more recent times wearing the crosses became customary for children while adults wore shamrock. Over the years the crosses evolved into fabric circular rosettes decorated with crosses, harps or fabric shamrocks, and these may still be worn by Irish children today.
On the day itself, mass was attended, and afterward dinner containing meat (usually bacon, potatoes and cabbage) was eaten. As a day of rest, no farm work was undertaken and with Lent temporarily paused it became a day to enjoy alcohol for some. The alcohol consumed on St. Patrick’s Day was known as Póta Phádraig or ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’. There is a tradition known as ‘drowning the shamrock’ after a toast to St. Patrick some shamrock was tossed over the shoulder for good luck.
For many years the pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day but people still ‘found a way’. Because of this the day became a focus for the Irish Temperance movement, which was an anti-alcohol, religious association which exemplified good behaviour and national pride. From the mid-19th century they held colourful parades on St Patrick’s Day which offered a celebratory teetotal alternative to alcoholic pursuits. These parades spread to Irish emigrant communities abroad and they became embedded in the international celebration of St Patrick’s day.
According to folklore, on the day of Judgement Christ will judge all other nations, while St Patrick will be the judge of the Irish.
Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) St. Patrick’s Day (1856)
Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick's Day, (Routledge 2002).
After the Great Famine there was a gradual increased prosperity in Ireland and while the potato remained a staple in the diet, an emphasis on hygiene and new ingredients and methods altered foods served in the Irish cottage.
The common variety of potato was the ‘Lumper’ a waxy, flavoursome type that was however, prone to blight. Until the Famine Irish peasants were seen as better nourished than other Europeans due to their potato and buttermilk diet. Potatoes were cheap, easy to grow and contained vitamins and fibre. They were versatile, they could be boiled in their skins; mashed with butter and milk, made into potato bread; potato cakes or colcannon. Potatoes were boiled and drained in a large round wicker basket known as a skiob, and in some homes the family ate directly from this, sitting around the fire. Cottage dwellers from the 1860s, discussed here, would have been marginally better off than their poorer fellow country people and would have been able to afford to supplement their diet with a little more than just potatoes. Toward the end of the century more cottage dwellers dined using dinner plates and the common addition to those plates was bacon and cabbage.
Mealtimes and preparation: In an Irish house there were usually three meals a day, breakfast, dinner and supper. The ethos was that food be made fresh every day particularly bread. Food was prepared at the kitchen table and cooked over the open turf fire in the hearth using a ‘crane’ to hoist iron cauldrons and the kettle. The diet was simple: oatmeal, vegetables, dairy and bacon. Other meat and fowl featured on special occasions.
Dairy products: Ireland has excellent grass pastures suitable for beef production, yet beef was not historically a feature of the Irish diet, instead dairy products are. There were many variations of milk to drink, including buttermilk, fresh curds, old curds and ‘real curds’. There was "thick milk," which was milk that went solid, which was sliced and eaten. From medieval times Irish butter was a notable export to Europe and the churning of butter, a laborious task, was governed by Fairy superstitions. If you got on the bad side of the ‘Good People’ your butter might not churn, and it was considered a good idea to leave milk out to appease the Fairies at night.
Seafood: Fish did not feature hugely in the Irish diet which is surprising as Ireland is surrounded by vast fishing waters. Some coastal farmers in the late nineteenth-century merely supplemented their income and diet by fishing and used fish (such as salted herrings) when other foods were out of season. Much harvested seaweed was burned as a fertiliser and exported. Historically large-scale sea-fishing boats, nets and piers were an expensive outlay so fishing remained a hand-to-mouth exercise. Britain failed to significantly develop Ireland’s fisheries although there were some attempts to build and repair existing piers as famine-relief projects. The culture of fishing was never embedded in a Roman Catholic nation that saw fish as a ‘fasting’ food. However, in some seaside areas shellfish were harvested sand eels were caught using a hook, and boiled or fried. Seaweed, dillisk and Irish moss (carrageen) were also used.
Oats: Oatmeal was prominent in the Irish diet. Rolled oats were cooked as porridge and taken with a little sugar or salt (salt deterred Fairies). Oat cakes were baked on a griddle. Porridge could also be served as a watered-down gruel taken as a light supper. In one dish, cold porridge was allowed to harden, then sliced and wrapped in cabbage leaves, and baked.
Bread: Bread soda or baking soda made its appearance in Irish homes from the mid nineteenth-century. It was used as a raising agent for ‘soda bread’ which is still made using wholemeal flour, salt and buttermilk. ‘Soda cake’ was a sweetened version with dried sultanas. There was no time spent kneading or waiting for the bread to rise thus it could be baked quickly, in a bastable pot on the turf fire. It tended to go stale very quickly in comparison with the mass manufacture bread of today, so was made fresh each day.
Tea: Strong black loose leaf tea, left to ‘draw’ in the pot and served with milk, also became popular and remains a national favourite. Tea suppliers to this day chose stronger blends for the Irish market, as a dairy nation we tend to flood our strong tea with milk.
Foraged foods: Cottage dwellers had their own vegetable plots which contained the family’s supply of potatoes. They included cabbage, kale, turnips and onions, which were easy to grow in the climate. Vegetables were simply boiled or made into soups or stews. Some foods were foraged and nettles were a useful addition to the diet in Spring when other vegetables were scarce. Nettles were a rich source of iron and vitamins in Spring and added to food or made into soup. Children in Ireland today often feed garden birds in colder weather yet in the past children were given the job of trapping blackbirds, which provided an additional source of food in winter.
Pork and bacon: Many families raised and slaughtered a single pig every year allowing them to have a meat product quite regularly in the diet. The family pig therefore was a valuable asset to be treated well and special meals were sometimes made for the pig to fatten them up. Pigs were frequently taken into the home to allow them to thrive in the heat and shelter. In the nineteenth-century many saw this as further evidence that the Irish were ‘savages’: having a ‘pig in the parlour’ was a saying used to denigrate Irish people and contextualise them as animal-like. To the Irish however the nickname for the pig was ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’ a way of describing the value this animal had for families. By the end of the nineteenth century having a pig indoors became associated with a general lack of hygiene (and civilised manners) and sheds were built to accommodate livestock and fowl.
Salting and preserving the pig meat was essential in a time without fridges or freezers. Salted bacon, rashers, sausages and black pudding could be made and sides of meat could be obtained. All parts of the animal were used with nothing wasted. Bacon fat was preserved and ‘crubeens’ (pigs’ trotters) were eaten. The intestines were washed out with clear water to make cases for black pudding. This was made with blood, suet and oatmeal and was rich in iron.
Conclusion: The Irish diet discussed in this blog was monotonous. It revolved around soda bread, buttermilk, potatoes, bacon and porridge. Yet our ancestors did make many variations of these ingredients for meals, grew and made their food and wasted nothing. Cottages did not have the bins or waste collection services of modern times – livestock ate leftovers and anything else was composted. Until recently this diet was little changed for most Irish people although largely historic it is familiar to us today. The cottage dwellers’ diet was moderate, healthy, home-grown and full of organic produce, something that is espoused by dieticians and food experts today.
The painting (above): Aloysius O'Kelly (1853-1936) 'Expectation' West of Ireland.
Since farming began in Ireland around 5000 years ago agriculture has lefts its mark on the people and the landscape. Ireland’s beef and dairy industry has been an important part of the economy since Ancient times. This article explores the 'byre dwelling' a house for humans and cattle.
Good pasture suits the rearing of cattle as, unlike sheep, they need good land. Owning cattle became a symbol of prosperity, and they frequently feature in Irish folklore and history. Dairy featured more prominently in the Irish diet than beef and was a chief export, with Irish butter renowned for its quality since medieval times. As rustling was a constant threat the protection of precious cattle became ingrained in the Irish farmer’s psyche. The history of building in Ireland, from Bronze Age enclosures to medieval ‘bawns’ at tower houses, to the green patchwork of fields, is influenced by the management and protection of herds by our farmers throughout history.
Security: Throughout this period, it became accepted for humans to take shelter with livestock to guard them. This custom was not just known in Ireland but in many rural parts of Europe. However, the prolonged poverty of Irish farmers along with the small size of their holdings meant the practise continued well into the nineteenth century. This is evidenced in a common type of home in Ireland known as byre houses. These were homes that people shared with their cattle. Some of them were purpose built and some evolved to take livestock in to them, and many were one roomed and often could accommodate as many as four cows and one large family.
Design: As per the accompanying diagram, byre dwellings were divided by a sunken channel to allow effluent to be drawn from the building. The byre and dwelling areas were on either side of the channel. The front and the back door of the building were opposite each other allowing for traffic of the animals, for the channel to drain and to let varying winds circulate.
Cows were only taken in for milking and at night and were tethered to the wall to stop them roaming to the living area. Often byre dwellings were partitioned with curtains, and animals were given fresh bedding frequently, which included sweet smelling plants such as heather. The cows would thrive from the heat of the family’s open fire and enjoy shelter from the elements. The family would benefit from the additional heat given off by the bodies of the animals.
Reaction: This may seem impoverished and unsanitary to us today but these people would not have been the poorest of the poor because they owned livestock. They would have benefitted from this pragmatic living arrangement in comparison to other small farmers and there was certainly little social stigma at the time of living in such a dwelling, from their fellow countrymen at least. Colonial British commentators were generally horrified at the Irish tradition of living under the same roof as livestock, citing it as yet more evidence that the Irish were savage and incapable of self-governance.
Evolution: Eventually exterior byres were built to accommodate cattle and the old byre dwellings often evolved and were extended into bigger houses with more rooms. The former byres were partitioned with a wall, given a window and converted into a bedroom. Long after byre dwellings fell out of necessity, the practice of bringing farm animals into the house continued in some parts of Ireland. Cows were sometimes brought into the house for Summer milking as it was considered lucky for the creatures to see the fire. Smaller sick animals could be brought in to benefit from the warmth of the fire. Other livestock were common in homes, as evidenced in the chicken coop dressers in later Irish cottages and the factual basis for the ‘pig in the parlour’. The large part agriculture plays in the Irish economy, as well as the protection of farms and livestock, continues to this day, under rather more modern circumstances.
Painting above: Basil Bradley (1842-1904) 'Milking in a byre cottage, Connemara' (1880).
The conversion of the Pagan people of Ireland to Christianity began in the 5th century. The success of the missionaries is owed to their combining old Pagan practices with new Christian ones to assist people familiarise with the new religion. This article explores the combining of the Ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc with St Brigid's Day in Ireland and the customs and artifacts that remain today.
Christian events mirrored those important ones on the Pagan calendar: St Brigid’s Day coincided with Imbolc; St John’s Eve on 23 June was at midsummer; the Feast of Our Lady on 1 May was at the same time as Bealtaine and Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is connected with Lughnasa. In Ireland there was a greater emphasis on Catholic female saints because in Pagan worship female goddesses were of equal significance with the male. As a consequence of this we still see a firm devotional following for Our Lady in Ireland and to St Brigid: Until the mid-twentieth century Mary and Brigid were the most popular names for Catholic girls.
A ‘dual’ festival with the focus on a female deity is the feast of St Brigid, falling on 1 February which is also the time of Imbolc. St Brigid a conventional Christian saint from Co. Kildare (noted for her cloak) shares her name with Brigid, an Ancient Pagan goddess, both associated with fertility, health and good fortune. Imbolc is an old festival that heralds the start of Spring and celebrates the lambing season (it translates to ‘in the belly’). In Ireland the worst weather occurred between November and February so St. Brigid’s Day signalled better weather and longer days. To rural farmers it meant new life on the farm and a return to the growing season.
Traditions on St Brigid’s eve include visiting holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid to collect holy water. It was believed to be more potent if collected on her feast day, and was sprinkled on objects, people and animals to offer them her protection.
Some left a piece of cloth outside for the night of St Brigid’s Eve. The belief was that it would be touched by St. Brigid, and bestowed with her power. This was known as the brat bríde and was worn within clothing or applied to the sick to promote healing.
In some parts of Ireland ‘Biddy Boys’ went from house to house with a straw effigy of the saint, dressed in white, collecting for a party in her honour. Sometimes included in their procession was a ‘St Brigid’s girdle’ a belt for the occupants of the house to pass through to ensure health for the coming year. Irish emigrants took such traditions with them to their new homes. Here is a wonderful description of one riotous procession by Irish emigrants in 1830s London:
“[They] scandalised the local shopkeepers by marching their pagan corn dolly effigy up [Kensington] High St and thrusting her in through shop doorways, sending refined customers for the smelling salts. Police chose not to confront the mob, but arrested the dummy and locked her in a cell until a woman turned up asking to collect her sister’s dress adorning the Celtic goddess” .
On St. Brigid’s Eve, crosses were made from soft rushes by the family which offered St. Brigid’s protection for the household, farm and land. The tradition remains today with Irish schoolchildren making the crosses and which are sometimes hung in Irish classrooms, homes, even cars. The most popular style is the four armed cross and design variations occurred in different regions. Three-legged crosses were made for buildings which contained animals, so that they too would be protected by St. Brigid (see illustration below).
The design of the Brigid’s cross has ancient origins. It has similarities with the swastika, an ancient motif that features on some European Celtic carvings. In addition, the central pattern bears similarities to the lozenge shape seen carved on many stone monuments erected by the first prehistoric farmers in Ireland. This central feature underlines its female and fertility characteristics also seen in Irish carved-stone Sheela-na-Gigs from the early medieval period (see illustration).
. Martin Hedges, ‘The worst slum in London’ Posted on July 25, 2016, https://actonbooks.com/2016/07/25/kensington-jennings-rents-rookery/ accessed on 20/01/17.
Pen and ink illustrations by the author.
The twelfth day after Christmas Day, 6th January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, was known in Ireland as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). It was also known in parts of Ireland as Little Christmas. Tradition held that on this day roles were reversed in the home: men did the women’s work in the house while women rested and gathered together socially. The practise was stronger in rural areas, and in the Cork and Kerry areas of Ireland, with some in other regions professing to have never heard of the holiday.
From the mid twentieth century Nollaig na mBan died out but is slowly undergoing a revival. Hotels and restaurants are advertising ladies’ days and evenings out for the occasion, many featuring revivals of taking ‘afternoon tea’. The Herstory Project has chosen the date for their 2017 light projection festival which aims to highlight ‘ordinary women who did the extraordinary’, but who were forgotten by history.
The twelfth day of Christmas is noted in Ireland as the day before which it is considered unlucky to take down the Christmas tree and decorations. The date was also marked in history as the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ ( ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’) in 1839 when a devastating hurricane hit Ireland leaving an estimated 100 dead and thousands homeless with mass structural damage throughout the country. It is cited as a reason that many Irish houses and cottages were from then were built in areas sheltered from the wind.
A notable literary association with this day is that James Joyce set the short story The Dead (1914) on the feast of the Epiphany in Dublin. It is said to be the greatest short story of modern English literature. If you consider Joyce’s work daunting, just reading the last paragraph alone will invoke the beautiful sense of peace one can have at Christmas, and reading it would be a fitting end to the festive season and a nod to the fresh beginnings of the New Year.
From The Dead by James Joyce:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
For more on the hurricane of 6th January 1839 see this article by Bridget Haggerty http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ACalend/BigWind.html
The Dead by James Joyce. The full piece is available here http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/?utm_content=buffer64a88&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
More on Herstory: http://www.herstory.ie/home/
Photograph of players in stage adaptation of The Dead by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
The darkness of evening to our cottage dwelling forebears meant a time to finish the heavy work and relax before bedtime. Conversation and craft were the main preoccupations after evening prayers were said. This part of life like all others was governed by austerity.
Everything in life was scarce or ‘running out’ for at least some of the time. People had to be sparing in their consumption of things we can take for granted today: ‘spare the fuel’, ‘spare the light’ were common sayings. In this context it is understandable that things of the everyday were minded, and repaired when broken, or ‘upcycled’ for their materials – to use a contemporary term – when out of use.
Around the fireside on long evenings sewing was a popular pastime – with both sexes. Making do and mending of clothing was done regularly in a time when clothing was scarce. From the Middle Ages clothing was designed to be used for many years: for example womens’ clothes and had adjustable stays to allow for pregnancies as they occurred. Throughout the eighteenth century there was a big market in second hand clothes in Ireland. Poorer people in Ireland were commonly dressed in ‘rags’ according to commentators, their clothing threadbare and held together by patches. A relative who emigrated might send a parcel of clothes back home which was much anticipated and valued by the recipients. By the nineteenth century techniques of mass production applied to textiles and the making of clothes meant they became more common, but they were still valued.
People owned one or two sets of working clothes and a set of ‘good’ clothes. The everyday clothes had to be constantly maintained, patched, stitched, sponged, dried, cared for.
Therefore people sewed, patched and maintained their clothes on a daily basis. When clothing was no longer viable it might be upcycled into bedding, such as patchwork quilts.
Patchwork quilts could be said to be an expression of frugality but in Irish cottages they were sometimes made as wedding gifts and for pleasure, or for home décor. Rooster red fabric was popular in the Victorian era and was often combined with used flour sacks to give a red/white contrast in dark bedrooms. Quilts are often seen as a grand expression of ‘mend and make do’ but often quilters would source and buy fabric especially for their quilts which showed that design rather than austerity was important. Some people supplemented their income by making patchwork quilts or by taking in the clothing repairs of others.
Irish patchwork was bought to the US by emigrants who brought with them styles from Ireland. The Irish chain is one of these styles that remain popular with quilters today. The Irish method of appliquéing a blanket between patched layers is also notable, but not often used today.
The Irish habit of hand sewing described is long gone, but it persisted enough into the twentieth century for many homes to adopt the sewing machine as part of the furniture, with Singer a popular brand.
James Brennan (1837–1907) Patchwork (1891) Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Double Irish Chain quilt, c.1904 (Nebraska State Historical Society).
The west of Ireland was traditionally seen as the ‘edge of the world’ by other Europeans. For some nineteenth-century European artists, there had been a fascination with ‘primitive’ societies and the character of the ‘noble savage’, a romanticised outsider, or Other, uncorrupted by civilisation and industrialisation. The west of Ireland was unsophisticated and largely untouched by the modern world and so held a particular fascination for artists, Irish and non-Irish. Inspired by these ideas, many sought to depict the Otherness of life in the west represented by the wild landscapes and Irish cottages in art. The isolated rural thatched cottage in the west of Ireland and its landscape was a combination which reflected the culture of its dwellers and the simple lives lived in the harsh landscape around it.
In the early twentieth century, politicians of the new state of Ireland saw the west of Ireland and the thatched cottage increasingly associated with the idea of a Utopian unspoiled Ireland unsullied by British colonialism which might be revived. Yet artists were drawn to it for this and for other reasons, the light, the rugged landscape which was a combination of lake, bog, mountain and coast. From Donegal down through Mayo and Galway the wildest parts of the coastal landscape and the cottage clinging to it were represented.
Connemara, particularly the areas around Letterfrack, Kylemore and Recess, was popular with artists. In depicting the cottages of the west of Ireland in art, artists left us an important record of our architectural heritage. For the Irish landscape they painted in the mid twentieth century was a culture and way of life that was fast disappearing like the moving clouds and light illuminating the land.
William Orpen (1878-1931) through his teaching had influenced a generation of Irish artists and he frequently depicted the west of Irish mood through landscapes and depiction of the people as Other. Sean Keating (1889 – 1977) produced among his other works images of the western seaboard. Jack B Yeats (1871–1957) also depicted the west but chose to show the cultural way of life rather than landscapes. Maurice MacGonigal (1910-79) also produced much work in the west of Ireland, showing the humble thatched cottage against the landscape.
To Northern Irish artists, some Protestant and some from urban areas, the west of Ireland held a particular draw. Charles Lamb (1893-1964), Paul Henry (1877–1958). Frank McKelvey (1895-1974), Rowland Hill (1915-79) and Maurice Canning Wilks (1911-84) are just some of the Northern artists who portrayed the west of Ireland and its rural farm dwellings in their work. They painted the landscape against the wide, vast skies, with thatched cottages hugging the land, almost representative of the inhabitants. Henry, the most famous, developed a style of painting that was considered modern for its time and based on Realism and Impressionism.
The American artist Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) spent 1926 in rural south-west Donegal in a derelict cottage that he rented from a local farmer. He showed the locals in their landscape in a series of paintings, containing magnificent sunsets and cottages, haystacks and turf stacks on the rugged coastal landscape. Although bathed in colour, the paintings make no attempt to romanticise the way of life, depicting the reality of existence in this area in the 1920s in a slightly Art Deco style. This harsh, stark, treeless environment, typical of the very westerly coast of Ireland facing the Atlantic Ocean, has recently become branded as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ and remains a tourist favourite.
Rowland Hill (1915-79) Bloody Foreland, Donegal.
Maurice MacGonigal (1919-79) Bringing home Turf.
Paul Henry (1877-1958) Doughruagh mountain, Galway.
Marie Bourke, West of Ireland paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland from 1800 to 2000 at http://www.nationalgallery.ie/en/Learning/Resources/~/media/Files/Education/Schools/West_of_Ireland_Paintings_at_the_NGI.ashx