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).