This blogpost, along with the gallery of pictures below, shows the broad evolution of the hearth in Irish cottage interiors from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
Throughout much of the history of Irish domestic dwellings, fires were lit in the middle of the floor and ventilation was rudimentary. In thatched medieval roundhouses for example, there were no actual chimneys but rather the smoke left the building through the thatch. Over the years a hole in the centre of the roof was added to dwellings for further ventilation. This arrangement continued well into the nineteenth century in what I refer to as ‘cabins’ in my book ‘The Irish Cottage’.
Cabins were one room and squalid, and often made or rendered with mud. With the smoke emerging from their ramshackle roofs (often thatched with heather, gorse and other grasses) they were noted in the Irish countryside for looking like ‘smoking dunghills’ (see picture, below, from Arthur Young in the 1770s). Families within these dwellings would have gathered literally around the fire to warm themselves, and they also slept on the ground together around this centrally located fire.
As an architectural feature in most better off houses (like 3 roomed cottages discussed here), the main hearth eventually migrated from the central point of the house to a cross wall. At first, chimneys were made of wattle and daub, interwoven with twigs and covered with whitewashed earthen plaster, which formed a canopy, in order to draw the smoke up the chimney (see gallery, below). Later, proper chimney stacks were planned into the design of newly built houses. The hearth wall was deep and extended to the ceiling, with the chimney stack projecting further above the roof. Because of its strength, the chimney wall is one of the best preserved parts of many abandoned and ruined cottages we see in the countryside today.
A storage shelf on one side of the canopy was used to store dry foods, such as salt, and in the nineteenth century this evolved into a salt storage box made of timber. ‘Keeping holes’ in the fireside wall, either side of the hearth, stored small objects belonging to the mother or father of the house, such as pipes, knitting or sewing. Most early fires were grateless and so an ash hole was accommodated to one side and cleaned of its contents once a week. Clothes were hung up over the fire to keep them dry and free from debris from the clayfloors below and thatched roof above.
A hinged ‘crane’ was used to aid cooking on the open fire, this would have started out as a timber piece and by the nineteenth century was made from iron, as were the pots and kettles hung from it.
Furniture evolved to be used around the hearth and owing to the frugality of the times was made from recycled timber, straw or even turf. Creepie stools were a common type of small stool used to sit next to the fire.
Irish interiors were upgraded in general throughout the nineteenth century: clay floors were replaced with stone flags, the interior underside of thatched roofs were covered; and hearths and chimney were built up. There was increased conscientiousness of hygiene and general health improved. Over the years most hearths were closed in to increase fuel efficiency. Fireplaces were added and often a solid fuel range became the norm in Irish kitchens. Today wood burning stoves are popular. In Irish homes today the fire is not as multi-functional is it used to be, yet it still remains a primal focal point.
All of these mentioned items can be seen in the gallery of pictures accompanying this blogpost (below).