In some regions of Ireland ‘hearth’ is pronounced ‘heart’, which is appropriate given that the hearth was in many ways the ‘heart’ of the traditional Irish home. Traditionally the hearth was used for cooking, boiling water, drying clothes and baking. It was also as much a social space as a functional area.
In early Irish houses, the hearth would have occupied a central point in the floor, like a campfire, with a hole in the roof above for ventilation. It’s position eventually migrated to a cross wall with a canopied chimney built above. The hearth was at floor level, rather than on a raised grate, as this was more suitable for burning turf – the most common type of fuel used in Ireland in the period.
Fuel and fire: The lack of timber across Ireland has been discussed elsewhere in this blog and log fires were not the norm in rural Ireland. Instead, ‘turf’ became the dominant fuel from the seventeenth century. Turf is a fossil fuel, a partially decomposed water-soaked organic matter, formed in ancient times in bogs. It was cut and left to dry, often heaped in ‘stacks’ alongside cottages. If turf was unavailable dried cow manure or furze (gorse or whins) sufficed as alternate fuels.
Many people believed that the fortune of the house was associated with the fire: it was ‘bad luck’ to allow the fire to go out and every effort was made to keep it lit. People would gather around the fire light to work on crafts. They would dine at the fire, converse and even sleep in front of the fire.
Hierarchical seating and gender: The seating arrangements around a hearth were hierarchical, like the European kitchen table, where the senior family members sat at the head. (In an earlier blogpost I discussed how the kitchen table is relegated to the role of a purely functional object while the fireside is traditionally where dining took place). Each member of the Irish-cottage-dwelling family had a seat in accordance with their importance. At either side of the hearth sat the heads of the households in fitted seats or armchairs; the rest of the family gathered around on súgán chairs, timber chairs with woven straw (súgán) seats. Younger, smaller members vied for a place at the fire on tiny stools, known as ‘creepies’. These little stools were small and low and allowed the user to ‘creep’ into available spaces to take advantage of the heat from the fire.
A visitor to the house was sometimes offered the honour of sitting in the chair closest to the fire, given up by the father or mother. It was considered rude for a visitor to seat themselves in these prime seats uninvited.
The male and female configuration is related to the ancient concept of dexter and sinister, Latin for ‘right’ and ‘left’ respectively. From the viewpoint of the fireplace, the fireplace’s right side was given to the male and the left to the female, or ‘lesser’, side. This is similar to the tradition of arranging subjects according to gender in European portrait paintings. Male and female ‘keeping holes’ built into either side of the hearth wall held pipes or knitting.
Cooking: There was an assortment of cooking paraphernalia around the hearth. The forged iron crane was essential in cooking since the nineteenth century. This was a fixed object that could be moved over the fire or away from it, while ratchets and iron chains allowed cooking utensils to be raised or lowered. Pots and the kettle could be hung from the crane at various heights. All the utensils were of iron and blackened with smoke over time. Baking was done in a pot oven for fire baking – this was a cast-iron pot with a lid. Prior to the use of soda bread, griddles were used to make unleavened bread. Glowing embers were used for baking bread and keeping items warm, these were piled around the pot oven. An important additional storage object near the hearth was the salt box. Foods such as bacon or fish could be smoked at the hearth or left up the chimney to do so.
Today the fire still occupies a central position in the Irish home. Large open hearths have been replaced with smaller and safer solutions. Many Irish homes have open fires or solid fuel burning stoves. Although more efficient fuels are available turf may still be used and the smell of turfsmoke is still a feature of many rural areas.