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.