Many articles on this blog have discussed objects from the Irish home, such as fireplaces, dressers, beds and tables. This article examines the structural and sometimes background items which also added to the character of Irish cottage interiors: windows, doors, walls and floors.
Doors: Interiors in general were small in scale, and small windows and narrow low doors ensured a dark interior. Initially in Irish interior doors were woven out of willow and hazel in a method similar to basket weaving. These lightweight doors were centrally hung and not hinged; they kept few draughts out and were primarily to define areas and for privacy.
Internal doors progressed when open plan single room houses evolved to three room structures (such as the cottages discussed in his blog). Hinges were used and the doors made of cheap, sheeted timber, usually imported pine from Scotland. Doors were removed from their hinges frequently in Irish cottages. Many illustrations from the era depict poorly fitted doors (see gallery below). External doors might be re-hung seasonally depending on the direction of the prevailing wind. It was not unusual for doors to be removed to be used as a type of ‘stage’ for dancers (it is speculated that Irish dancing styles evolved with the dancer’s arms held tightly to the body due to small interior space). Often doors were a poor looking and shabby affair by today’s standards, many required additional draught excluders (straw mats) to be hung over them when closed. External doors were normally half and half, with the top left open. The closed bottom section of the half-door offered privacy, to keep children in and livestock out, to allowed air into smoky interiors.
Walls: As with doors, wall partitions began in the Irish home as woven screens, that acted as partitions in one room dwellings, then later were constructed from wooden wattle and daub. As three-room cottages were built, internal walls were designed into them and made of stone, rubble or clay. Some screen walls were constructed of wood. Many cottages had exposed roof timbers and beams which showed the underside of the thatched roof, later these became enclosed with ceilings made of wood sheeting. Walls had lime plaster added and then were whitewashed (if in main rooms), and sometimes had sheeted timber panels added (in bedrooms and lofts).
Floors: Originally, many floors in cottage began as clay or turf (see gallery). During the nineteenth century, many floors of main kitchens were given stone flags that in turn were modernised using concrete as a base in the twentieth century. Flagstones (se gallery) were reserved for use in kitchens only, as they were durable and easy to ‘wash out’. Some kitchen floors were sloped towards one exterior door to allow for the floor to be washed out on occasion with water. This can be seen in some pictures in the gallery below, and the external door is angled to meet that slope. Bedroom floors were often made of timber.
Windows: Window tax (almost always cited as a reason for small cottage windows) did not affect Irish cottages as much as speculated. The damp weather, climate and the need to eliminate draughts had more of an influence. Hence in Ireland windows are traditionally small and few in number. Irish windows in domestic dwellings started out as casements, where windows opened outward like doors. Then sash windows became the fashion in Ireland and by the end of the nineteenth century the two-over-two pane style was the most popular. That is, when windows were actually used in dwellings: many smaller cabins often used animal hide or simply stuffed their windows with straw to keep draughts out.
Kevin Danaher, The Hearth and Stool and All! Irish Rural Households (Dublin, 1986).
Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Country Furniture (Yale University Press, 1993).
Marion McGarry, The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (Orpen Press, 2017).
Nessa Roche, A Legacy of Light: A History of Irish Windows (Dublin 1999).