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Lowly Things, Homely Folk

Patricia Craig

Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000, by Claudia Kinmonth, Cork University Press, 546 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782054054

Claudia Kinmonth has surpassed herself. When her pioneering study, Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950, was published by Yale in 1993, it filled a conspicuous gap in the history of vernacular craftsmanship in Ireland, with all its implications for social and domestic goings-on in the country. Before that date, very little existed in the way of instructive analysis of household artifacts and arrangements, and what there was was largely technical rather than evocative. I’m not, indeed, overlooking such exemplary works as E Estyn Evans’s Irish Folk Ways of 1957, with its scholarly enumeration of traditional dwellings, practices and accoutrements. But one of the ways in which Claudia Kinmonth’s first book broke new ground was with the marvellous photographic record it presented of ancient surviving fragments of a vibrant, if unexalted, material culture. Like the poet Joseph Campbell’s, Kinmonth’s subject matter has to do with “homely folk and lowly things” – but lowly things imbued with pungency and holding a strong visual attraction.

“The kettle on the ingle stone” specified by Joseph Campbell among his beloved emblems of Irishry – or one very like it – makes an appearance at the start of the new, revised and enriched edition of the original Kinmonth undertaking. (This particular kettle, solid, black and shapely, was photographed by the author at a house in Co Offaly in 2017.) Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000 is not merely a reissue of the earlier book but comes complete with many superb additional photographs, mostly in colour, and with an expanded text geared to cultural and aesthetic illumination. As well as trawling the countryside for tangible remnants of the past (a dwindling resource), the author has clearly spent a lot of time poring over early inventories and immersing herself in old-style memoirs, travel writing, novels and poetry collections, on the look-out for allusions to bygone household goods and their functions (such allusions prove to be plentiful). From William Carleton’s very humble potato-bin, “made up of stakes driven into the floor, and wrought with strong wickerwork” to the fine settle bed inherited by Seamus Heaney – “Trunk-hasped, cart-heavy, painted an ignorant brown, / And pew-straight, bin-deep, standing four-square as an ark” – there’s an immense amount here for the nostalgist, the collector, social historian or cultural critic to savour. It is all tremendously exhilarating.

In one sense, Ireland and its artifacts presents a special case. In his foreword to Kinmonth’s new book, Professor Louis M Cullen cites Synge’s observation about the extremes of subsistence living prevailing all along the west coast of Galway in the early part of the twentieth century. “Nearly all the characteristics,” Synge wrote, “which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a social condition that is near to penury.” This is interesting, not least because it’s at the opposite extreme from the view expressed by Edmund Burke a century and a half earlier. Irish peasant furniture, Burke complained, “is fitter to be lamented than described”. Both comments, one responsive to the uniqueness of a particular indigenous heritage while deploring the deprivation behind it, and the other totally dismissive, testify to a persisting state of indigence in the countryside, with the whole population at the mercy of external forces. Things were particularly bad in the years immediately preceding the Famine, when the one-roomed mud cabin – according to a census taken in 1841 – was home to “nearly half the families of the rural population”. This appalling percentage, Kinmonth notes, “rose even higher in the poorer parts of the west of Ireland”, with its population of tradesmen, fishermen, weavers and spinners, cottiers and itinerants.

Extremely impoverished circumstances often led to feats of improvisation – chairs fashioned out of tree stumps, for example, or the hole cut into the rough table top to hold an egg boiled over the kitchen fire in a house devoid of all but the most basic utensils. One of Kinmonth’s most striking photographs shows a very dilapidated early eighteenth century dresser from Co Wexford, whose bottom section has had the doors removed to make a shelter for laying hens. “The cats and the hens [and sometimes ducks and geese] put up with each other,” recalled one elderly owner of such a dual-purpose piece of furniture – just as the other occupants of the house lived informally, and – of necessity – cheek by jowl, sometimes going so far as to sleep “in stradogue”: that is, the whole family lying naked on piles of straw spread out on the floor, under a covering of blankets, and as close to the fire as they can get without setting themselves alight. (Sraideog in Irish means a mat or coverlet, or simply a bed on the floor.) A robust drawing of 1830 included among the illustrations shows a cottier tenant’s family merrily snoozing side-by-side in this manner, alongside the usual cow and pig, with piglets, turf, creepie stool and all. The effect is both alarming and diverting. And it’s cheering to find local versifiers capable of poking fun at themselves, like the stradogue sleeper who took a philosophical view of the business: “And as we had no other choice, / We all lay snug together.” With its sardonic tone in relation to personal privation, this is verse to keep the spirits raised. 

The Irish poor were not deficient in ingenuity, or in stratagems to alleviate aspects of the hard life. Surviving examples of their handy approach to basic manufacture include seats made out of butter boxes, flour sacks conscripted for use as bedding, and spindly tables constructed from thin tree branches nailed together. These are very rudimentary objects, only found in the lowest dwellings. But social gradations occurred in rural Ireland as much as anywhere else; and among Kinmonth’s most distinctive furnishings are products of an assured and dedicated craftsmanship. The better-off could afford to keep a well-appointed house, kitted out with low and high four-poster beds (one of the latter, a high-standing kitchen fireside “post bed”, appears in a decorative pen-and-ink drawing by Jack Yeats), polished oak or mahogany parlour tables, carved and inlaid chairs, comb-back chairs, sugan chairs, storage chests, creepie stools, and of course the ubiquitous “dresser filled with shining delph” (in the poet Padraig Colum’s words). These items were all within the means of the class of citizen known as “the strong farmer” – a class exemplified in Mary Carbery’s detailed and atmospheric reminiscences of her Co Limerick childhood, The Farm by Lough Gur (1937), with its spinning women, stone shelves, butter churns, milk pails, ratter-cats, and old people unable to go to chapel “for want of suitable clothes”.

The shining delph is a captivating feature of kitchen equipment throughout the period in question, an acquisition to be aspired to – as in the Padraig Colum poem – or proudly displayed as a symbol of respectability. And it continues to delight vintage ceramics aficionados – among whom I’d have to place myself. Earthenware, stoneware, spatterware, and above all, spongeware, set my collector’s nose a’twitching. The last, once denigrated as crockery for the poor, consists of bowls, plates, mugs, jugs etc in plain white delph arrayed with a variety of sponged-on patterns. Flowers, leaves, birds, cows, cockerels, abstract bands and other simple, delicate markings enliven these often “imperfect” tokens of a bygone austerity and expediency. (Spongeware is impossible to replicate. Confronted with present-day reproductions, you can’t help being struck by the gulf between the idiosyncrasy and the accidental beauty of the originals, and the drab, insipid or vulgar specimens going by the same name today.) Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings contains some splendid images of nineteenth century spongeware and other ware, displayed in an appropriate setting. “The crockery shinin’, the table set”, said the poet Padraig Gregory, summing up a moment of domestic wellbeing.

When I edited The Ulster Anthology (published by Blackstaff Press in 2006) I called one section “Bright with Ancestral Delph”, and in it I assembled poems and prose passages enshrining a rural heritage of obsolete crafts, round white gateposts, perpetual turf fires, quilting sessions, the stool by the fireside, the dark clothes of former times. The title of this part of the book is taken from a poem by Siobhan Ní Luain from Glenravel in the Antrim Glens. Social progress allied to the eradication of hardship gets the poet’s approval, indeed (“The worst of the want is gone”), but she adds a note of caution to her assessment of practical advances in local life:

But something else has gone,
Something that grew by itself,
In kitchens flagged with stone
And bright with ancestral delph.

Siobhan Ní Luain was born in 1889 and died in 1970. Unlike her near-contemporary Nesta Higginson Skrine (say) – otherwise known as Moira O’Neill – she eschews undue quaintness, a factitious approach or a cloyingly cottagey style. She records details of the past, but doesn’t overload them with a wistful regret. Ní Luain’s verse is quite factual and conversational, and what she is taking into account in the lines quoted above is an endangered continuity, or a form of psychic integrity which can only come from a proper appreciation of the past. If old values cannot be entirely revered in retrospect, they can at least be considered with sympathy; and works like Claudia Kinmonth’s, committed to conservation and celebration, make a great contribution to the literature of retrieval and revaluation.

Contemplation of the riches of country craftsmanship to be unearthed and categorised has activated the author’s imagination and her scholarly, investigative impulse. She appraises and annotates with vigour. She makes short work of misleading tags such as “famine chair” or “Irish Windsor”, or other antique dealers’ simplifications. Always bearing in mind the role of household goods in forming a link “between the people and the world that is about them” (to quote another observation of Synge’s), she shows herself to be an adept historian of customs and manners, no less than objects. At the same time, she is an art historian whose study of 2006, Irish Rural Interiors in Art, began as an offshoot of the original Irish Country Furniture (a book well supplied with artists’ views of farmhouse interiors), but blossomed into a storehouse of sumptuous and telling depictions of (mostly) nineteenth century Irish domestic life. Some of these glowing examples of genre painting have now found their way back into the new Country Furniture book, adding to the variety and expressiveness of its pictorial side. Distinguished Victorian artists such as Howard Helmick and Erskine Nicol (among others) get a showing, with their potato eaters and rope makers and occasional merrymakers. 

Each of the book’s ten chapters is devoted to a particular article: “Beds”, “Tables”, “Cradles” and “Settles”, for example; and some of the chapter sub-headings have an intriguing ring about them – “The effect of flooring upon seat design”, “Spoon display”, “Sledge feet”, “The mether or madder”. Kinmonth has an eye for an oddity, whether it’s a dreadfully ungainly chair-table such as the one from Co Wexford pictured looming upwards like a figment of a nightmare, or the extraordinary religious object called God-in-the-Bottle. Unlike its secular counterpart, the Ship-in-a-Bottle, this was pretty simple in workmanship and usually contained just a plain wooden cross as a symbol of Christ’s Passion. (For this reason, the thing was also known as a Passion Bottle, which makes it sound like an aphrodisiac.) Its place in the typical farmhouse kitchen was on the “Holy Shelf”, a repository of lurid representations of the Sacred Heart and other Catholic impedimenta. Irish Country Furniture, aside from its primary purpose, provides insights into many unusual rites and expedients of the day.

Claudia Kinmonth’s book is a homage to Irish country matters and country materials, and also to country resilience. It is outstanding in its expertise and its engagement with different branches of history and cultural history. It is full of facts and details, of the riveting outcome of prodigious research and fieldwork, and of many visual enticements. It enlightens as much as it raises questions about the preservation and understanding of the past. You may not have known what a keeping hole, a dash churn, a stillion, a harnen stand, a piggin or a hedge chair were, but after reading this book you will.

1/3/2021

Patricia Craig’s Kilclief and Other Essays will be published later this month.

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