The Hearth

Hearth

The Hearth played a vital role in traditional Irish family life and all human life revolved around it. Apart from warmth and light, the fire provided the only means for cooking food, for boiling water and for drying clothes.

A seat beside the fire was a seat of honour.

The main fuel was turf, which was burnt at floor level upon a stone slab or cobbled surface. In places where coal was burnt, the fire was raised off the floor and sometimes a bellows was installed to aid the draught.

When cooking, pots were either hung over the fire from a pot-hook or crane, or put standing on a triangular-shaped trivet. Everyday soda bread was baked fresh, in a pot oven, or further north, on a flat griddle.

Seating

Seating

In an Irish country home, life centred round the fire, which was usually set at floor level. In the early nineteenth century, seating often consisted of small stools, which allowed the maximum number of people sit close to the heat. Before chimneys became common, these low stools also ensured people were sitting below the smoke level.

In the early twentieth century, butter boxes were sometimes turned upside down and re-cycled as stools. Long benches, called ‘Forms’ often provided seating on either side of the kitchen table and were pushed under it when not in use.

Súgán chairs were common until the mid twentieth century. Súgán is the Irish term for rope, which was made by two people twisting hay or straw into a length using a ‘twister’.

The Dresser

The Dresser in Foleys

During the nineteenth century, the kitchen dresser became one of the most important pieces of furniture in an Irish country home. Usually made of painted pine, the housewife used its shelves to proudly display her colourful china and willow pattern ware. 

Plates were often displayed leaning forward against horizontal guardrails, which prevented a build up of dust. Cups and jugs were suspended from hooks, while spoons were sometimes hung, their bowls upwards, from slots cut into a shelf. The central ‘bed’ of the dresser formed a useful worktop for food preparation and cutting bread. 

The base of the dresser could be open or closed. It was used for storing large cooking utensils, pails of milk, water, or even a hatching hen.

The Meal Bin

The Meal Bin in Kissanes

The Meal Bin was once an important piece of furniture in an Irish country kitchen. It was used to store flour and meal, especially oatmeal, for the family and was, therefore, usually fitted with a lock.

The Meal Bin consisted of a large wooden chest with a sloping, hinged lid. Internally it was usually divided into two, or sometimes three, compartments.

Like the dresser, the size of the Meal Bin often reflected the wealth of the farm. A wealthy or ‘strong’ farmer usually required a large Meal Bin. With the passage of time, flour and oatmeal became available from shops in small amounts. The Meal Bin therefore fell out of use and it is now a rare piece of furniture.

The Settle

The Settle in Quilles

The settle-bed served as a seat by day and as a bed by night. It was usually positioned along the back wall of the kitchen near the hearth. The seat was hinged to open out onto the floor to form a long box bed for children, a servant or a wandering traveller.

The seat of the settle-bed did not always provide a comfortable seat, being often high off the ground. However, the high back would have provided the sitter with protection from a cold, damp, wall. Usually made of painted pine, settle-beds were common in nineteenth and early twentieth century farmhouses.

In the south and west of Ireland, the settle often consisted of a seat, wide enough for sleeping on, but without the closed-in box bed.

The Table

The Table in Kissanes

Traditionally the Table has played a minor role in Irish rural life. Many homes did not possess one until the latter part of the nineteenth century. When present, it was usually pushed against the front wall, near a window for light.

Surviving tables are of pine and usually have square legs. Beneath the table-top, a pair of parallel stretchers provided stability. They also provided a useful place for storing pots and pails.

Potatoes formed the main diet of the people until the Famine of the 1840s.

Traditionally people ate these from a communal basket while sitting on low stools. The basket was often balanced upon the steaming pot in which the potatoes had been boiled. The low stools ensured people were sitting beneath the layer of turf smoke.

The Flat Iron

Flat Iron

Ironing was carried out using flat, metal, irons, which were first heated by the fire. Usually a second iron was put heating while the first was in use. Alternatively hot coals or an iron ‘slug’ could be inserted into the base of a ‘box iron.’ Either way, ironing was a hot, difficult, task.

Tin Baths

Tin Baths

Monday was washday, a day of hard, physical work for the housewife before piped water became commonplace.

Water, often rainwater collected in barrels, was heated over the open fire. The clothes were then washed in a metal washtub, where they were rubbed vigorously against a wooden washboard to remove the dirt.

Soft rainwater needs little soap to work up a lather and red carbolic soap was usually used as the cleaning agent.

Reckitt's Blue

Reckitt's Blue

Reckitt’s Blue was added to the final rinse on washday to produce a ‘whiter than white’ appearance.

Skip to content