In the Vernacular

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The Irish Aesthete usually features houses that are somewhat larger than average but this week, by way of change, we turn our attention to a building of decidedly modest proportions. The townland of Ballilogue in County Kilkenny enjoys likewise humble status, located down a laneway with seemingly little to distinguish it from thousands of similar spots across the country. Also like so many other places, it was once more densely populated than is now the case. The 1901 national census records twenty-two houses in the townland, presumably all of them simple dwellings unremarkable except for the number of occupants. In one of these properties, for example, Cornelius Meaney, then aged 59 and one imagines a widower, lived alone. Not far away dwelt another member of the family John, together with his wife Bridget and their two sons, James and John aged two and one respectively. Ten years later, when the next census was taken, the household of Cornelius (now listed as being 70) had grown considerably: his 74-year old sister, another Bridget, lived with him, as did the younger Bridget by then the mother of seven children, the eldest (James) being twelve and Mary the youngest just three. Either her husband John had died in the meantime or had gone elsewhere in search of work to support his family. So the house where Cornelius lived alone in 1901 had eleven occupants in 1911, since the census also records the presence of a 29-year old servant called Michael Dunne, presumably a farmhand.

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By the 1911 census the number of occupied dwellings in Ballilogue had halved to eleven, with sixty-eight people living in the townland. A number of them were further members of the extended Meaney family, including 54-year old Patrick, together with his wife Mary, their five children and Edward Flynn who, although aged just fourteen, was already listed as being a ‘servant.’ All eight lived in the house shown here, the origins of which are believed to date back to the 1700s although subject to many changes since. In her truly excellent 1993 book on Irish Country Furniture, Claudia Kinmonth notes ‘By the nineteenth century in Ireland, the term cottage was used disparagingly, mainly by visiting English. The term is not used in this text as it was considered derogatory by country people, who called their homes houses, regardless of size and status.’ Accordingly we shall here refer to the Meaney House, not least because so it remained until only ten years ago, inhabited by successive generations of the same family before being acquired by the present owners.

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To quote from another splendid book, A Lost Tradition: The Nature of Architecture in Ireland written by Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin in 1989, typical Irish houses in the vernacular style ‘have a familiar character, cramped, linear spaces set out on a line of doors without beginning or end – in the manner of a Baroque palace with its rooms en enfilade.’ That link between Baroque palaces and humble Irish dwellings may seem fanciful, yet it is often the case that even the most unpretentious of houses derives inspiration from a grander type. McCullough and Mulvin continue by observing how these little buildings ‘have a natural classic balance in the arrangement of simple materials and structure, in the proportion of gables, the relationship between thick white walls and small square windows, in the heavy oversailing roofs and primitive trabeaten doorways.’ This perfectly describes the character of the Meaney House, which is typical of the dwellings occupied by the majority of this country’s population for hundreds of years, although compared to many of the others it can be considered relatively large and well-appointed.

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Traditional house types differed somewhat across Ireland, not least according to whatever materials were available for their construction, and how prosperous was the region. With regard to this part of the country, the Meaney House displays some familiar features of the Irish domestic dwelling, beginning with an entrance placed at the centre of the front and given a small porch in order to shield the interior from the worst effects of our weather. One then steps straight into the main space which, as was almost always the case, is dominated by a large hearth. This was used for cooking purposes (note the crane which allowed kettles and pots to be swung over the fire) but also provided a focal point for sociability: residents and visitors alike gathered here and the large recess beneath a hooded canopy supported by a massive beam running the width of the house allowed everyone to enjoy additional warmth. Immediately behind this is the house’s best room, the equivalent of a parlour, often kept for use only on special occasions and in the Meaney House distinguished by having a cast iron chimneypiece. On the other side of the central room are two bedrooms, with a ladder staircase in one providing access to another sleeping chamber immediately beneath the roof.

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Another common feature of these houses was the versatility of their furnishings. Because space was at a premium and occupancy levels high, very often items served several purposes. The most obvious example of this is the settle bed, which acts as a bench during the day but then at night the seat can be opened, the bedlinen stored inside spread out and a place for sleep thereby created. Dressers, on which china, kitchen and dining utensils would be kept, might have a lower section open except for a series of bars: chickens would be kept here at night to keep them save from predators. A side effect of this was that hens, benefitting from the warm environment, continued to lay eggs all winter.
Inside the Meaney House, as these pictures show, recesses in the walls were also used for storage, the doors’ interiors lined with pieces of patterned paper: those close to the hearth would often hold food that needed to be kept dry, such as tea, sugar and salt. The utilisation of every available space emphasised utility and frugality, but also a desire to maximise comfort in our relatively harsh climate.

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Today the Meaney House is part of a larger agglomeration of buildings restored and developed by the present owners as a retreat where guests may come to stay. When they acquired the house, it still held the greater part of the former owners’ possessions and a decision was taken to retain them in situ and to preserve the interior as an example of how most of our forebears lived until relatively recently. As little as possible was done to disrupt the building’s character or to alter its accumulated patina. For example the corrugated roof, certainly a 20th century intervention under which the older thatch still survives, was not changed. Similarly inside the house the concrete floor – again probably laid at the start of the last century as it would previously have been just compacted earth – has not been touched. The old pieces of furniture remain in place, as do most of the household goods and so forth. Some pieces previously kept out of sight are now on show: plates and platters have been arranged on one of the bedroom walls while pieces of broken china discovered in the immediate vicinity are arranged in a circle and framed. Likewise an assortment of abandoned footwear found outside has been placed on the shelves of an old pine hanging cupboard. These pieces, literal objets trouvés, further enhance the experience of visiting this little house and improve our understanding of its former residents. The Meaney House demonstrates that despite their poverty our ancestors could build with superior taste and a better understanding of the Irish environment than is usually the case today.

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For more information about the Meaney House and the many other marvellous facilities at Ballilogue, see: http://www.ballilogueclochan.com

Take a Seat

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An Irish mahogany chair in the entrance hall of Rokeby, County Louth. The house was built for Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, initially to the designs of Thomas Cooley (1740-1784) and then, following the architect’s early death, the job was taken over by Francis Johnston (1760-1829). This handsome chair is one of a set believed to date from the end of the 18th century and attributed to Mack Williams and Gibton. However, since that business was only established around 1812, the chairs could be earlier, made perhaps when John Mack was still working by himself (until 1801). They all bear a peer’s coronet so certainly belong to some date after Archbishop Robinson was created first Baron Rokeby in 1777. Perhaps the commission for them came from his third-cousin Matthew Robinson-Morris who succeeded to the title in 1794?
More on Rokeby soon.