Vol. 11 No. 1 - 2019
In the late 18th and 19th centuries the traditional Irish cottage was the dominant dwelling house in the built landscape across Ulster. Estyn Evans in “Irish Heritage” comments, “Lacking nearly every architectural consciousness, and at the same time every kind of imported material, the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background, but melts into it”. Such cottages tend to be single storied rectangles, 12 to 15 feet wide, and of varying length. They were usually whitewashed both inside and out, and had a roof of thatch. The settlement pattern they formed was frequently dispersed along roads.
In Annaloist, a townland on the south shore of Lough Neagh, between Derrymacash and Kinnego, most of the traditional cottages dated back to1791 when John Henry Burgess, who had leased the land from Brownlow, gave leases to 23 tenant farmers, who were also mostly weavers.
The leases were mostly for three lives. The lease expired when all the 3 persons named in the lease died – hence the inclusion of children’s names. “If a renewal clause was included in the lease, a new name, on payment of a renewal fine, could be inserted. The 3 lives renewal lease was therefore a perpetuity as long as the tenant wished to renew it. Once the lease expired the landlord alone was the owner of the land.” (Aspects of Irish Social History.)
For the purpose of this article the comments are based on our Great Grandparents’ cottage, standing on 8 acres of land which ran from the sandy shore of Lough Neagh to the River Closet. The cottage comprised 2 bedrooms, a weaving shop and a kitchen. There was no hallway or corridor: one room opened off another. In the mid nineteenth century a barn/store was added – used to store the fine crop of Bramley apples that were picked each autumn from the apple trees in the back garden. Here too was kept “The hens’ bucket” where any scraps of food left uneaten were mixed with meal. Coal was also stored behind the door in a portioned-off area.
The traditional Irish kitchen served as living room, dining room and kitchen for the storage, preparation and cooking of food. A large deal table stood in one corner. It had been made in situ, for its dimensions were such that it would not fit through the door. Professor Evans reminds us that that the table in Ireland “is not the centre of social activities and has nothing like the importance as in an English farmhouse”.
In Ireland “the kitchen and the hearth are the very core of the Irish house”. Homemade furniture was a feature of the Irish cottage. In an outhouse was a baby’s cradle, chest-like in structure with solid sides and rockers. It was filled with straw, and presumably, a piece of blanket was spread on top – a cosy nest for the baby. The mother could spin and rock the cradle. There was only a front door which opened into the kitchen. On the eve of May Day the children of the house collected May flowers, and would strew these on the doorstep to ward off ill-luck.
To the left of the fireplace, against the jamb wall – a partition wall that ran half way across the kitchen, and prevented a draught from the door – was the turf-box. It was a sturdy piece of furniture, of the dimensions of a single bed. Indeed, that was its original function, a cosy place for the elderly grandparent in an era of the extended family. The traditional dresser displayed the usual blue and white willow pattern delft. Estyn Evans suggested “the adoption of delph and tea drinking in the 18th century accelerated the spread of the dresser”. He suggests it belongs to the “Atlantic” province of folk-culture. At right angles to the dresser was a cupboard.
In the opposite corner was a large chest, referred to by the family as “the kist”. This is a Scottish term for chest which had a hinged lid, and inside were stored food items. Above this were shelves used to display moustache cups – cups that had only a narrow part for drinking so that those men with a moustache could drink their tea without getting their moustache wet! As well there were ornaments brought back from holidays in Bangor, Newcastle or Warrenpoint. The chairs had been home made by a skilled carpenter. They had ladder-like backs and the seats were twisted straw or rush. One wooden chair that had a semi-circular back and a cushion on the seat was referred to as “Grandfather’s chair”.
Originally the roof was of thatch, later covered with corrugated zinc. The walls were whitewashed annually. The floor had large tiles about a foot square, and brownish yellow in colour. Originally the floor would have been hardened mud. The house was always kept spotlessly clean. The open fire was used for cooking, to dry clothes in the damp weather, while the warmth brought comfort to the family, kept the thatch dry and preserved the roof timbers. A wrought iron crane was across the fireplace, and from this hung an adjustable pot- hanger. Here was suspended the kettle over the fire to boil water, the pot to cook potatoes and the dutch-oven in which were baked apple tarts. On the lid of the oven, which was concave, were piled burning turf. The slow burning qualities of turf were ideal to maintain a “steady heat”.
A griddle was hung on the hook to cook traditional soda bread and potato bread. Apple bread was a real delicacy – apples were sliced and spread on potato bread dough, which was folded over – cooked on one side on the griddle, then turned over to cook the other side. It was served hot - the apples spread with sugar and butter. The three legged pot, sometimes described as “the maid of all work” was suspended from the pot-hanger to boil potatoes for “man and beast”.
The kitchen had two windows looking out to the back garden. The window sills were very deep, usually 20 to 30 inches - ideal for pot plants. Red geraniums which seemed to be perpetually in bloom were favoured. One window looked out to the front area, referred to as “the street”. To the right of the fireplace was the paraffin lamp which gave a mellow glow to the room on winter evening. Again this emphasises the significance of the fireside.
There was a loft above the kitchen, reached by a ladder. This was used as sleeping accommodation for the children in the household. In this particular instance drinking water had to be carried from a neighbour’s well, 150 or more yards distant. For personal washing rainwater collected from the roof into a barrel was used. It was said the rainwater was good for the skin – kept it soft!
The weaving shop was down two steps from the kitchen. It was said that two looms operated in this room. The man of the house traditionally did the weaving as operating the hand loom was heavy work. An apprentice may have operated the second loom. The remains of an old loom were in an outhouse. In the early 20th century the weaving shop was transformed into a parlour, furnished with a leather suite and large sideboard. However throughout the 19th century it was the weaving of the famous Irish linen that gave those engaged in it a reasonable standard of living. They had a ‘value added’ product to sell.
At the back of the house was a small flower garden, where typical cottage garden flowers flourished – scented roses, phlox and lilies. All around the big garden, where the apple trees grew, were clumps of daffodils, a blaze of yellow every spring.
The outbuildings comprised a stable for the donkey, and also housed the cart: there was a byre for two cows and a small piggery. The hen house had home-made nest boxes, with straw in the bottom. Hens were valued not only for the eggs they laid, but also for the meat they provided on special occasions like Christmas and Easter.
In the 19th century the household was largely self-sufficient. Milk from the two cows was churned thus producing butter and buttermilk. There was a story told of a red haired woman, who suddenly appeared once and took over the churning chore from Great Grandmother! Outside the byre was a sally tree (willow). When the house was thatched, sally rods or scallops were used to pin down the thatch. This sally tree still stands, and is a useful marker for the location of the house. Also in the 19th and early 20th centuries the family kept a small boat anchored on the bank of the Closet River. This was used for fishing for trout, pollan and eels on Lough Neagh.
As a result of the Report by Sir Robert Matthew in the 1963 the new city of Craigavon was created two years later and the land at Oxford Island, Annaloist was vested as an amenity area. As a result the old cottage was demolished, along with others in the vicinity. Those that do remain in the townland have been altered and upgraded to 21st century standards. In a few it is still possible to identify the 1791 form.