Ideal homes: a look at our obsession with domestic life
The Irish home has changed down the years, and has reflected the evolution of both kinship and tastes
Away from it we pine, in it we fight; wanting one of our own, we go mad.
Friedrich Engels was quite right when he said about the Irish, in 1888, that “People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more”.
We have long struggled to create and maintain a place called home, but a look at the shady portals of privacy, from the fourth millennium BC to the Celtic Tiger, shows there are patterns when it comes to questions of taste and tenure.
There is the absurdity of prestige. Who knew that displaying meat carcasses in middens was how elites in the 5th century showed off. And the anomaly of the “good” room in a big old Dublin house: cold, uninhabited, used about once a year. It is a ghostly remnant of extravagance and display.
For the Georgians, redecorating filled the vacuum, as women went about selecting materials for repainting, cornicing and stuccoing their first-floor parlour rooms in neoclassical styles.
But after the 1800 Act of Union, and the middle-class evacuation to the suburbs, the “ruined drawing rooms of 18th-century Dublin” (in writer Tom Kettle’s words) became slums. The 1901 census tells us there were 59,263 tenement houses in Dublin, 69,981 in Belfast. These degraded living spaces were overcrowded, damp and diseased. They were reasonably compared with Calcutta. Furniture, for the worst-off such as bricklayers and dockers, was a luxury.
Meanwhile, the Victorian middle classes were frequenting auctions, filling their domiciles with ornate bric-a-brac. We have collected pots and pretty things since the Vikings and Normans invaded. Household fripperies have become clutter, clutter we have made job descriptions out of how to get rid of. The pianoforte was an important decorative piece and mark of manners. How many of you still don’t know what to do with your pianofortes?
Because of the boomtime vogue for housing extensions, the kitchen has become the central living space. Activities long confined to sculleries become shared and visible. If we end up in the kitchen at parties, it’s because we gravitate to the hearth, once our source of light, heat, food, crafts, sociability, the “crucible of continuity” as folklorist Henry Glassie said. These are reminders of how environmentally ruinous we have become compared to the medieval outdoor cooking hearths, the hearths that welcomed visitors in tower houses, and the floor bed by the kitchen hearth, where some 19th-century cottiers slept to keep warm.