Ideal homes: a look at our obsession with domestic life

Tue, Nov 27, 2012, 00:00

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.

Then there is the notion of the family, that shaky embodiment of home. The nuclear family seems to be humbug, a myth we really have to unmake. Going back 5,000 years, passage tombs and causewayed enclosures are more prominent gathering spaces than the timber houses the Neolithic farmers lived in, suggesting families didn’t spend much time at home.

In prehistory, families were subordinate to the wider kin-group that made up the workforce. For the early medieval people living in raths, cashels and crannógs, identity was rooted in the muintir or household. The muintir included relations by blood, marriage and fosterage; labourers and, unfortunately, slaves. As for the industrial age, and the 26,000 families living in tenements in Dublin in 1911, the 835 people living in 15 houses on Henrietta Street further disabuse the Victorian notion of the family. It is interesting that single people and the elderly became a problem for housing authorities in the 1960s – there weren’t enough small houses built.

What we have lost in the scrum for private ownership may be irretrievable. As the population became a mainly urban one, dormitory towns came up and green space was wrecked. An “obsession” with the land is identified in the chapter on suburbanisation. So is our craving for light, air, a garden and good view, all efforts to replicate the wilderness.

It’s hard to resist lamenting the loss of community. Until the mid-19th century, rural people built their dwellings together using vernacular traditions. In one account (1887), a fiddler accompanies men and women and children as they carry straw and timber on their backs, dancing and working until dawn, prolonging customs and superstitions.

In the final, 21st-century chapter, neighbours become potentially nasty, via planning issues and the party wall, a “site of intense dispute” and “centuries of legislation”.

One figure holds it all together, and she is on the cover of the book, stylised, a healthy redhaired maiden with her sleeves rolled up (the picture is taken from a 1900 pork butcher’s advertisement). She is stuck in Article 41.2 of the Constitution and indeed, we would have got nowhere without “her life within the home”. She has spent most of her life indoors, churning butter, spinning, lighting fires and undertaking complicated redecorating projects, for what it was worth. The home was, it is strange to think, an empowering place for her.

Domestic Life in Ireland, edited by Elizabeth FitzPatrick and James Kelly, is published by the Royal Irish Academy, €25.

MAGGIE ARMSTRONGis a production editor for the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy

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