Ideal homes: a look at our obsession with domestic life
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