Is an artisan cottage too bijou for baby?

We found it a squeeze to rear one child in the space that might once have housed six kids

97 Harold’s Cross cottages, where Anthea McTeirnan and Kevin Webster tried to bring up their first-born son

97 Harold’s Cross cottages, where Anthea McTeirnan and Kevin Webster tried to bring up their first-born son

 

Before anyone accuses me of throwing a pity party, let me say that I know I am not the first person to have lived like this – in a tiny cottage where you would have trouble swinging a dead cat.

Nor will I be the last person to try to raise a baby in an “artisan” cupboard. If any millennials actually get to procreate before their fertility window slams shut, they will probably have to do the same. It was called a recession in the late 1980s. It’s called austerity now. Same wine in new, screw-top bottles.

These days estate agents make money by selling the tiny cottages of Dublin with their chipped, pastel plasterwork as “bijou”, but once they were cold, crowded places built to house all sorts of humans of Dublin. According to the census, at the turn of the last century the cottages at Harold’s Cross housed silver polishers, millers, dressmakers and brewery labourers – occupations now back in fashion.

According to the 1901 census, the cottages of Dublin were also chock-full with “scholars”. Did that mean they were stuffed to the rafters with people who would go on to write entire books in one sentence? Not necessarily. Once you were over five you graduated to “scholar”. This might have meant you went to your local school and wrote on slates with chalk while being slapped or, more likely, you were schooled at home by your mam, who would show you how to use a mangle and peel root vegetables.

The Bacons lived in Harold’s Cross Cottages, Dublin 6, in 1901. Dad Joseph was a bricklayer, and mam Christina was fully occupied doing other things, including using a mangle and peeling root vegetables due to the fact that Christina and Joseph had six children living with them at No 224.

Sage advice

Those six children would loom large in my life while I squeezed my pregnant rump into 97 Harold’s Cross Cottages as my partner and I awaited the imminent arrival of child number one.

And when child number one arrived I seized the opportunity of my winter of content to ask older women who had lived in the cottages much longer than I had how the heck people managed to bring up children in these ridiculously small urban hutches.

How did the mothers cope? They put the kids outside for the fresh air, for the quiet, for the sanity. 

If I had looked around the few square yards we were living in, bathless, squeezing past a storage-heater to get out the front door with a ridiculously big buggy and with a backyard that only had room for a small puddle, I might not have needed my neighbours’ mature recollection.

The older women of Harold’s Cross Cottages laughed.

How did the mothers cope? They put the kids outside. In the pram, in the street, in the same clothes they would wear to sleep in. They would put the kids outside. For the fresh air, for the quiet, for the sanity. The kids would only come inside the cottage to eat and to sleep, they said.

By Jove I think they had it, I thought. Then I disappeared inside my tiny cottage, taking the baby and the buggy with me lest my darling child be snatched as he slept unattended in the car-free sun. Anyway I had flash-cards he really should know before he was four months.

Every day, come rain or shine, we would head to the park between the commuter traffic in Harold’s Cross, where woodchips and rubber-coated play equipment had yet to be thought of (or stumped up for). Here we would shoot down the inappropriately high metal slide. Then I would put my baby boy back into the buggy, fiddle with its tricky rain hood and walk the few hundred steps back to the cottage, where I would struggle through the door, baby under one arm, messages under the other, jamming the buggy between the front door and the storage heater.

Nowhere to crawl

Once inside, the child, who would never crawl because there was no room to, would pull himself from chair to sofa and back because there was nowhere else to go.

We were minimalist with toys. This was no bad thing, as it forced him to master the age-old Dublin art of eating cold ash the way it should be eaten – straight from the fireplace. The decision to put the children out into the street was looking more sensible by the minute.

In 1901 the Bacon children – Julia (9), Joseph (8), Christine (6), Thomas (4), Edward (3) and John (1) – had made the phrase “come in now, your dinner’s ready” look eminently sensible.

The cottage in Harold’s Cross was a fine place for two people in 1990, but the cot and the mattress were all that could fit into the “bedroom”. And we soon tired of stubbing our toes on toys in the dead of night and bathing the baby in a bucket.

Plus our cottage was rented. We could never have afforded to buy here. There was a recession on, after all. (I may have mentioned that.) The bright lights of Dolphin’s Barn, of that fabled home ownership and of not living in each others’ pockets, beckoned.

The three of us moved, bought a house and started to spread our load. Then another baby came along.

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