Room at the Top – An Irishman’s Diary about an architectural institution of bygone times
Clare cottage. “The Room was where we kept the family pictures, mainly. It tended to be cold unless there was a fire lit, which was seldom.”
In the house where I grew up, as in most country houses of the time, there was a room known only as “The Room”. Townies might have called it the “sitting room” – and we did sit in it sometimes – or the “living room”. But most of our living was done in the kitchen, or the bedrooms upstairs.
The Room was where we kept the family pictures, mainly. It tended to be cold unless there was a fire lit, which was seldom. Only when you were oppressed by the anarchy of a seven-sibling household might you seek asylum there.
When well pre-heated, The Room was of course where we received any VIP guests. Its finest such hour may have been an occasion circa 1970 when my father – a Fianna Fáil councillor – allowed us to stay up past bedtime one night to meet a man who arrived in a chauffeur-driven car.
The guest had a rather posh accent, so much so that for years afterwards, my mother delighted in doing a very bad but affectionate impression of the way he had pronounced the word “butter”. His name was posh too – Erskine Hamilton Childers.
But he was our local TD then, parachuted into Monaghan as part of a cunning plan to persuade the local Protestants to vote Fianna Fáil, for a change.
And not only was he a government minister, he would later become president, earning my parents a ticket to the inauguration ball, an event whose grandeur put the butter-pronunciation incident into the shade.
“The Room” was not unique to our part of the country. It was a generally-recognised phenomenon of Irish life once, well known to social historians and dating back to a time when many houses had few if any rooms to choose from.
As late as the 1950s, in his book Irish Folk Ways, E Estyn Evans could write that most farmhouses here were single-storey rectangles of three rooms – a kitchen in the middle, a bedroom at one end, and “the best room, called simply ‘the room’” at the other.
In Gaeltacht areas, he added, “the room” was also known as “the west room”, suggesting that houses were deliberately aligned on an east-west plane.
This also explained, Evans suggested, certain supernatural beliefs associated with the arrangement.
Mind you, as he pointed out, the Irish for west, “iarthar”, also meant “back”, a point he illustrated with a funny story about a child who was asked why he hadn’t washed behind his ears and explained, as translated, that the area was “too far west”.
But another famous visitor to Ireland, the anthropologist Conrad Arensberg, also noted the west room phenomenon.
Researching his Harvard doctorate in the 1930s, Arensburg immersed himself in a rural community in Clare.
The resultant book was a landmark, partly – as the New York Times wrote decades later – “because it was the first study of a European culture in a field that had previously concentrated on people in loincloths”.
Anyway, the house where the Harvard man stayed followed the classic pattern of bedroom, kitchen, west room.
And the west room was where his hosts kept all mementos, including “pictures of the dead and emigrated members of the family”.
But he also noticed over time that it had a supernatural significance, usually unspoken.
Any local “fairy paths” were ascribed to that side of the house. When food or water was left out at night, it was left there. It was also a given that no outhouse or shed would ever be added onto that end.
Such a building would be “in the way”, Arensberg learned.
Of what was never specified.
But he recorded that among the 26 houses in the area, none had a shed on the western side.
Noting that wakes were usually held in the west room, Evans suggests a link with the setting sun. And he too reported the bad luck associated with extensions: “Death within a year is said to be the fate of the Mayo man who lengthens a house by adding to the west end.”
I don’t know whether such lore extended to our part of Ireland in the years when my grandfather built his house there; although, interestingly, it too was constructed on an east-west axis, gable to the road, like many of its contemporaries.
The modern bungalows that surrounded us by the 1970s were almost all, by contrast, on the opposite plane. But there, in our case, the old ways must have ended. “The Room” was on the eastern end of the house.
And bad luck be damned, we had sheds at both ends.