This illustration is of an original pencil and watercolour painting by Francis Topham which now hangs in the Ulster Museum. It was painted in 1844, just before the Famine, and shows the interior of a cottage in the Claddagh.
Most of the light comes from the door on the right, and in the background you can see the smoke rising from a fire in the hearth. It looks as if they have bricks up the side of the fireplace, with a strong wooden lintel over it. The term ‘hearth’ is described as ‘the floor of the fireplace and the area in front of it’ and it was literally the heart of the home, the focal point around which household activities revolved. It was particularly important in the poorest homes where householders depended on the fire to heat the water for washing, to cook their food and that of their animals, to dry and iron clothes, to warm the house, and to preserve the thatch and roof timbers. The floor level hearth was appropriate for burning turf. Sometimes the fire sat on iron rods, under which was dug a shallow pit for falling ashes. This pit needed to be cleaned out regularly. The glowing embers, known as gríosach, were important for baking potatoes, for heaping on the lid of the pot oven when baking bread, or for stewing a kettle of tea. No bread tasted like bread baked in this way.
Potatoes were often boiled in a cast iron three legged pot over the fire, and then strained in to a skib, or shallow basket. This skib was then placed on a table if they had a table, or balanced on something, sometimes on a circle of knees of the surrounding family who ate the potatoes directly from it with their hands. The usual drink was buttermilk. The hearth was the obvious place for people to gather in the evenings, and the usual place to put lights.
The hearth could depict a warm sense of security or a stark sense of deprivation. It would appear that the artist painted this cottage interior as he saw it. The open rafters and the crooked support beside the doorframe were certainly what he saw, as coastal homes took advantage of supplies of driftwood and timber from shipwrecks to build houses and make furniture.
Mending and making nets were tasks which often kept the women of fishing families occupied. Our painting shows a woman in the background sitting to either mend or make a net, which is draped half way up a ladder near the door. This allows her to spread it out. She wears a pale cap, so perhaps it is her daughter, who is barefoot and has her head uncovered, who has the task of holding the baby. Many households in the Claddagh would spin their own cord or net thread. They used a spinning wheel to twist together two yarns to create a stronger two-ply cord especially for nets. Making nets involved repeated knotting with a wooden needle, and the same tool was used for mending nets. There is not enough light in this cottage to be able to see those details.
Neither is there much furniture in evidence. It would have been basic, possibly a table, a form or two, maybe chairs, a milk churn, a dresser. The wooden shutter we can see behind the support on the left might well have been the door of a cupboard built into the wall. The poorest families slept communally on the floor, some had straw beds, others had a raised bed against the wall and close to the fire. Sometimes the bed was propped on stones or turf to keep it off the damp floor. Those who could afford it had a settle bed, usually kept near the fire. It was used as a seat during the day, and at night it could be unhinged outwards and down onto the floor to make a double bed, enclosed on all sides. Sometimes the baby’s cradle was hung from the roof on súgán ropes so that it could be near the warmth of the fire without taking up the limited floor space. These cradles were made from wood or wicker, or sometimes, straw.
This painting gives us a stark reminder of the conditions some of our ancestors lived in, and remember, it was painted just before the Famine. Obviously many people in the Claddagh would have been better off, but we presume the artist painted this interior as typical of the time.
This image, as well as most of the information today, is from a remarkable book entitled Irish Rural Interiors in Art by Claudia Kinmonth, published by Yale University Press. It is essentially a social history as seen through the eyes of a number of Irish and visiting artists. It evokes the hardships and celebrations of all kinds of people, old and young, men and women, their types of dress, their childcare, their weddings, wakes, etc. Very highly recommended. Available in good bookshops.