Wash day in The Claddagh

“With its old houses — straw for their roofs and rock and mortar for their walls, and every little end of a wall whitewashed a hundred times in blue or white or thin pink — the Claddagh was lovely, and from a distance it did the eye good. It was quaint, of course, but also a home-like little village; it had sand for its walks and a turfy marlish stuff for its floors, and always curls of smoke from its square low chimneys.

A woman is whitewashing a wall as we pass. She uses the broom to spray the wall, and then she goes pat, pat, pat with her broom as if to make the liquid take. Women are always carrying water from the taps in the lanes. Children, clad thinly enough, run along; babies roll at the doors; cats sit at the little windows in the sun; bird-cages, made at home, swing from the thatch roofs; shirts and quilts fly from the lines. A couple of live, green trees are at the edge of the Claddagh, and at the centre, one tree, more dead than alive, with its bare arms and fingers stretched out like bleached bones.

Inside one of the houses, a bit of a low fire is going in the open place; it is like coals on which to broil a fish; the furniture is a couple of worn little chairs, and a table made by this man or his father on bits of box board. In the corner, the bed, over which hangs an image of the Sacred Heart, is poorly cut off from the kitchen by a calico curtain.

A string of houses, end to end, is stretched up the side of a tiny hill. The soil here is a bit oozy and must be more clay than sand. In this area live the poorest and most shiftless. Probably no one in the village ever was rolling in money, and the times, that is to say the markets for fish, have not been good since the general come-down following the War.

We go into another house. Children are playing outside the door, they have all the equipment they need, a stick or two, plenty of pebbles, a dog and themselves. The kitchen in this house is big and clean and the people there say it is a shame that this good house, merely because it is a Claddagh house, has to be torn down and a smaller poorer one built for which they will have to pay rates.”

Some quotes there from God in an Irish Kitchen by Leo R Ward which was published in 1939, at the time they were replacing the old cottages with the houses that are there now. That is also the vintage of our photograph (courtesy of the Capuchin Archive ) which shows a woman taking advantage of a dry day to wash and dry the clothes. She would have collected water from a tap in one of the lanes, and washed the clothes in the basins or tub beside the door while sitting on the small stool. How did she wring out the clothes? The conditions for drying the clothes are less than ideal. It looks as if the house on the right has stepped up some furniture to help them climb up and reach the top of the clothesline. Some women may have done their washing at the steps down to the river at the Wolfe Tone Bridge. There was nothing romantic about wash day at the Claddagh. It was a hard slog.

The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society’s lecture will take place next Monday, February 8, in the Harbour Hotel at 8pm. It will be presented by Dr Mary Harris on the subject ‘The Visions of Eoin McNeill’. All are welcome.

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