In the late 18th century, it was mostly thatched houses with mud or slabbed floors that were seen throughout Ireland – just two rooms and a kitchen. The parents slept in the kitchen and a double bed was curtained off for a bit of privacy. They had very large families then maybe a dozen or so. The children all slept in the room behind the fire, a few beds with straw mattresses, that they made themselves. There was maybe a table with a jug and basin for washing, a candle and a little mirror and a chair for leaving their clothes on. The walls were adorned with Blessed pictures, and of course the Sacred Heart picture had pride of place.
The baby was always kept in the kitchen, as it was nice and warm, there was always a big fire there. If the mother needed to go out for turf, she would place the tongs across the cradle, so that the fairies would not take the child, as it was believed that some babies were taken and replaced with a delicate one (a changeling). The horseshoe was hung across the door for good luck. The houses had very small windows and a half door not to “keep out the hens” as you might imagine, but to save rent. The less light that was inside the house, the less rent you would have to pay. The Landlords were very strict.
Family, Cows and Hens all under the one roof
The other room was occupied by the cow and the hens. They were their pride and joy, as the cow supplied them with milk, butter, and cheese and the hens with eggs. A horse was kept for doing the hard work and also a few sheep. The wool was spun into knitting yarn to make socks and gansies. They would knit a pair of men’s thick socks in one night. They would not sit down to rest without knitting or sewing something. The manure from the cow and hens was thrown out the front window so there was always a pit of manure at the front of the house. This was to show the the landlord when he came for his rent, that the people inside the house were poor and he would reduce the rent.. If the manure was at the back of the house, it meant you had a shed for the cow and hens, meaning that you were well off and then the rent would be much higher. If the rent was not ready when he came, the people were evicted out into the street with no money.
People then ate very little meat and their main diet was potatoes and buttermilk. A big pot of potatoes was boiled each day and thrown into a “skib” a basket like utensil made from sally rods. The mother always left her thumb nails grow long so she could peel the spuds for the young ones. They all sat around on the floor and ate their fill. Then a pot of Indian meal – stirabout was hung over a low heat on the crane and left there for their evening meal. That they ate with a mug of skimmed milk.
It has been said that when the mare foaled they would keep the “cleanings” and dry it out. This was cut into shape to replace the glass on the windows – a very hardwearing substance indeed and it would not tear or wear out. This let in a little less light thus cutting their rent by half. Such hard times! They visited one another at night, told ghost stories and sang all the old ballads. They danced around the mud floors with their hob-nail boots – all to the light of a tallow candle which they made themselves.
So much, for the simple life. No radios, no televisions. The rosary was said and all retired to bed tired but extremely happy. Goodbye to the landlords. They were called the daylight robbers.