Folklife Collections FAQs
Read our most frequently asked questions about the Folklife Collections
- Did local people catch and eat such delicacies as lobster and oysters?
- Does the Museum have a traditional house on view to the public?
- How did the National Museum of Ireland form its furniture collection?
- How is sponge-ware made?
- How many people lived in a typical house?
- How many rooms would a typical house have?
- How much raw material is needed to thatch a roof?
- How old are the objects in the Museum’s Irish country furniture collection?
- Is thatching still a common method of roofing a traditional style house?
- Were ceramic and earthenware pieces used for everyday eating and drinking?
- Were firearms used much for hunting in Ireland?
- What activities typically took place on the farm?
- What areas of Irish commercial activity are being sought by the Museum for the collection?
- What determined the choice of building materials for a house?
- What ironwork did the local blacksmith make for use in the home?
- What is a harvest knot?
- What is a relic?
- What is a reliquary?
- What is Lent?
- What is sponge-ware?
- What is the National Museum of Ireland interested in collecting in the future?
- What is threshing and how was it carried out?
- What materials did people use to build their houses?
- What other factors did people think about when building their house?
- What other materials were used for roofing houses?
- What other types of objects were used in the Irish home?
- What parts of Ireland does the furniture come from?
- What tools are used to thatch a roof?
- What type of glass is collected for the Irish Folklife collection?
- What types of roof did traditional Irish houses have?
- What types of wood were used to make Irish country furniture?
- What variations exist in thatched roofs?
- What was a cailleach?
- What was a quarter day?
- What was the most common implement on the Irish Farm?
- What were the main types of traditional fishing techniques at sea?
- What were the most common sorts of plough?
- What were the Penal Laws?
- When did such objects stop being used in the Irish home?
- When is St Brigid’s Day?
- When is St Patrick’s Day?
- Where can I find information about a specific business or shop?
- Where can I find out more about Domestic Metalwork, Blacksmithery and Sponge-ware?
- Where can I find out more about Irish traditional Religion and Calendar Customs?
- Where can I find out more about traditional fishing and hunting in Ireland?
- Where can I find out more about traditional Irish agriculture?
- Where can I find out more about traditional Irish professions and commercial activity?
- Where can I find out more?
- Which of the professions are represented in the collection?
- With so much fish available off the coasts why did people starve during the Great Famine of 1845 - 1850?
Did local people catch and eat such delicacies as lobster and oysters?
Not very much. The lobster fishery was not developed until the late 19th Century and then, as now, was aimed at export to London and Paris. The oyster fishery was similarly oriented and soon led to depletion of many oyster beds.
Does the Museum have a traditional house on view to the public?
In Summer 2003 the Education Department at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, undertook a house building skills project. Skilled craftspeople worked in the grounds of the Museum to demonstrate and explain the variety of materials, tools and techniques that were used at different times in building traditional houses in Ireland.
The resulting structure was made from the sustainable, managed and renewable natural resources of wood, earth, stone and straw, and sourced locally, as was the case for many thousands of years in the vernacular dwellings of our ancestors.
Tours and workshops to explain the project and demonstrate skills such as wattle weaving, thatching and lime-washing are held at regular intervals or can be pre-arranged for groups.
How did the National Museum of Ireland form its furniture collection?
Some items were collected by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s, but most of it was acquired during the house “clearances” in the 1960s. Many more pieces were acquired from private collectors from the 1970s to the 1990s.
How is sponge-ware made?
A pattern is cut into the sponge, which is then dipped in colour. This is applied to a piece of bisque-fired pottery, which is then dipped in glaze and fired again.
How many people lived in a typical house?
Large families could live in relatively small houses. Pieces of furniture such as the settle bed and press bed were especially useful. The settle was a long seat during the day and a bed at night and the press bed could be folded away during the day, both providing a place to sleep but saving space and fulfilling other functions during the day.
Many houses feature an outshot protrusion in the building, usually next to the hearth, into which a bed was built. The grandparents or the most elderly family member would sleep in the outshot to take advantage of the heat of the fire.
How many rooms would a typical house have?
Houses varied in size and design. The kitchen and living space generally occupied the central area of the house and a bedroom may have been situated beyond the living space at the end. There may also have been a parlour (or good room), which would be used to display the best of the families possessions and kept for important visitors such as the parish priest.
How much raw material is needed to thatch a roof?
The typical thatched roof had a layer of sods (either earthen or turf) on top of rafters and laths, onto which the thatch was fixed. This sod layer served as a draught-proof insulating layer and fireproof barrier.
A variety of materials are used for the thatch such as water reed, rye, wheat, oat, and barley straw, sedge, flax, rushes and heather. Large volumes of hazel and willow, as well as bramble, are used as scollops (pins) and rods. Súgan (straw) ropes are used as binders. Approximately three acres of straw and 4,000 scollops are needed for a typical roof.
How old are the objects in the Museum’s Irish country furniture collection?
The vernacular furniture tradition was established fairly late in the 18th Century in Ireland, when a new class of prosperous farmer emerged. Very little survives from earlier times. The furniture in the Museum’s collection generally dates from the mid-19th to the early 20th Centuries.
Is thatching still a common method of roofing a traditional style house?
Though thatch is an intrinsic part of our vernacular architecture, it has been in sharp decline since the late 1950s. Water pollution and fertilisers, coupled with a change in the UV rays of sunlight, acid rain, and increased levels of rain and wind all make thatch less durable. It is also very labour intensive and therefore expensive. The production of straw and reed for thatching in Ireland has virtually collapsed and the vast majority of thatch materials are now imported. Also, the skill is not passed down through generations as much as it once was.
Were ceramic and earthenware pieces used for everyday eating and drinking?
Ceramic pieces such as willow pattern plates and sponge-ware mugs and bowls were in everyday use, but they were highly valued for their decorative function, and took pride of place on the kitchen dresser. The decoration of the dresser was an indication of the wealth of the household.
Were firearms used much for hunting in Ireland?
Shotguns were the main firearm used for hunting. It was generally difficult to obtain a licence for anything else.
What activities typically took place on the farm?
Farming activities varied according the season. In early springtime the ground was prepared and ploughed for crops. Seaweed might be harvested as a fertiliser. In mid spring crops were planted. Many lambs and calves are born at this time.
In May and June, turf was cut for fuel. Cattle would be let out to pasture. During the summer, crops would be weeded. Hay was the first crop to be cut. Cut turf had to be turned to dry it out. Potatoes would be sprayed against blight.
The cereal harvest would begin in August and soon the first potatoes would be ready too. In September the turf would be brought home. Fruit and berries would be picked in September and October, root crops harvested through to December.
In the wintertime, fences and equipment would be repaired, drains cleared. Cattle would be housed and fed. Throughout the year, cows would be milked and markets regularly attended to buy or sell animals.
What areas of Irish commercial activity are being sought by the Museum for the collection?
The Museum is most interested in collecting tobacco related objects; product packaging; objects relating to mills and milling; and mart and co-op related objects.
What determined the choice of building materials for a house?
In any locality, both the weather and the availability of materials affected what was used to build a house, and therefore the style of the houses. Irish forests had been destroyed over the previous four centuries, so timber was not readily available. For most people the only source of building timber was the wood dug up from bogs or found on beaches. As a result, poor farmers had to rely on other local materials, such as stone, sod and clay to build their houses.
What ironwork did the local blacksmith make for use in the home?
The blacksmith produced a wide variety of goods and services for the local community. He made and repaired a wide range of domestic items, such as oatcake and bread toasters, rushlight holders, flesh forks, hardening stands, toasting forks, kettles, gridirons, pots, gridles and pans, and hearth cranes and attachments.
Very often the blacksmith showed his skill by adding decorative flourishes to his work, giving functional household items an attractive look.
What is a harvest knot?
Harvest knots were made using pieces of corn at the end of the harvest. Two or more pieces would be plaited to make the harvest knots, which were exchanged as tokens of affection at the end of the harvest.
What is a relic?
A relic is an object associated with a holy person or place. There are two principal types of relic. Firstly there are corporeal relics, that is parts of the bodies of holy people, for example teeth, hair or bones.
Then there are associative relics, which are objects that were used by the saint or were associated with the saint during his or her lifetime.
What is a reliquary?
A reliquary is a container made to hold the relics of a holy person or saint. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the object they were intended to house.
Sometimes the shape of the reliquary reflects the shape of the object it held. For example, cross-shaped relics were usually housed in cruciform reliquaries.
What is Lent?
Lent is a season of religious observance that takes place before Easter. It is traditionally 40 days long and begins on Ash Wednesday.
In Ireland, this season was traditionally marked by fasting and abstinence from meat, eggs and dairy products.
Prior to the privation of Lent, people feasted on those foodstuffs which would soon be forbidden, using up their remaining stock. On Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Lent, pancakes were made to use up surplus eggs, butter and milk.
What is sponge-ware?
Sponge-ware is a patterned pottery that became widespread in the late 19th Century as the general population’s prosperity increased. Mugs, plates and bowls were available with sponged patterns, and though the body of the item was much coarser than the fine china of wealthier dining tables, the bright colourful patterns were very attractive.
Relatively few pieces have the maker’s mark; it is thought much of the earthenware was made in England and Scotland, though Belleek and Arklow potteries are known to have produced sponge-ware.
What is the National Museum of Ireland interested in collecting in the future?
The Museum is actively looking for items of furniture that date from the 18th and early 19th Centuries. We would also like to collect furniture from the provinces of Munster and Connacht; modern everyday furniture from the 1920s; and children’s furniture.
What is threshing and how was it carried out?
Threshing, related to ‘thrashing’, indicates that the grain crop was beaten in order to separate the edible grain seed from the inedible stalk. It could simply be beaten against a rock, or with connected sticks called ‘flails’. The process became mechanised with the use of hand-operated machines and later large belt-driven machines run from steam-engines or tractors. Combine harvesters would later combine the job in a compete process with reaping and winnowing.
What materials did people use to build their houses?
Prior to the 20th Century, most people used either stone or clay to build the walls of their home. Stone was preferred because of its durability, but if it was not locally available, clay (mud) served instead. Stone was more readily available in the north and west, while clay predominated in the east and south-east, but homes made of each type of material were found throughout the island. Walls were often covered with a layer of whitewash made from lime or seashells. Sod houses were usually temporary dwellings, built by labourers who moved from one locality to another in search of work.
What other factors did people think about when building their house?
The conditions of the landscape influenced how people built their homes. For example, people who lived along the west coast of Ireland were exposed to Atlantic storms, and built their homes with the strong end walls towards the sea. When possible, they located the building in the shelter of a valley.
What other materials were used for roofing houses?
When the material was locally available, farmers preferred stone to thatch, lending a special character to houses in certain areas of the country. Houses in Liscannor, Co. Clare were roofed with local sandstone flags, and slate was used on houses in counties as far apart as Donegal, Mayo, Waterford, Cork, and Tipperary. In the 20th Century, corrugated iron sheets tended to replace both stone and thatched roofs.
What other types of objects were used in the Irish home?
Before the widespread use of earthenware in our homes, a variety of other materials were used for making a range of household containers and utensils. The collection contains utensils carved from wood, horn and bone; as well as copper, pewter and tin vessels.
Turned or stave-built wooden noggins and piggins, used for holding liquids, were also used in the home.
What parts of Ireland does the furniture come from?
The majority of the collection comes from the provinces of Munster and to a lesser extent Leinster.
What tools are used to thatch a roof?
The principal tools and implements used are still the leggat, beetle or bat, a knife, a sheep shears, and a ladder. Reed pins serve as temporary tensioning tools. A stitching needle and a stoppler and a thruster are also used.
What type of glass is collected for the Irish Folklife collection?
The Irish Folklife collection of glass focuses on examples illustrating everyday use - bottles, drinking glasses and containers – rather than decorative glass, such as decanters.
What types of roof did traditional Irish houses have?
Roofs were built in two traditional forms. Hip roofs wrap around all four sides of the house and have a curved appearance. Gable roofs are more angular, with triangular sides (the gables). Though they were built all over Ireland, hip roofs were most common in the south and east. Gable roofs predominated in the north and west.
What types of wood were used to make Irish country furniture?
Irish country furniture from this period is usually made from pine. It became popular as a cheap, durable and easily crafted wood, and was therefore more accessible to the rural population. Painting pine furniture was a common practice; some were painted up to twice a year for both decorative and hygiene purposes. Older pieces often have many layers of paint obscuring the pine.
What variations exist in thatched roofs?
The choice of material used to thatch a roof affected its quality and appearance. Both wheat and rye straw had a long life span. Wheat was especially sought after as it was clean, uniform in length, and easy to prepare. If wheat or rye straw were not available, thatchers would use the most suitable fibre at hand — oat straw, barley straw, reeds, rushes, flax, or marram grass. Thatching techniques varied regionally and affected the appearance and quality of finished roofs.
What was a cailleach?
Cailleach is an Irish word meaning 'witch' or 'hag'.
At the end of the harvest an object called a cailleach would be made using the last sheaf. This would be presented to the woman of the house and hung above the table at a celebratory harvest meal.
It was thought that cailleach contained a spirit that inhabited the vegetation and could be heard moving around in the long vegetation during the harvest.
What was a quarter day?
The first day of each season was a quarter day. Spring was marked by St Brigid’s Day on 1 February, Summer by Bealtine on 1 May, Autumn began with Lúnasa on 1 August and winter by Samhain on 1 November.
These marked important times in the farming calendar and represent continuity in calendar customs from pagan times.
What was the most common implement on the Irish Farm?
It depends on the farm, but the spade was the single most common implement and existed on the smallest farm. In Ireland there was great local variety in spades, which were particularly adapted to potato cultivation and the making of cultivation ridges. Two sided spades spread from the north and east and were mainly produced in spade mills. One sided ‘loys’ were more common in the west and south-west and were mainly produced by blacksmiths. Only the two sided variety are now made. Special spades called ‘slanes’ were also produced for cutting peat for fuel.
What were the main types of traditional fishing techniques at sea?
The small boats, like currachs, that were traditionally engaged in fishing preferred line fishing to netting. Sometimes long lines, ‘spillets’ were used, which could be hundreds of metres long. Small boats engaged in pot fishing for lobster too.
Larger boats could better accommodate nets. Some nets were left to drift at sea, others used to trap shoals in a purse. Trawling was mainly developed by large powered boats.
What were the most common sorts of plough?
Metal ‘swing ploughs’, which had no wheels, were favoured in hilly and stony places. In better soil conditions, wheel ploughs were more common and made for easier ploughing. In a few places wooden ploughs were made by local craftsmen into the mid 20th Century. Ploughs were made in Ireland most notably by Pierce of Wexford.
What were the Penal Laws?
The Penal Laws were a series of laws passed between 1691 and 1727. They resulted in repression of worship by Catholics and excluded Catholics from holding political office. Catholic masses and worship had therefore to be carried out discreetly or even in secret at times.
Thus there were penal crosses, which were narrow and could be carried up one’s sleeve, and altar stones and mass rocks used to denote an often temporary place of worship.
When did such objects stop being used in the Irish home?
As improvements in living conditions in the lower and middle levels of society gradually improved into the 20th Century, many everyday objects of local manufacture – pots, pans, copper, tin and wooden utensils were dispensed with in favour of shop bought articles.
Many of the discarded objects were acquired by the Museum in the following years.
When is St Brigid’s Day?
St Brigid’s Day is on 1st February, the first day of Spring and the first day of the farmer’s year. St Brigid’s Crosses were made and hung in the home, as well as the byre and stable, to honour the saint and gain her protection. Crosses were made in four-legged and three-legged versions, usually from rushes.
When is St Patrick’s Day?
St Patrick’s day falls on 17 March and is a national holiday and church holiday. It celebrates St Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints who was a native of late Roman Britain and is often credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland in the fifth Century.
St Patrick’s crosses were traditionally worn on this day, as was shamrock. This three-leaved plant was said to have been used by St Patrick to explain the Trinity to the Irish.
Where can I find information about a specific business or shop?
Though the Museum has a small quantity of shop ledgers, invoices and receipts, the National Archives of Ireland is the main repository of the paper-based resources used for such research.
The National Library of Ireland holds a large range of commercial and trades directories from the 20th Century, and an extensive collection of local histories.
Where can I find out more about Domestic Metalwork, Blacksmithery and Sponge-ware?
David Shaw-Smith (Editor) Traditional Crafts of Ireland, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003.
Aldren A. Watson, The Village Blacksmith, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1977.
Jocelyn Bailey, The Village Blacksmith, Shire Publications, 1977.
Olive Sharkey, Ways of Old: Traditional Life in Ireland, O’Brien Press, 1985, 2000.
Olive Sharkey, Old Days, Old Ways: An Illustrated Folk History of Ireland, O’Brien Press, 1985.
Jaqueline Fearne, Domestic Bygones, Shire Publications.
Henry E. Kelly, Dorothy E. Kowalsky, Arnold A. Kowalsky, Spongeware 1835-1935, Makers, Marks and Patterns, Schiffer, Surrey, 2001.
Gillian Neale, Miller’s Encyclopedia of British Transfer-Printed Pottery Patterns 1790-1930, Millers, London, 2005.
Arnold A. Kowalsky, Dorothy E. Kowalsky, Encyclopedia of marks on American, English, and European earthenware, ironstone and stoneware (1780-1980) makers, marks, and patterns in blue and white, historic blue, flow blue, mulberry, romantic transferware, tea leaf, and white ironstone, Schiffer, Atglen, PA, 1999.
Thomas Plowman, Craft Pottery, Shire Publications, 1976/1980.
A.A.C. Hedges, Bottles and Bottle Collecting, Shire Publications, 1975.
Richard Hayman, Wrought Iron, Shire Publications, 2000.
Charles Hull, Pewter, Shire Publications, 1992.
David Sekers, The Potteries, Shire Publications, 1999.
Where can I find out more about Irish traditional Religion and Calendar Customs?
Augusteijn, J. (ed) (1999). Ireland in the 1930s: New Perspectives. Four Courts Press, Dublin.
Butler, A. and Burns, P. (2000). Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Carroll, D. (1999). Religion in Ireland: Past, Present and Future. Columba Press, Dublin.
Cronin, M. and Adair, D. (2002). The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick’s Day. Routledge, London.
Danaher, K. (1972). The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Mercier Press, Cork.
Donelly, J.S. and Miller, K.A. (eds). Irish Popular Culture 1650-1850. Irish Academic Press, Dublin.
Evans, E.E. (1957). Irish Folk Ways. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Fallon, B. (1998). An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960. Gill and Macmillan, Dublin.
Farmer, D. (2004). Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hughes, H. (1991). Croagh Patrick: An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage. Harry Hughes, Westport, Co. Mayo.
Marshall, R. (2003). Celebrating Irish Festivals: Calendar of Seasonal Celebrations. Hawthorn Press, Gloucestershire.
McMahon, S and O’Donoghue, J. (2004.) Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.
O’Loughlin, T. (1999). St Patrick: The Man and His Works. Triangle, London.
Roe, H.M. (1976). The cult of St Michael in Ireland. In: C. Ó Danachair (ed.) Folk and Farm. Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin.
Where can I find out more about traditional fishing and hunting in Ireland?
Séamas Mac An Iomaire, Cladaí Chonamara, An Gúm, Dublin 1985. Trans by P. de Bhaldraithe as The Shores of Connemara , Kinvara 2000.
C. Mac Carthaigh, ‘An tSaighneoireacht in Iarthar Chiarraí,’ in An Fharraige, Iris na hOidhreachta 5, An Daingean 1993.
Eiblhlín Ní Mhurchú – An tIascach a bhí – Céad Bliain , Mícheál Ó Cíosáin (eag), Baile an Fhirtéaraigh 1973, 194-212.
Críostóir Mac Carthaigh – Shark Hunting in Ireland, Maritime Life and Traditions, No 13, 2-15.’
Anne O’Dowd, ‘Resources of Life: Aspects of Working and Fishing on the Aran Islands in Book of Aran (194-220), ed Anne Korff et al, Kinvara.
Where can I find out more about traditional Irish agriculture?
Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park
Sligo Folk Park Museum of Irish farming and traditional life
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Ulster American Folk Park
Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson, Irish Farming, John Donald, Edinburgh, 1986
John Feehan, Farming in Ireland, UCD Dublin 2004
Olive Sharkey, Old Ways, Old Ways. O’Brien, BAC 1985 7 ó shin
Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways, Londain 1957
Lucas, A.T. ‘Furze, a survey and history of its uses in Ireland’, Béaloideas 26, 1-203
Ní Chinnéide, M agus Cussen, C. Bainne na Bó: bainne agus bánbhianna in Éirinn ó thús aimsire. BAC 1986
Majella Flynn, Harvest, A History of Grain Growing, Macroom 1996
Ó Fiannachta, Pádraig (ed). An Bhó. Iris na hOidhreachta 4, Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, 1992
Ó Danachair, Caoimhín. ‘The Spade in Ireland’, Béaloideas 31, 98-113
O'Neill, Tim, ‘Machinery on Irish Farms 1700-1981', in Gold Under the Furze, Gailey, Alan, Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (eds)
Séamas Mac Philib, ‘Folk Tradition and the Rural Environment’ in F. Mitchell (ed.), The Book of the Irish Countryside, 262-8. Town House/Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1987
Where can I find out more about traditional Irish professions and commercial activity?
Local histories of towns and counties are a useful source of information on commercial activities and shops operating in the area.
Thom’s Directory of Ireland (published annually) lists operating businesses with their addresses.
W.H. Crawford (instruction by), Industries of the North, one hundred years ago: industrial and commercial life in the North of Ireland, 1888-91, Friar's Bush Press, Belfast, 1986.
Eric G. Ayto, Clay Tobacco Pipes, Shire Publications, 1979.
J.T. Graham, Scales and Balances, Shire Publications, 1981.
W.A. Jackson, The Victorian Chemist and Druggist, Shire Publications, 1981.
Richard Tames, The Victorian Public House, Shire Publications, 2003.
Laura Mason, Sweets and Sweet Shops, Shire Publications, 1999.
Roger Putman, Brewing and Breweries, Shire Publications, 2004.
Where can I find out more?
Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Country Furniture, 1700-1950, Yale University Press, London, New Haven, 1993
Nicholas Loughnan, Irish Country Furniture, Irish Heritage Series no. 46, Eason & Son Ltd., Dublin, 1984
John Teahan, Irish Furniture and Woodcraft, Country House in association with the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 1994
Claudia Kinmonth, Irish Rural Interiors in Art, Yale University Press, London, New Haven, 2006
The Knight of Glin & James Peil, Irish Furniture: Woodwork and Carving in Ireland from the Earliest Times to the Act of Union, Yale University Press, London, 2007
David Shaw-Smith (Editor) Traditional Crafts of Ireland, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003.
Ken Kilby, Coopers and Coopering, Shire Publications, 2004.
Which of the professions are represented in the collection?
There is a small collection of objects relating to dentistry and medicine, as well as some legal papers.
With so much fish available off the coasts why did people starve during the Great Famine of 1845 - 1850?
The Irish fishing fleet was very small at that time and was particularly undeveloped on the west coast. Where there were boats they tended to be small open rowing boats, which could not easily take to sea in the often rough conditions. The amount of people that benefited from fishing at this time was therefore comparatively small.