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17th Century Furniture

17th century room

Ireland was gradually brought under English control during the 16th and 17th centuries. Few pieces of Irish furniture survive from this time. This was due in part to the religious wars which culminated in the overthrow of the Catholic Irish aristocracy, followed by land confiscation and forced transplantation.

The war and their rebellions, which have been so frequent here, have destroyed almost all their woods for both timber and firing.

- Thomas Dineley, 1681, English voyager

A period of relative stability followed with the restoration of the British king, Charles II, in 1660. Cities expanded and trade grew. Society remained sharply divided on religious and class lines.

Irish furniture of the early 17th century was made largely from oak. By this time English walnut trees, planted in the 1500s, had matured. From the 1660s walnut imports became fashionable.

Continental Influences

French and Dutch refugees, fleeing wars in Europe, brought continental styles and techniques. New types of furniture such as chests were introduced.

Carving, veneers (thin sheets of wood), and inlays of pearl, ivory, and contrasting woods became popular. Early chairs and stools had wooden seats with loose needlework cushions.

From the mid-17th century the Dutch style of cane seating appeared. Later, side chairs had upholstered or leather seats for comfort. Tall-backed chairs with richly-carved top rails became popular. Their stretchers, connecting and supporting the legs, were embellished by carved decoration and wood-turning.

In bed we laugh, in bed we cry; and born in bed, in bed we die; the near approach a bed may show of human bliss to human woe.

                      - Isaac de Benserade (1613-1691), French poet.

Beds were the most valuable pieces of furniture in Irish houses during the 17th century. Symbols of status and power, beds are recorded in various household inventories. Tester beds, fastened to the walls with supporting posts, were standard in noble houses until the 1680s. Luxurious decorative curtains hung from rails which passed around the edge.

Later, upholstered canopy beds became fashionable. Standing beds and bench beds were common among merchants. Household servants or labourers slept in settle or bench beds or on straw pallets.

On the bed frame, which had a series of holes strung tight with ropes, a woven rush mattress and a flock or feather bed was laid. Pillows and bolsters were piled up at the headboard or dosser, ensuring the sleeper lay in an elevated position. The canopy was known as the tester.

In some noble houses certain servants had their own bedchambers. Others slept in the same room as their masters in a truckle or wheel bed, stored under the main bed. Menial servants slept in the attic. Farmers and merchants had small bedchambers, but in the great houses bedrooms were of a semi-public nature.

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