Read the most frequently asked questions about Irish Country Furniture.
Are there any specifically Irish traits in kitchen tables?
The table was not traditionally considered to be a central piece of furniture in the Irish home, as domestic life centred around the hearth, where meals were cooked, shared out and eaten together.
Tables did not become more common until late in the 19th century, even then it was generally kept to the side of the room against a wall rather than in the centre, as was common in English farmhouses. Such tables were simple and comprised of one or two boards, remaining unchanged from the English design.
How did people look after their furniture?
A household’s furniture was meticulously cared for and often passed down from one generation to another. Most furniture was painted; this helped to protect the timber in damp conditions, and made the item more attractive. Painted furniture was also easier to keep clean.
Dressers and presses could be painted up to twice a year, therefore they often have many layers of paint, showing the change in fashion for different colours through the years.
How important was the dresser in the home?
The dresser was the most valued piece of domestic furniture in the Irish home, as it was the way in which the wealth and status of the household was displayed. The upper section was generally comprised of racks and shelves which displayed ceramic wares, with a cupboard or open area at the base.
The dresser gave the maximum storage space for the area it occupied, with storage for food, pots and butter making utensils. It was made from pine and was painted to give it a rich, attractive appearance.
A variation on this type is the coop dresser, which used the bottom compartments to keep hens. This warm, safe environment inside the house ensured that eggs were available for the family throughout the year.
What kind of furniture did an Irish home have before the mid 19th century? And has any of it survived?
Before the late 18th and early 19th centuries furniture was mainly the property of the landed classes. Oak storage chests were common, though very few examples survive due to the dispossession of land and destruction of houses in the 17th & 18th centuries.
What kind of utensils did people use?
The most commonly used utensils were spoons, which were made from any available hard, durable materials. Spoons could be carved from horn, bone and wood, often with intricate designs. Ladles were often turned from wood by local craftsmen.
What kinds of beds were found in the Irish rural house?
An ‘outshot’ was a feature of many traditional country homes. This was a small section of the building which protruded from the outside wall, leaving a small extra space inside the house next to the hearth. A bed frame was built into this space, providing a warm sleeping area.
Another common form of bed was the settlebed. The settle was a high backed seat which originally came from England. It was adapted in Ireland in the 18th century into a settlebed, where the seat part can be folded outwards to make a bed, providing extra space for family members or guests to sleep.
Other types of beds found in Irish homes included the core bedstead or reidhleaba (a low flat bed without raised sides) and the canopy bed (also called a ‘car’ or ‘Clare’ bed). This had a wooden cover or canopy with one open side with a curtain which could be drawn for warmth and privacy. Its use was discouraged by medical authorities for sanitory reasons in the 19th century, and very few examples of the type survived into the 20th century.
What kinds of furniture were used for storage?
Chests represent one of the earliest forms of furniture in Ireland, providing storage space for food, clothes, personal documents and other valuables. Early chests were generally only found in the homes of the landed classes, and were made from oak. The availability of cheaper woods such as deal and pine, and the rise in prosperity of the peasant classes in the 18th century meant chests became a increasingly common piece of furniture.
Pine chests are sometimes referred to as ‘dowry chests’ or ‘bride’s boxes’, and were used to hold blankets and fine linen which a bride took with her to her new home.
The mealbin was an important item of kitchen furniture, used to store dry goods such as flour, corn and oatmeal for the winter months. Food presses also became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century, especially in the kitchens of large farmhouses.
What types of chair were found in the Irish home?
The chair is probably the oldest of all types of furniture found in Ireland. One of the earliest types of seating found in any rural home was the ‘creepie’; a roughly made stool often consisting of a log raised off the floor. Throughout the Irish Country Furniture exhibition there are many styles of stools and chairs on display, including súgán (rope) chairs and straw armchairs.
Other types of Irish chairs include the ladder-back kitchen chair, the country carpenter’s chair, the Windsor chair and various designs named after their localities, such as the Sligo and Leitrim chairs.
What types of furniture did an Irish home of the pre-19th century period have?
The average rural home commonly had wooden furniture such as chairs, a dresser, a settlebed and perhaps storage furniture such as a mealbin and a food press in the kitchen or hearth area. A bed would also be built into the outshot of the house.
Depending on the wealth of the household, there may also have been furniture such as a corner cupboard and a dowry chest (or bride’s box); a storage chest designed to hold linen, blankets and personal belongings.
What were the main influences on the design and appearance of Irish vernacular furniture?
The Irish vernacular furniture tradition was heavily influenced by English and Welsh vernacular furniture, which was already well established, and there are many similarities between the furniture styles.
Other influences include the styles of the furniture of wealthy houses, which were often adapted by local craftsmen for the country home. This can also be seen in the imitation of expensive grained woods with methods such as painting and ‘scumbling’, where a stain is applied on a light base coat, and drawn off with a graining comb.
Regional variations in styles of furniture can also betray their influences. A heavy three-legged seat of oak and ash made in the mid-19th centry in Co. Mayo is displayed in the Irish Country Furniture gallery; it is a type of chair found only in Connaught and it has been suggested that it was introduced to the province by Scottish settlers.
Also on display is an 18th century kitchen chair with a boarded seat and finely turned spindles from Co. Down; it is an unusual type of chair in Ireland and was probably influenced by English chairmaking design. A common feature of dressers from northern counties is their simple design and subdued decoration, possibly due to Scottish influence.
However, one of the biggest influences on the design of Irish traditional furniture was the characteristics of the house itself; items, such as the outshot bed and built-in cupboards and dressers, were built specifically to suit the space it was to occupy, or designed to be multi-functional and therefore save space, such as the settlebed.
When did display cabinets such as corner cupboards become common in the Irish home?
In the 19th century the Irish vernacular house extended beyond the previous single area layout, as new rooms were added to the end of the house.
The parlour was one such room, and was kept for ‘good’ use, usually visits from important people in the community such as the parish priest. Furniture for the parlour included the glazed corner cupboard, which was used to display items such as ceramic and glass pieces, illustrating the wealth of the household.
When did the Irish vernacular style become established?
The vernacular furniture tradition in Ireland developed much later than in England and Wales. The poverty and destruction brought by the wars of the 17th century meant that furniture was not common in rural Irish homes in this period.
However, the late 18th & early 19th centuries saw an increase in the wealth of sections of the peasantry, which, along with an increase in the number of skilled craftsmen and the supply of cheap, imported pine, led to furniture becoming available to more of the rural population.
When did the use of traditional country furniture end?
The 1950s saw an increase in the popularity and use of factory-made furniture, sometimes using cheaper new materials such as plywood. This came to replace the vernacular styles. However, such furniture is still made and sold in some rural areas.
Who made the furniture found in rural homes?
Local carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights were the main makers of wooden furniture. In addition, many basketmakers made items of furniture such as chairs and child’s cradles using wicker rods until the early years of the twentieth century.
Often householders themselves made furniture using plaited straw; several types of chairs, stools, mats and mattresses were created from straw until the mid 20th century.