A Reminder of More Tranquil Times in Ulster
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ulster
“TRANQUIL times in Ulster? Never!” That might be an understandable reaction in view of the savage sectarian warfare, horrifying assassinations, devastating bombings, tragic spilling of innocent blood and mindless destruction of property that seem to be the order of the day in Northern Ireland.
But just a few miles out from the smoldering tension of Belfast’s city center, we can find a real oasis of undisturbed serenity. This reminder of more tranquil times is Ulster’s folk museum.
It is an imaginative and evocative project, established on 136 acres (55 hectares) of restful, beautifully wooded, parklike countryside, and illustrating in a remarkable way the living and working conditions that obtained in this province over the past two or three hundred years. Here, in a natural setting, we have the dwellings restored that were the homes of the cottiers, the poorest people, the farmers and laborers, the weavers and others who lived in Ulster in years gone by. First, we examine the cottiers’ houses.
The Cottiers’ Houses
Your first impression might provoke reactions like, ‘Oh, how pretty and charming. Just look at that delightful thatched roof with the smoke curling up from the chimney.’ The houses have been carefully restored. Stone by stone and timber by timber they were dismantled at their original site and then carefully reassembled here. One house is but a single room, not much more than ten feet (3 meters) square, with a bare earth floor, thick stone walls with tiny windows, and a low thatched roof.
All life obviously centered around the hearth where the fireplace was formed by setting cobbles into the mud floor. This cottier’s house has a bright turf or peat fire burning on the ground and clustered around it are all the primitive utensils for cooking.
Here, on that big black griddle, the woman of the house would cook the basic items of their diet, like the unleavened bread, or oatcake, which was then dried out in front of the fire propped up on the ‘harnin’ stand. Do you think that you would be able to produce the beautiful rounds of fresh soda bread, to be broken into ‘farls,’ or quarters, and eaten with mountains of fresh butter; or perhaps the potato bread, made from a mixture of wheat flour and boiled potatoes?
The rough whitewashed walls do little to dispel the almost claustrophobic feeling that envelops us in this very small house. Nor can we imagine that we would be too comfortable in that cramped, hard-looking bed in the ‘bed-outshot’ built into the wall near the hearth.
And yet, even here the thought struck—what have we really accomplished in the way of producing a better life now that we live in this ‘modernized’ twentieth century? What about the quality of life today in the concrete jungle that is Belfast, beyond the basic material level?
No doubt, whoever lived in this kind of home would be horrified at some of the agonizing results of so-called civilization with its deadly ability for sudden, indiscriminate destruction. Perhaps they would be glad to escape back to this sanctuary of peacefulness, hard though life must have been at times.
Besides these smaller, humble dwellings, however, where at times whole families lived, sleeping clustered together with their feet toward the fire, there are some fine examples of farmhouses. Here we climb the social ladder a rung or two and see some small improvement in the lot of the farmer and the farm laborer.
The Farmers’ Houses
Even here, despite the likelihood of having the luxury of a flagstoned kitchen floor rather than one of dried mud, they had very little in the way of material comforts.
Again we find the floor-level open hearth, turf fire blazing, and most of the smoke, depending on the wind direction, going up the chimney breast built out from the wall. Just look at that great iron crane, pivoted on the left side of the fire, and used to swing those heavy iron pots and great black kettles out from the fire! What would you think of handling one of those pots, some of which could be up to twenty-five gallons (95 liters) in capacity? These ones do not look quite that big, but what a contrast from the three-pint (1.5 liter), quick-boiling electric kettle found in Irish homes today!
All the farmhouses of that more tranquil period were sparsely furnished, spartan to the extreme—a rough table, one or two uncomfortable-looking chairs and an open cupboard with the family’s coarse earthenware crockery. Tucked in the corner might have been a ‘settle’ bed, which folded up to serve as a bench seat during the day, and by the fire was the inevitable salt box. That three-legged stool was very practical considering the uneven nature of the floor. Most of this crude furniture, besides the heavy timbers that support the house, were fashioned from bog oak that at one time abounded here in Ireland.
One interesting feature of these homes, we notice, is the ‘jamb wall’ that faces us as we enter the front, and indeed often the only, door. This partition wall with its small window to show who is approaching from the farmyard is built at right angles to the wall where the hearth is situated. It cuts off some of the draught from the fire area and helps to form a cozy corner where family and friends could gather for an entertaining ‘celidh,’ or get-together.
At least the inhabitants of these farms would have been free of the current terror experienced by many living in lonely farmhouses in Northern Ireland, where occupants have been murdered by marauding car parties of sectarian killers. The spy hole in their ‘jamb wall’ finds its grim counterpart in many homes today in their one-way peepholes giving wide-angled vision of the door area, or the one-way glass now fitted to front doors to give warning of any intending assassin’s approach.
Not everyone experienced the poverty that was the lot of so many of the common people over these past years, especially during and after the Great Famine of 1845. Some of the more well-to-do sections of society lived in greater luxury. This is illustrated for us when we take a look at the larger, two-storied house that at one time was occupied by a clergyman.
The Minister’s House
This home really stands out from the others. It has a large kitchen area as we enter through the front door, with a parlor off to the left and a bedroom and study off to the right. Upstairs we find a massive master bedroom with not just one but two huge double beds, complete with hot-water jars, copper bed warmer and chamber pots, besides wardrobe and clothes chests. The furnishings here show a craftsmanship and quality that were conspicuous by their absence in the homes of the parishioners.
The thing that really impresses us here is the immense hearth area. This is a magnificent, huge fireplace, so large that we can stand by the fire and look up the chimney where any items would be hung to be smoked and preserved. Also, this house has what has been lacking in them all up to now—an oven! All that the previous women had in which to do their baking was a pot buried in the turf fire.
The lady of this house would have heated her oven with some smokeless fuel, charcoal, raked out the remaining charcoal when the heat was sufficient, and then baked her bread in the residual heat. She might even have added to her family’s diet some of the delicacies reportedly available around 1776: “Pigeons, 2s. [two shillings] a dozen; rabbits, 4d. [four pence] each; sole, 10d. a pair; lobsters, 5s. a dozen; wild duck, 10d. to 1s. each.”
A large number of those living in Ulster during those years worked with linen, an industry ideally suited to the climate here. Life for them, as with the farmer, was rather harsh.
The Linen Workers
Working with flax, the plant that produces the fibers for linen, must have been backbreaking and utterly fatiguing. The stalks were pulled up by the roots and bundled together, then steeped in flax dams for from eight to fourteen days for ‘retting,’ in which bacterial action allows the fibers to be extracted.
This is what produced the linen, once those fibers were spun into yarn for weaving. The linen cloth, initially a pale-brown color, was laid out to whiten on the bleaching greens. Incidentally, the penalty for stealing linen from such a green as this was in those days, almost unbelievably, death! Certainly hard days.
Some of the locals might have worked in the flax mill with its huge waterwheel to produce the power for the ‘scutching’ and suchlike, once this ceased being done by hand, but the craftsman in all of this was undoubtedly the weaver.
The Weaver’s House
Illustrating the working conditions of the weaver of old, we see here in the weaver’s house a modern-day weaver duplicating his work. Straight in through the front door, around the ‘jamb wall,’ we find ourselves in a kitchen very similar to that of the farmhouses we have visited. To the right is the bedroom with enough room for two double beds, and to the left, behind the hearth wall, is the weaving room.
No doubt about it, this man had job satisfaction. He was engrossed in his work. Weavers used to work from the first ray of light until the last, hence the many windows in this room. One visitor remarks to the weaver now at work that those long hours they used to work must have dehumanized the weaver, making him just part of the machine, as it were. But this weaver feels that in his case it is more a matter of the machine’s becoming an extension of him, with moods all its own.
It is really fascinating to watch the pattern developing in the linen cloth as he works away, feet and hands busy as he lifts first these threads, then those, and the shuttle flies backward and forward. Such coordination and concentration!
Other Reflections of the Past
Other exhibits here help us to appreciate the past. The doctor’s case of instruments looks frightening. We are reminded that at one time, of course, no such thing as anesthetics existed. When the doctor had to use that wicked-looking saw in amputating, say, a leg, the patient might first be taken to the local inn and put into a drunken state before the operation took place. The local shoemaker would be pressed into service to prepare strong wax ends of flax and beeswax that would be used to ligature the sawn arteries!
The wooden yoke, complete with chains for carrying the milk containers, certainly does not look too comfortable either, and we are amazed at the rather crude equipment they had to use. Few persons today in Ireland would prefer those living conditions to what they may now enjoy due to modern technology.
But, equally, it is doubtful if the people who lived in those times and used all those implements would have preferred the present fears, insecurity, tension and hatreds to the relative tranquillity of their times. We seem to have replaced the injustices of their times with even more monstrous wrongs. Reflecting the present frustration of many, one wit scribbled on a wall in Belfast the following question: “Is there life before death?” So it is good to get a reminder of more tranquil times and to have the hope that one day tranquillity will be restored.
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The cottier’s house
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The farmer’s house
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The minister’s house
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The weaver’s house