joe and Annie's Irish hearth

In the early 1970’s my mother’s Uncle Joe and Aunt Annie (brother and sister) still lived in the house in Donegal where they had been born.

They were both born in the 1890’s. They never left home, never married. 

‘Home’ was a typical Irish country cottage/house that hadn’t changed much at all since it was built in the mid to late 19thcentury. Slates replaced the original thatched roof, but the floor were still made of stone.

The 1970’s was a pivotal time in Ireland.

Most people living in cities and towns would have had access to a kitchen with hot/cold running water. However, they may not necessarily have owned a washing machine, a dish-washer a telephone or a refrigerator – or access to an indoor bathroom.

Many people living in rural areas were still not yet connected to electricity.

In his beautifully written book This is Happiness, Niall Williams describes how the advent of electricity was to change people’s ways of life, and ways of living.

Consider this: when the electricity did finally come, it was discovered that the 100 watt lightbulb was too bright for Faha. The instant garishness was too shocking. Dust and cobwebs were discovered to have been thickening on every surface since the sixteenth century.

Niall Williams, This is Happiness, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019

Until such time as electricity was available right across Ireland there remained a big divide between life in the cities and life in rural areas.

Electricity was essential to enable people to live a modern lifestyle and move away from traditional ways of living.

Promotional films from that period particularly targeted the housewife, to highlight how electricity could be used to lighten ‘ women’s work’ in the home. Mod cons would make housework easier – and cleaner. When Electricity eventually reached all rural areas it would enable those people to have access to the same standard of living as people living in the cities.

When we visited Annie and Joe the early 1970’s, for me, as someone brought up in a city, there was nothing in this home that looked anything like my home.

This house and this lifestyle was a very different world: unsophisticated, basic, primitive and rough.

As a child I didn’t appreciate just how these traditional rural ways were at the point of change, soon to become a thing of the past.  

Annie and Joe lived in the house their grandfather built.

Installing electric light must have made a big difference to how they lived through the dark winter nights. But, in terms of modernisation, that was a much as they felt they needed, or could afford.

This was a house with no running water, bathroom/toilet, no sink, no electric kettle, cooker, refrigerator or washing machine. No TV.

Instead, there was a hearth with an open fire over which hung a big black pot and iron kettle.

This was truly authentic, and basic, Irish cooking and all very labour intensive. I watched my mother once attempt to make a dinner over the turf fire.   It was a slow, hot and arduous task leaving her very hot, flustered and exhausted.


bed and open fire Irish cottage
Photo taken in Ulster Folk Park, Cultra

In traditional Irish homes the hearth was the heart of the home, essential for heat and food. The fire had to be kept going through all seasons. 

Traditionally, most people would have made their own bread ( soda, potato farls, wheaten) but my memory is that Annie and Joe bought bread from the local all-purpose store: readymade, white and packaged.

They certainly ate stews, porridge, soups, fried bacon and drank tea – lots of it. But they also embraced convenience foods.

This was not an idyllic country house steeped in traditions of homemade jam, hams, or preserves of fruit and vegetables. They had their pension so they did not have to live off the land – although others around were still (at that time) subsistence farmers.

How did this room function as a kitchen?

In the 1970’s Joe and Annie collected water from a communal tap up the road and stored it in large containers. They also collected rain water from the guttering into a large water butt outside and they could draw unfiltered water from the nearby lake.

Just up the road the general store sold everything they would have needed. Bacon (freshly cut into rashers on the bacon slicer) potatoes, milk, flour…butter etc. and  basic household necessities.

Fifty years after the Frankfurt Kitchen changed people’s way of thinking about kitchen design Annie and Joe’s home was virtually unchanged from their parents’ days. Life went on pretty much as it was. The impact of the Bauhaus and all the changes brought about by modernism and contemporary design had no direct bearing on their lives.

They lived a quiet and simple life, within their means. There was no reason for them to introduce big changes to their lifestyle, or their home. 

The installation of electricity to this area opened up access to a wide range of home comforts.

If they wanted they could have an electric  fire, electric blankets… electric cooker… or even a TV.

But, whether through choice, lack of money, or lack of interest, Annie and Joe had none of these things. Although they did have a radio

Irish sponge ware dishes on dresser

They ate all their meals using the family’s traditional spongeware bowls/plates and chinaware; all beautifully displayed on the dresser.

Pretty, dainty and colourful, these vessels seemed strangely at odds against the heavy, rough-wooden furniture and hard stone floor. In a room that was dark and smoky from the fire, not designed for comfort, relaxation and leisure ( no TV, no sofa, no carpet,  no rug, no armchair) these items stood out; soft, intimate and particularly feminine.

These items would have been highly treasured but they were also used every day. Just has they always had been.

There was little adornment: a few ornaments, candlesticks, lots of Holy pictures, an oiled tablecloth and a grandmother clock. 

Annie and Joe weren’t completely immune or detached from modernity.

They were part of a community, which meant they visited other people and people came to visit them. So, even though the 1970’s fashions, cars and music probably passed them by, they were still (on the periphery) of a fast-changing world.

They had relatives in America, in Scotland and Belfast for whom household goods were more of a way of life. Annie and Joe certainly would have been exposed to new ways thinking, new experiences, attitudes, opportunities and lifestyles

With failing eyesight and complex health needs Annie and Joe eventually moved into nursing homes before they passed away. The house was left to my uncle who added a proper kitchen and bathroom, but still retained the old kitchen  and hearth – for its atmosphere and charm.

Annie and Joe were witness to massive changes in Ireland

Holy pictures on cottage wall Ireland

The 1970’s may have seemed to them like a time of incredible innovation and change: but also unsettling.

Similarly, for us today, the current fast of pace of technology means that no-one knows for sure what is coming next. 

In fifty years time people may look back at 2019 as a primitive time when people (like us) lived with old, set, out-dated social constructs and technologies.

They will think: how did these people live like that?

How quaint we were. How charming. How old-fashioned. 

We can probably assume that in the not too distant future we will be even more immersed in (if not controlled by) technologies that do not even exist yet.  We will live in a world where AI, AR, VR and IoT will be considered old hat.

There will always be something new to revolutionise how we work, live, interact and communicate.

Like Annie and Joe we may choose to live out our lives on the margins of innovation and change.

Given the pace of technology, that could happen all too soon. And then what?

poet Padraic Colum

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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