joe and Annie's Irish hearth

Joe and Annie were both born in the 1890’s. They never left home and never married. 

By the early 1970’s brother and sister, Joe and Annie, still lived in the house in Donegal where they were born.

Joe and Annie were my mother’s uncle and aunt.

3 elderly people  ( Dominick, Joe and Annie) outside traditional Irish house
Joe (centre) Annie ( right) with elder brother Dominick ( left) c. 1965

‘Home’ for them was an Irish country house – two rooms downstairs, two rooms above. It was a house that looked very much the same as when it was built in the mid to late 19thcentury.

Slates replaced the original thatched roof, but the floor were still laid with stone.

The 1970’s were a pivotal time in the modernisation of 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 had access to an indoor bathroom.

At that time many people living in remote rural areas were still not connected to electricity.

In This is Happiness, Niall Williams describes how the arrival of electricity was to dramatically change people’s experience of home.

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 electricity became available right across Ireland people living in cities and rural areas lived a a very different life.

They managed for centuries without it.

But to live a modern lifestyle and move away from traditional ways of living, people need electricity in their homes.

Promotional films from that period particularly targeted ‘the housewife.’

The reels highlight how much electricity could be used to lighten ‘ women’s work’ in the home. With electricity women could have Mod cons which would make all much housework easier – and cleaner.

When Electricity finally reached all rural areas it meant that those people could finally have access to the same standard of living as people living in the cities.

If that’s what they wanted.

In This is Happiness Moylan, the sales representative from the Electricity Board extolls the potential of electrical appliances to change people’s lives.

‘Beautiful cooker like that would look well in a lovely home like yours, Missus. I can see it over there. A nice toaster on the table there for your morning toast. No more lighting the fire, wiring for the flames, and sticking your bread into the smoke. No more smoky toast,’ he said unaware that no-one in Faha ate toast and that smoky was not a term of denigration.

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

As a child in the 1970’s brought up in a city I didn’t appreciate how these traditional rural ways were at a point of change.

Soon to become a thing of the past.  

There was nothing in Joe and Annie’s home that looked anything like my home.


I could not imagine living there. To my eyes it was basic, primitive and rough.

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

No TV.

They did however have electric light.

The introduction of electric light must have made a big difference to how they lived through the dark winter nights.

But, in terms of the potential ‘modernisation’ that electricity could offer, this appears to be as much as they felt they needed – or could afford.

Having electricity did not radically change their everyday life.

All their cooking was still done on 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 Joe and Annie dinner over the turf fire.   It was a slow 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. My memory is that Annie and Joe bought bread from the local all-purpose store: readymade, white and packaged.

This was by no means an idyllic country household steeped in traditions of homemade jam, hams, or preserves of fruit and vegetables.

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

two plates, figurine of Virign Mary and ornamental dog

How did this room function as a kitchen?

With no running water supply, Joe and Annie collected water from a tap up the road. Rain water was collected from the guttering into a large water butt and they could draw unfiltered water from the nearby lake.

Just up the road, the general store sold everything they needed on a daily basis.. meat, potatoes, milk, flour…butter etc. and  basic household necessities.

This was fifty years after the Frankfurt Kitchen changed people’s way of thinking about kitchen design. And yet, in rural Ireland Annie and Joe’s home was virtually unchanged. Their life went on pretty much as it was.

The impact of the Bauhaus and the lifestyle changes brought about by modernism and contemporary design had no direct bearing on their daily life.

They lived a quiet and simple life.

There was no reason for them to introduce big changes to their lifestyle, or to their home. 

Modern household products could have made their lives more comfortable.

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.

Just a radio.

irish stoneware crockery

Annie and Joe ate all their meals using the family’s traditional spongeware bowls/plates and chinaware.

These were all on display on the dresser.

Pretty, dainty and colourful, these vessels always seemed strangely at odds against the heavy, rough-wooden furniture and hard stone floor.

Traditional Irish chair - joe and Annie

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 seemed soft, intimate and particularly feminine.

There was little adornment in this house; a few ornaments, candlesticks, an oiled tablecloth and a grandmother clock. 

And lots of Holy pictures.

Annie and Joe weren’t completely detached from modernity.

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

They had relatives in America, Scotland and Belfast. From their visits, Joe and Annie would hear about new ways thinking, experiences, fashions, attitudes, opportunities and lifestyles.

With failing eyesight and complex health needs Annie and Joe eventually moved into nursing homes.

Once they passed on the house was left to my uncle. He added on a proper kitchen and bathroom for use as a holiday house. And yet, he still retained the old kitchen  and hearth – for its atmosphere and charm. Not for daily use

Holy pictures on cottage wall Ireland

Annie and Joe were witness to massive social change in Ireland

The 1970’s may have seemed to them to be a time of innovation and change. But it must it also must have felt somewhat alienating.

That is something we can recognise today.

With the current pace of technology no-one knows for sure what is coming next. 

In fifty years time people may look back and think people like us lived with very old fashioned, out-dated social constructs and technologies.

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

How quaint…. How old-fashioned.

In the future it is likely 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 soon be considered old hat.

Technology will always bring something new to revolutionise how we work, live, interact and communicate. And live.

Maybe, like Joe and Annie, we will choose to live out our lives on the margins of innovation and change.

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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