Poems and songs are a huge part of the Irish cultural tradition.

At school, one poem we learned (by rote) – The Old Woman Of The Roads, by Padraic Colum – was a staple of poetry classes  and elocution lessons. 

It’s a simple poem to understand; easy to say and to remember. 

It is a poem with  rhythm, and depth of emotion.  So much so that years later, the words –“ Speckled and white and blue and brown…” – still linger at the back of my mind:

The poem is about an old itinerant woman’s fantasy of having home; a more settled way of life, a simple  wholesome way of living.

A place of her own.

irish white wooden dresser with spongeware bowls and plates

As a child, I was taught to think about this woman  in terms of her humanity; her loneliness and yearning,  her cosy dream.

That reinforces the Celtic romance of the humble vernacular.  A simply poetic licence, all sweetness and light.

We don’t hear about her reality….

…her destitution and poverty… 

….and her peripheral social status as an old woman – and tramp. 

That goes unsaid.

Contextually, that would be a more honest and powerful story; her experiences as a social outsider, a victim of poverty and discrimination.

Until secondary school I didn’t fully understand that poetry was more than just about recitation. Or, that it could reveal   profound feelings, experiences and opinions.

A poem can reach people, stay with them  and make them think. 

It uses language to paint a picture that has both feeling and insight. You know it intimately, and so you feel it strongly.

When this poem was written in the early 1900’s Ireland was politically turbulent.

Between the English land owners and their tenant farmers there were the huge disparities in wealth, status and freedom.

These feudal times were changing.

Ireland was a country on the brink of civil war.

Women at that time – particularly uneducated unmarried women – were second class citizens. It wasn’t unheard of for widows to be kicked off her husband’s farm, just to keep the farm in the family. 

Industrialisation, extreme poverty ( post-famine)  and lack of opportunities led  to mass immigration of Irish people to Scotland, England and the US.

The traditional rural way of life was changing and people could no longer rely on the ‘old ways’; they needed to earn a living. 

They had to look for new beginnings in new places.

Throughout Ireland this poem became a standard school verse – and sentimental party piece.

When we spoke the words of a bygone age, we alluded to a romantic ideal of constitutes ‘home’. But it was an ideal of a very, very  different era. 

In ’70’s Belfast, in what was a time of conflict, that old fashioned Irish rural world didn’t exist. 

Apart from  elderly relatives living in the Donegal who still carried on living as they has always done, no-one in the city lived in an old-style traditional home – or wanted to.

We lived in the city, we were modern.

We didn’t use turf. 

There was no dresser or spongeware  bowls in our house. 

No clocks with weights and chains. 

All the ‘old ways’ had been replaced – by design.

We had TV, washing machine, indoor bathroom, a house made of bricks with slates on the roof. Home decor was important to us. And, we had electricity so we had leisure-based and labour saving electronic goods such as a hi-fi, heated rollers, kettle, food mixer, cassette players.

1980's mahogany disable unit

By the ’70’s the traditional dresser was replaced by the display cabinet.

Every home had one.

It was a standard feature of every living room. A place to show off the family’s best pieces -delph, trophies, Waterford crystal, Belleek. A visual display of all our endeavours, status, prowess, treasured objects and heirlooms for all our visitors to see.

One respondent who used to collect antiques, wondered what it was all for once her son died?

Many things in her home held deeper memories for her. The blue and white tea set – reminds her of the first shared cup of tea she had with her husband’s family – before she was married.

She knows the next generation have no interest in any of this stuff.

Her son calls it ‘mother’s trumpfery’; the ornaments, the tea sets and dinner sets. He does not have her lived experience or attachment to any of these things. Living in the moment, she is resigned to the fact that it will all be thrown out when she dies. Or passed on to a charity shop.

display case with ornaments beside yellow armchair

” If they throw it out, they throw it out….”

Tastes change.

The mahogany display cabinets of the ’70’s are well and truly out of fashion and style. Nobody wants them in their homes now. You couldn’t  give them away!

We live very differently from our ancestors.

The Irish Tourist board still widely depict the Irish home as the thatched cottage. It fits with the idea of ‘Irishness’.

These simple cottages were built from local materials in a scale and form in keeping with the landscape. Today, there are very few left that are intact, and/or  inhabited.

Exposure to different housing styles, competing fashions and demands, has massively changed the design, look and context of homes that are currently being built in the countryside. 

Old and dilapidated dwellings are being replaced with new homes. Homes where people want to live – in styles that are often more in keeping with a suburban street.

One country-dwelling respondent who designed and partly built his modest home on the family farm himself knew exactly what he wanted – and needed. By choice, he  kept the building relatively small at 1500 sq ft.

He is shocked that local people today build much, much bigger homes at (2-300 sq ft. ).

It’s beyond me why you would need that size of a house.”

To help with the build he called in favours from friends and family.  The interior he left up to his wife.

Another respondent, longed for the ‘solitude of the country’. 

She moved from the city when her children were young, to live in what was a virtual ruin  in the country. It had no  hot water or electricity –  and only dodgy plumbing.

But, it was a cottage with character and potential that had been in the same family for many years. From this ruin she created a home that respects the original build, making use of the original features  – fireplace, furniture, tiles and doors.

blue bathroom, white bath showing thick stone walls

The thickness of the stone walls are sensitively expressed and exposed.

This is a home renovation carried out with great love for the building and its history. It has been beautifully adapted ( inexpensively) to suit a contemporary lifestyle. 

She admits that older houses are a lot of work – work that they wholly took on themselves.

The house dates back to the 1820’s but it is not a museum piece; it’s a real lived-in home. A home that makes the most of found objects, upcycled materials and  furniture.

The couple worked on one room at a time. They designed it exactly as they wanted it – based on what they could afford. With their hand’s-on approach they forged a very intimate relationship with every inch of the space.

Gradually, they created a home they are proud of – and very happy to live in. 

bedroom with brass bed leading to bathroom with thick stone walls

After 37 years of completely renovating the property  – emotionally and physically – there is nowhere she would rather be.

“I just love being here. If I’ve been away..  as soon as I come down that lane –  no matter where I go –  I want to go home.” 

The Ulster Folk Museum presents the essence of local culture, that today no longer exists. Its aim is to educate and remind people of dying crafts, lost traditions, old ways of life. Before they are lost forever.

Set in rolling fields, it’s a lovely place to visit.

It captures a ( admittedly sanitised) sense of life in/around 1900’s in Northern Ireland, country and town.

Here, they demonstrate traditional skills such as lacemaking, weaving, breadmaking, basket making, iron-work. These are some of everyday skills my grandmother would have known, that my mother would have been familiar with, that I have some memory of… that Generation Z will probably know nothing about. 

The museum highlights seasonal events connected directly to the land, and culture such as harvest time.  A reminder from city dwellers who may never really think about harvests and land – because our food comes from the supermarket.

We never think: Where does it come from? How does it get there?

Away from the land, we live differently now.

Even if we have a garden where we could grow our own food… instead, in suburbia, most people tend to grow flowers.

To other cultures that may seem strange.

The  Ulster Folk Museum is a window into the past – of social activities, everyday life, work and leisure and home.

In a ‘real life’ setting visitors are immersed in the smells, sounds, tastes, stories and experiences of everyday life from the past. As you wander into each home you get a sense of the status and environment of the people who once ‘lived’ there. Some homes are cosy and comfortable- others not much more than a stable. 

it reminds us that not everyone had lace curtains. 

Or pigs in the parlour.

Not everyone lived in National Trust mansion.

wooden dresser with bowls and willow pattern plates

Preserving skills and traditions  – that might otherwise be lost – is something deeply  embedded within Japanese culture. 

Every 20 years the  Ise-Jingu Shinto shrine is dismantled and completely rebuilt – the building, the interior, the artefacts. It is carried out with respect for the rituals that have been in place since the original was built in 690.  This ensures that craft traditions and skills endure.

From the poem of The Old Woman of The Roads, some things endure.

Her concept of what a ‘home’ should be is conveyed as a place .. to own… to have… to be busy… to be clearing… fixing… and  to be quiet.  

Our ‘Home’ is still a place where we invest a lot of our time  – and money.

We make decisions based on we want, and what we can afford. When we engage with and maintain the space we take pride in how it looks. It is the centre of our taken for granted world – our lifeworld.

Essentially, that is the sense of ‘home’. 

It is a deeper, feeling. A connection that has a sense of rootedness and belonging.

The last few lines of the poem speak of her desire for peace and contentment. That is, to be assured of your own bed, and to be surrounded by your own possessions.

Anyone who has ever lived happily somewhere, will understand what that means.

The Old Woman Of The Roads.

O, to have a little house! 
To own the hearth and stool and all! 
The heaped up sods against the fire, 
The pile of turf against the wall! 

To have a clock with weights and chains 
And pendulum swinging up and down! 
A dresser filled with shining delph, 
Speckled and white and blue and brown! 

I could be busy all the day 
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor, 
And fixing on their shelf again 
My white and blue and speckled store! 

I could be quiet there at night 
Beside the fire and by myself, 
Sure of a bed and loth to leave 
The ticking clock and the shining delph! 

 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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