Book by Cork-based writer recalls the way furniture was used in our homes

Chris Dunne talks to Cork-based writer Claudia Kinmonth about her book, Irish Country Furniture And Furnishings 1700-2000.
Book by Cork-based writer recalls the way furniture was used in our homes

Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000 by Claudia Kinmonth. Picture: Clare Keogh

IT’S not surprising that 3,000 copies of Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000 were sold in three weeks after publication. The impressive tome appeals to people interested in culture and history, and those who want to re-visit days of yore from their childhoods.

Book-lovers and furniture fans alike will appreciate the detailed study littered with rich illustrations of domestic, often home-made furniture, and functional cooking utensils that our ancestors took pride in and put to good use.

Nostalgia is rekindled when we read about the bread baking in the open turf fire in the bastable, when the kitchen table served as a work-top and the dresser enjoyed pride of place in the kitchen, which often had a half-door to let in the light and keep out the livestock.

“The dresser is unique among the furniture of the Irish kitchens because of its primary role as an aesthetic and decorative focal point,” says author of the book, Claudia Kinmonth, who grew up in London and has lived in Leap for 22 years.

Claudia describes herself first and foremost as a researcher and author, and is an art and furniture historian and visiting Research Fellow at the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland Galway and Research Curator at the Ulster Folk Museum. She always had familial connections to West Cork, where she enjoyed idyllic holidays as a child.

Her previous award-winning book, Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950, focused on farmhouse and cabin furniture. Her new book is a more detailed continuation, with 450 illustrations and re-visited and updated information beautifully illustrated with an array of vivid colour photographs.

“The dresser combined the functional storage of kitchen ware and utensils,” she says. It was also a status symbol.”

Celebrities took pride in their dressers and carefully displayed their wares on its shelves.

“Peig Sayers, familiar to those who studied the Irish language and who lived in the Great Blasket Island, owned an extraordinary dresser,” says Claudia.

“Peig displayed a collection of glass fishing floats on the top shelf of the kitchen dresser.

“She had polished jam jars and electric light-bulbs among her china and her ware, even though there was no electricity on the island at that time. Her home-baked bread was also displayed on the dresser.”

The dresser often served other purposes.

“In the 19th century, the smallest farmers has the biggest flocks of hens,” says Claudia. 

“Often the bottom half of the dresser lined with straw served as a coop for a hatching hens and geese.

“If the farmer’ wife had to go to the well for water, she might leave the baby in the coop with the slats closed where it would remain safe until she returned.”

Claudia is passionate about a way of traditional Irish life that has almost disappeared.

“I have been in love with the subject for a very long time,” says Claudia, who gained an MA in the history of design at the Royal College of Art. Her work has led to her being made a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Doing her research for the books, she met craftspeople such as Christopher Sullivan from Lauragh, Co. Kerry, who fashioned súgán chairs made from his own oat straw he grew.

“My husband and I took to the road with a tiny tent,” says Claudia. 

“I cold-called, knocking on doors; asking people about old furniture.”

She uncovered treasures still in use.

“I often found entire houses still functioning in the old ways,” says Claudia. 

“Often, these houses were occupied by an elderly person living alone. They saw no need to replace old dressers and settles and continued to bake using the bastable on the hook above the fire.”

There was always a welcome for Claudia.

“The loveliest part of my work was going into farmhouses and finding things still in kitchens and talking to people about the furniture they had kept and loved. The people loved chatting to me and it was nice getting to know them.”

Claudia enjoyed wonderful hospitality.

“They’d start to lay the table and lay out the most amazing feasts!”

She believes kitchens today are designed for aesthetic reasons rather than practical ones.

“Back in the day, nothing was for show. Everything had its use.”

Her book offers us gems of information that we discover for the first time. Our ancestors wasted nothing.

“People knew how to live simply and use the bare necessities to the best of their ability. They made the best use of small spaces in the home.”

The humble flour bag had many roles to play.

“Flour bags were often recycled as clothing, aprons, or table cloths,” says Claudia. “And there was a message on the label of the flour bag on how to remove it, signifying that the flour millers knew the bag would be put to further use.”

Looking at the glossy photographs, readers can be transported back to those halcyon days of childhood when the smell of turf and the smell of freshly baked soda bread was like a piece of home-made heaven.

Claudia recalls those carefree days of childhood in West Cork.

“One of my fondest memories were trips to the local creamery on the back of a cart,” she says. 

“The creamery was just fascinating, like a swimming pool with everybody pouring their churns in. It was very much a community thing where people met and chatted.

“You’d have to stay there for an hour or two and there was a little shop where we got Fox’s Glacier Mints and Taytos.”

Life was different in West Cork to life in the Big Smoke. The freedom was wonderful.

“You were like a farmer’s child running around the yard, jumping off ponies and horses and chasing the pigs. I loved it.”

People everywhere will love Claudia’s ‘bible’ of the fascinating story of Irish furniture as well as the revealing chapter on Small Furnishings and Utensils.

The attractive book will make a lovely addition to the coffee table and it will add a flourish of good old-fashioned nostalgia to every home.

Irish County Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000, by Claudia Kinmonth, is published by Cork University Press, priced at €39.

Cork University Press are offering Echo readers 20% off if they quote the code ICF and contact maureen.fitzgerald@ucc.ie to order.

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