Domestic life in Ireland (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, Volume III, 2011)

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Domestic life in Ireland (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, Volume III, 2011)Elizabeth FitzPatrick & James Kelly (eds)(Royal Irish Academy, €25)ISBN 9781904890836

Domestic life in Ireland
(Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C, Volume III, 2011) Elizabeth FitzPatrick & James Kelly (eds) (Royal Irish Academy, €25) ISBN 9781904890836

The strength of the Royal Irish Academy’s special issue on Domestic life in Ireland lies in its editorial courage. Having selected the domestic subject, the editors bring together studies charting diverse material from domestic archaeologies of everyday life through the Neolithic to the provision of 1950s local authority rural housing and the morphology of Celtic Tiger architect-designed house extensions. At once the scope of this collection—from chronological breadth to interdisciplinary approach—is immense and the reader cannot but be impressed. Furthermore, it would seem that quality has not been compromised for quantity and scope: all twelve essays offer new material and are rigorous in their respective approaches. Clearly this is not a lightweight interdisciplinary medley but a serious academic gathering that advances our historical, anthropological and archaeological knowledge concerning Ireland’s patterns of domesticity.

The editors’ intention (from about 2007) was to make a volume of Proceedings that would focus on a particular subject ‘that span[s] the time-line of human experience in Ireland’; crucially, the topic was to be ‘amenable to interdisciplinary engagement’ (Preface, p. vii). It is not surprising, then, that the eminently relevant theme of ‘domestic life’ was selected for the RIA’s first such special issue. If nothing else, the continuum of domestic existence in the Irish context is expressed. In some instances, as with the archaeological and early medieval papers (Chapters 1–4), or, indeed, the contemporary Irish history and urban geography approaches (Chapters 9 and 10), domestic life in Ireland is expressed through patterns of domesticity: behaviour, habit, ritual, societal shifts—the pots and pans of home, or the statistics of settlement. In other papers, studies of domestic life are mediated through the architectural frameworks that enable those patterns. Rory Sherlock’s mapping of the evolution of the Irish tower-house (Chapter 5) is an example of how a building type can become a cultural artefact. This excellent paper describes the author’s survey of 120 tower-houses and their subsequent classification into five types, according primarily to the hall space. Richly illustrated, Sherlock’s endeavour to show how this idiosyncratic (and varied) house type functioned as a social environment is pioneering in its scope and findings.

Jane Fenlon’s Chapter 6 and Conor Lucey’s study of redecorating houses in late eighteenth-century Dublin (Chapter 7) continue Sherlock’s object-based research to illuminate wider social and cultural patterns in urban and rural Ireland. The joy of architectural history is revealed: unfolding is a rich account of the great Irish house, from the fifteenth-century tower type, through the burgeoning (Renaissance) symmetry of the early seventeenth-century family castle complex, and into the stucco salons and stairways of the late Georgian urban terraced house. Fenlon’s study introduces international influence—comparative house development in England and France—on Irish domestic patterns. Lucey brings the reader indoors, to look firstly at the phenomenon of redecorating in the neo-classical idiom from the 1770s and then, more provocatively, at why these programmes of redecoration occurred. Interestingly, as Lucey points to questions of taste and social mobility through domestic design choices—‘. . . choices reflected both . . . aesthetic sensibilities and acquaintance with the vogue for antiquity, but perhaps also crucially, an awareness of how a discerning decorative scheme fostered an appropriately erudite impression’ (p. 188)—we are reminded of the volume’s final chapter, ‘Habitus’, by two leading young architects of our day, Emmett Scanlon and Michael Pike. They chart the recent phenomenon of the 21st-century house extension and point not only to the psycho-emotional potential of the home but also, like Lucey, to the question of contemporary tendencies and fads: ‘typically all occupants want more air and light in their homes. They want it to happen literally, but they also want it to occur figuratively, to feel it, to “know” it somehow’ (p. 328).

Before we accuse the RIA of presenting a domestic history of and for the privileged class(es) alone, along comes Barry O’Reilly’s piece on vernacular self-build housing (Chapter 8). This didactic paper is clear and informative, carrying on the tradition of Maura and Paddy Shaffrey while going further in explaining the architectonic and everyday elements of the vernacular Irish house. For the rest of the volume, aside from the anomalous chapter on recent Dublin extensions (Chapter 12), focus stays with O’Reilly’s ‘everyman’ housing, or, rather, concentrates on the housing of Ireland’s masses. Again, these chapters by Frank Cullen, Mary McCarthy and Ruth McManus bring new research to the field. Cullen’s study of slum conditions and clearance programmes in nineteenth-century urban Ireland gathers established scholarship and delivers it afresh, in a more comprehensive and critically astute presentation. McManus’s overview, shifting the reader’s perspective from historian to that of geographer, is a valuable analysis of housing in the twentieth century. Drawing from newspapers, census data and The Irish Builder, McManus stitches her previous research (1900–40) to new tentative research on the situation from the mid-century onwards. For the first time, for instance, we gain a sense of the evolution of multi-storey living in Ireland during the period. This study is followed by an examination of rural housing provision from the 1940s through to the 1960s by historian Mary McCarthy. Interestingly, McCarthy returns to architectural form as a means of elucidating wider social and political priorities.

Because ‘the domestic’ relates to all aspects of any civilisation, this book could work as a collective of Irish cultural studies for the general reader. The editors have chosen episodes in time or particular building typologies as hooks on which to hang a comprehensive historical narrative so that the volume inadvertently becomes an overview of Irish life—private, social, even legislative—across time. It is an unusual book, flipping as it does from reference text to specialist volume, which ultimately presents a useful and engaging set of studies.  HI

Ellen Rowley is a research associate at the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College, Dublin.
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