• A typical Wicklow kitchen hearth

    The kitchen, and in particular the hearth, was the focal point of every Irish farmhouse. On entering a farmhouse the visitor would be brought into the kitchen. The kitchen in a typical Wicklow single-storey farmhouse is typically centrally positioned in the house. The hearth can be positioned inside the front door or at the opposite end of the kitchen to the front door. The kitchen hearth in Wicklow is never set or built into the wall, rather it is set on the floor in front of the wall. Therefore, there was no need to construct a flue in the wall. Instead, a large canopy or hood was built projecting out into the kitchen over the fire.

    The earliest examples of these canopies were constructed by forming a three-sided wicker basket, lined externally with clay. The structure tapers as it rises towards the apex of the roof and the chimney above. As it rises and becomes narrower, this is compensated for by leaving a recessed flue within the wall as it approaches the chimney. In 1952 Rose Byrne of Rathcoyle near Kiltegan recalled that;

    “Every house in Ballinguile had the wicker chimney – ‘black’ sallies interwoven. Then a coating of marl clay about 2" thick (to protect it from the fire). The rougher sallies were woven, the better the clay stuck. A fellow named Hinch worked at nothing else – making and repairing these chimneys. There were, and are, chimneys in the district the same as above, but without the marl plaster. In later years, when the old sally chimneys – or the beams underneath got moth eaten or worn out, they were replaced with lath and plaster chimneys or wood” (National Folklore Collection 1309, 246).

    Sometime before 1817 a British angler, Gregory Greendrake was fishing at Lough Dan and Lough Tay. He subsequently described a house in Roundwood which featured a screen or entry wall protecting the hearth which in turn had an overhead wicker canopy;

    “The kitchen, in all the cabins of Ireland, is the common apartment of the house; immediately opposite to the street door, as it is descriptively called in Ireland, was … a mud wall, erected to defend the inner apartment and fire-side from the cold airs of the outer door; that fire-side was an ample space, with a wide wicker-worked chimney over head, the inside of which was well hung with hams, gammons, and flitches, and around a blazing turf fire, or peat moss fire, was seated most of the family, and perhaps, an humble traveller, taking the hasty refreshment of a draught of Wicklow ale, or a glass of whiskey” (Greydrake 1832, 32-4).

    Notably, these wicker and clay canopies have been identified throughout Wickow and are not specific to any part of the county (they are also found in neighbouring counties Carlow and Wexford, and also in Ulster, but they are not found everywhere). The canopies are supported upon a large timber crossbeam that often spans the width of the kitchen, or if a screen wall is present, spans the area from the screen wall to the rear wall of the kitchen; where this wall consists of a timber screen the crossbeam usually rests on a large upright timber post. Two smaller timbers inserted in the gable wall bridge the gap with the crossbeam and support the sides of the canopy. Above this frame then the wicker canopy is constructed. This usually requires a series of uprights that extend all the way from the frame to the base of the chimney, and around these timbers the wicker basket is weaved. A thick layer of clay is applied to the exterior of the basket as a sealant to retain the smoke within the canopy. It is not unusual to find that overtime a gap develops where the canopy meets the wall, which of course allowed smoke to escape into the kitchen. The simplest solution in such cases was to stuff newspaper into the gap to prevent the smoke from the fire escaping.

    Of course, the main role of the kitchen fireplace was for cooking and the production of hot water for other domestic activities. While the iron crane is often seen as a typical feature of the Irish hearth, the evidence for such cranes in Wicklow is less common, though it is worth noting that two wooden cranes have been noted in different parts of the county. Instead, the most common form of suspending cooking pots above the fire was the use of a wooden crossbeam built into the canopy high above the fireplace. Such a crossbeam spanning the width of the canopy allows a number of long iron ‘racks’ to hang at various different positions across the full width of the fireplace. From these iron racks the iron pots or kettle could be suspended directly over the flame of the fire.

    Reference

    Greydrake, G., 1832, The angling excursions of Gregory Greendrake, Esq. in the counties of Wicklow, Meath, Westmeath, Longford and Cavan (4th edition). Dublin.

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