Cameron

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Personal photograph of a wooden loft in an eighteenth century Irish cottage, taken at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia.

Imagine yourself as a child on an 18th Century Irish farm. Your day has been full of hard work from dawn until dusk, but now the working day is over and you have finished eating with your family inside your cottage. Outside it is dark and cold, and the only source of light and heat is the hearth, which you and family huddle around as the pete fire inside spews smoke out into the room. It’s almost bedtime, and where will you be sleeping? There are no bedrooms in your home, and only one bed. Your parents or grandparents will sleep there, and you and your siblings will sleep up on the wooden loft on the other side of the room, far away from the fire and high above the ground, in the midst of the smoke from the fire. [6]

Wooden lofts were common in peasant cottages in 18th Century Ireland. The structural design of Irish peasant cottages was generally very simple; rectangular in shape, one story, with walls made of earth or stone, and a thatched roof. [1] This design made lofts very easy to construct because the rectangular shape of the home limited how long the loft would have to be to stretch from wall to wall, and the thatched roof left a convenient shelf along the top of the walls for the loft to rest on. The use of wood to construct lofts makes them a unique item in an Irish home. Ireland did not have a large source of timber, which is why wood was not used for the walls of cottages. Homes had few wooden items in them: perhaps a table, a few chairs, the bed frame, and a dresser if the family could afford it in addition to the loft. The use of a scarce natural resource like wood shows how important lofts were in the Irish home. Lofts were sometimes constructed by a member of the family, if they had the skill and the tools, and sometimes a local carpenter was employed to build the loft for the family. [2]

Another unique feature of lofts is that they were owned by the family living in the home. This is in contrast from many of the items the family used on the farm on a daily basis, as well as the land and the cottage itself. Most peasant farmers would have rented the land and the cottage they lived in from a local landlord, who owned many farms and had many renters. The concept of ownership and property rights in this time period was vastly different than today’s society. Most peasants did not have many possessions, but the loft was one of them. If the family left the farm, either because they were forced out by their landlord or because they had better opportunities elsewhere, they would take the loft with them, to either use in their new home or to sell. [1] Lofts were designed specifically for the width of the cottage, however, which indicates the commitment farmers had to the home they were renting.

Cottages on Irish farms were generally not very large, and almost always one-story, so space was often an issue because entire families, sometimes consisting of grandparents and several children had to live together. In this situation, floor space was essential and had to available for multiple purposes. This made lofts extremely valuable because they created extra space that could be used for either storage or as a sleeping area, or both. [5] The loft could only be reached by ladder, which limited what items could be stored there. objects that could not be carried up the ladder, due to size or weight for example, could not be stored on the loft, and the loft could not be used as a sleeping area for anyone who was not fit enough to climb the ladder.

Sleeping on the loft was not ideal for two main reasons. Firstly, the loft would be at the opposite end of the room from the hearth and elevated off the ground, which made it the coldest area of the home to sleep in. Another unpleasant aspect of sleeping in the loft was that the home was very smoky due to the burning of pete fires, and the smoke was thicker higher above the ground in the loft. The constant exposure to smoke within the home frequently led to respiratory problems, and sleeping in the loft would have made the situation even worse. There was usually only one bed in the home, which was placed by the hearth to provide warmth, and was used by either the parents or the grandparents of the family. The loft was used as a sleeping place primarily for children, both boys and girls. [6]

The lack of privacy offered by the loft is consistent with the rest of an Irish home. Irish families often had many children, and the whole family shared a one room or two room house. [5] Privacy simply did not exist within the home, and this is true for the loft as well. While the loft may have provided a separate physical space for certain family member’s was as close as many Irish children had to a bedroom, it was still open and visible to the rest of the room. The lack of privacy in an Irish home reinforced the idea of having a tight knit family, because families almost all of the time spent indoors was spent close to the entire family. [6]

The presence of a wooden loft in an Irish home can also be used as an indicator of class status. The usefulness of a loft is based upon the size and structure of homes that were lived in by peasants; small, one story, one room wide houses where space saving was essential. [4] Wealthier members of the community lived in larger houses, that had several bedrooms and more than one story. In wealthier homes, lofts were unnecessary because space was more readily available, and the presence of a second story would have made lofts impossible to build anyway. Lofts, therefore, were an object owned almost mostly by the lower classes. On the other hand, lofts could be expensive to build for poor farmers, due to the lack of available wood, so many tenant farmers could not afford them, or were forced to sell them during hard times. Lofts, therefore, occupy a unique position as a luxury item for the bottom classes. [3]

Wooden lofts in eighteenth century Irish homes are valuable historical objects because they were common in lower class homes, they are a rare example of property ownership, they signify the importance of utilitarianism, they showcase how difficult and uncomfortable life was for lower class citizens, they reveal the lack of privacy during this time period, and they point to a specific socio-economic class identity.

Bibliography

[1] “Irish Cottage History,” Cottageology. Accessed December 4, 2016. https://cottageology.com/irish-cottage-history/

[2] “Irish Country Furniture FAQ’s,” The National Museum of Ireland. Accessed December 4, 2016. http://www.museum.ie/Decorative-Arts-History/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/Irish-Country-Furniture/FAQs

[3] Oram, Richard. Traditional Buildings in Ireland. Belfast: Mourne Heritage Trust, 2004. Accessed December 4, 2016. http://www.nihe.gov.uk/traditional_buildings.pdf

[4] “A Selection of Thatched Houses in West County Donegal,” National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. Accessed December 4, 2016. http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/Surveys/Buildings/BuildingoftheMonth/Archive/Name,1373,en.html

[5] “Traditional Irish Architecture FAQ’s,” The National Museum of Ireland. Accessed December 4, 2016. http://www.museum.ie/The-Collections/Folklife/Folklife-Collections-List/Architecture-Collections/Traditional-Irish-Architecture-FAQs

[6] “1700’s Irish Farm.” The Frontier Culture Museum: Staunton, Virginia. September 8, 2016.