In May 2018, as part of the National Famine Commemoration at University College Cork, a mud cabin - an Bothán - was constructed by the buildings and estates staff at the College (see below). Standing beside a building that dates from the same period, it serves as a blunt reminder of how the poorest people lived and died during the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852. It prompted me to write this piece on Irish cabins.
Irish cabins: rural slums
My writings on vernacular Irish architecture have focused on the traditional three roomed cottage of the post-Famine period and in understanding this it is important to acknowledge the cottage’s predecessor, what will be referred to here as the ‘cabin’. The two types of dwelling coexisted for some time in the nineteenth century before the cabin as a building type died out, largely due to the Famine.
The plight of those housed in the notorious ‘tenement’ slums of Irish cities in the nineteenth century and beyond has been well documented. In the same era there were also slums in rural Ireland. A census of 1841 showed that 40 per cent of rural houses were single-room mud cabins Like the urban tenements, the cabin was characterised by terrible poverty, overcrowding and filth.
Even though we associate ‘cottage’ dwellers as impoverished by our standards of living today, those houses were better built, usually well thatched and contained furniture. Cabins were associated with a much grimmer type of poverty and were ramshackle, muddy and primeval in comparison. Some were known as a bothán scóir, used seasonally by travelling farm labourers, but many large, poor families lived in cabins on a permanent basis. They were dotted across Ireland and would have been a common sight. Below: "Cottage, Achill Island", Alexander Williams (1846-1930) part of the Museum of Great Irish Hunger collection (Quinnipiac).
Unfit for human habitation:
The cabin of the early nineteenth century represented the reality of the terrible poverty of most of rural Ireland. Due to the tumbledown nature of their construction with earth piled around them, some cabins resembled smoking dung heaps, and these dotted the countryside across Ireland.
Cabins were basic, one-roomed and had few if no windows, a single lean-to door. There was a basic central hearth surrounded by stones, which was ventilated by a hole in the roof and used to cook food. Cabins were usually made of mud, sod, turf or scrap timber. Many were merely makeshift shelters, lean-tos with sods of earth for walls. Roofs were crudely thatched using heather or grass. They were draughty and damp and barely kept the weather out. There was obviously no electricity, running water or toilet in these dwellings. There was little or no furniture. Sleeping arrangements were pragmatic: the whole family, parents and children, slept together on the floor beside the fire. Cabin occupants had faces that were blackened by the fire smoke. Livestock, if any, shared these dwellings with humans.
Below: An Irish cabin by Arthur Young (Draughtsman) c.1790 From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Directly outside the entrance to most cabins was a compost heap, known as a ‘midden’, containing household waste. Entry was through a low door to a dimly lit, smoky single room, commonly ‘full of flies and with the odour of a stable’. The floor was of clay, uneven and littered with rushes or heather – a style unchanged since pre-medieval times. One English traveller commented on a cabin that the occupant shared with two cows: ‘It was more like a floorless stable that had not been cleaned for a week, than a human habitation.’
Owing to such living conditions and successive famines meant that the poorer population were more substile to illness at a time when fevers such as cholera and typhus were rampant throughout the country. In the early nineteenth century there was lack of medical understanding of these, compounded by lack of hygiene and medicine. Imagine giving birth in a cabin – little wonder rates of infant and maternal mortality were high. Or imagine trying to battle a disease such as cholera, and continuing to share the communal family bed, on the clay floor. Cabin dwellers did not stand a chance in such situations and suffered greatly during the Great Famine.
Cabins were the dwelling places of a wealthy landowner’s tenants. Tenants paid rent partly by working in the fields and raising livestock for landowners, a precarious existence. Tenants sometimes depended on the benevolence (if any) of the landlord if the weather was poor or their crops failed. The spectre of eviction always loomed.
After the Great Famine the cabin was ultimately overtaken by the cottage as the most common type of rural dwelling. As cabins commanded little rent, and the land was more profitable when used for grazing livestock over a bigger area. Many cabins, were cleared from the land in the post-Famine period their dwellers themselves swept off the face of the earth during these traumatic years. Hardly any trace of them remain.
Below: Owen Gray’s House by Artist(s): Jonathan Binns (Draughtsman), Louis Haghe (Lithographer), William Day (Lithographer). From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
My thanks to Ross O’Donovan, Buildings Maintenance Manager, University College Cork.
Also to the newly digitised ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Clifton Johnston, ‘The Peasants’ Ireland’, The Outlook (1897).
D. George Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland: the Search for Stability (Dublin, 1990).