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Feng Shui in early Ireland.



Royal Irish Academy: Dublin, 2011. 25 [euro].

IN 2007, THE EDITORIAL BOARD of Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (Section C- archaeology, Celtic studies, history, linguistics, literature) decided to produce "an occasional thematic volume" by drawing on the disciplines comprising Section C. Domestic Life in Ireland--a volume of twelve essays by a multi-disciplinary group of archaeologists, historians, historical geographers, architectural historians and architects focusing on the domestic house and space--is the first such offering, and a suitably ambitious and courageous one at that. Foregrounding new and emerging research, the breadth of the contributions is impressive and extends over 5,000 years from the Neolithic to the twenty-first century. Similarly, the volume demonstrates a great diversity of research interests, methodological approaches and constructions of "domestic life." The themes covered include housing and group identity during the Neolithic period; domestic production in prehistory; early medieval life and social identity; domestic pottery in historic Ireland; the use of space in tower houses and fortified houses; the vernacular house from 1800; working-class and middle-class housing near the end of the nineteenth-century; urban and suburban housing in nineteenth and twentieth-century Dublin, and a chapter on the anthropology of the contemporary Dublin house extension.

In the preface, the editors state their aspiration to bridge the "conceptual, attitudinal and methodological differences that separate archaeologists and historians, scholars of folklife and folklore, material and visual culture, art and architecture" to enrich our understanding of an aspect of human experience in Ireland (vii). The stimulating preface is reinforced by Tony Barnard's excellent introduction. He aptly describes the book as "thought-provoking," a volume that succeeds in presenting such diverse essays in a coherent and connecting way. In particular, he argues that while we may have an understanding of the history of the domestic for much of this period, less is known of the experience of domestic life. This is where new trends can, and do, emerge in this volume, and why the choice of domestic life as the subject matter was wise.

Although each essay can be read in isolation, there are a number of thematic linkages across a wide array of subjects and time periods. In Chapter 2, for example, Carleton Jones, Olive Carey and Clare Hennigar suggest that the building of shelters in prehistory was a communal activity involving family and neighbors. This echoes Barry O'Reilly's description in Chapter 8 of the communal building of vernacular homes from 1800, as the following account by Lord George Hill indicates:

the person who has the work to be done ... [ hires] ... a fiddler, upon which engagement all the neighbours joyously assemble, and carry, in an incredibly short time, the straw and timber upon their[s] to the new site: men, women, and children alternately dancing and working while daylight lasts, at the termination of which they adjourn to some dwelling where they finish the night, often prolonging the dance to dawn of day (201).

The chapter also demonstrates that there were standardized rates of pay for more specialist tasks, characterised in larger towns by the presence of guilds. Group identity is also a feature of Jessica Smyth's examination of domestic settings in Neolithic times, while in Chapter 3, Aidan O'Sullivan and Triona Nicholl provide an illuminating discussion of early medieval homes and settlements as locations "where children and adults learned, performed, and negotiated their social identities of status, kinship, household and gender" (60). Material culture is another recurring theme in the volume, and in Chapter 4 Clare McCutheon and Rosanne Meenan have probed the production and use of domestic pottery from the medieval to the modern. 'Pots on the hearth' connects Irish usage of pottery to that of other European countries--a glimpse at the comparison between domestic life in Ireland and that in Europe.

Another theme that is interspersed in many of the chapters is the contention by some commentators that the "native population" needed to be civilized. Much of this critique focused on the dwellings of Irish Catholic families and their ritualistic behavior, where money was spent on relics and devotional materials instead of domestic comforts. The "holy shelf," as Barry O'Reilly notes in Chapter 8, was often a feature of the vernacular house. Luck for the household had to be ensured, and there was a widespread taboo against extending a house westwards. This is captured in the saying "only a man stronger than God would extend his house to the west" (211). Crickets residing in the hearth were regarded as a sign of luck. O'Reilly charts the vernacular building style of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in terms of the position of the hearth, house size, construction, style of roof and furniture. * He concludes bleakly that "Since about the mid-twentieth century ... this key component of Irish tradition and house culture has been side-lined in favour of standard designs produced on the drawing board--a worldwide phenomenon that is adversely affecting cultural diversity" (215).

Colonization and links with England and Europe also feature prominently in Domestic Life. In Chapter 6, Jane Fenlon examines the moves towards the "formal house" from the mid-sixteenth century onwards as building fashions changed with the introduction of Renaissance ideas into Ireland. Over a small number of decades houses became "more comfortable and more outwardly symmetrical in elevation and plan" (141). While she acknowledges the limitations in her sample (most houses belonged to Old English families), even those that were not "Old English" aspired to the new style. Fenlon demonstrates that trends in internal arrangement and room usage were only a few years behind their European counterparts,

and in some cases, influences bypassed England and came directly from European sources. Addressing the evolution of the Irish tower-house as a domestic space, Rory Sherlock argues that the Irish tower-house "comfortably spans the architectural transition from castle to house and in so doing gives physical expression to the evolving nature of Irish society in the late medieval period" (139). Conor Lucey's examination of neoclassical interior decoration in eighteenth-century Dublin enterprisingly uses advertisements, inventories and correspondence to probe the details of domestic life. His discussion of why and how people remodeled in the neoclassical style is fascinating and underlines the distinction between "active" and "passive" engagement with the trend. While for some status was priority, for others practical concerns came to the fore, perhaps revising previous ideas.

While most chapters address the upper classes, the working-class is the focus of Chapters 9-11. Frank Cullen's survey in Chapter 9 of the provision of working and lower-middle-class housing in late-nineteenth-century Dublin provides a wealth of valuable information on rents, wages and living conditions. He points to the growing gap between the poor and middle classes with the elegant, spacious suburban middle-class housing contrasting sharply with the dilapidated and dangerous tenements. Yet the chapter delves deeper by addressing the social hierarchy that existed in poor and working-class areas once new housing had been built and allocated. Cullen's insightful chapter demonstrates that while both the poor and middle classes "shared the same streetscape, their domestic worlds were poles apart" (251). These themes are elaborated by Ruth McManus who provides an overview in Chapter 10 of suburban and urban housing in the twentieth century. Changing norms in housing size, facilities and design, as well as increasing state intervention affected the location and form of urban housing estates. Incentives for families to own houses, as opposed to renting, have ensured that owner-occupation has become the dominant form of tenure. Renting, by contrast, has been treated as a second-best option by state and citizenry alike. McManus ends on a positive note by stating that "in housing terms, Ireland's urban population is considerably more fortunate at the end of the twentieth century than it was at the beginning" (286). This story of progress is one which will undoubtedly have many future twists and turns. Mary McCarthy's chapter on the provision of housing in the North and the South after World War II is an interesting comparative study, particularly as "cost and expediency" appear to have been the predominant factors influencing policy makers in both jurisdictions. Domestic Life closes with an intriguing chapter on the social anthropology of contemporary architect-designed house extensions in Dublin.

This is an engaging collection full of interesting and quirky details for the general reader as well as innovative and fresh research for the specialist. Domestic Life is richly illustrated. Images of artifacts, paintings, architectural plans and drawings, and artistic representations of domestic life are interspersed with the text. The volume's interdisciplinary nature offers much to the reader, moving us out of our comfort zone to explore new methodologies and research areas. It is conscious of the effect of class, gender and ethnicity on domestic life and signposts many fascinating directions for future research. Comparative studies involving domestic in Ireland life are still in their infancy due mainly to the perceived scarcity of sources on material culture and domestic life in Ireland. Work remains to be done on a wide-range of topics, from an examination of shopping patterns, to the increasing private nature of the home. Childhood studies have fortunately expanded since the time this text went to print, and will add to the narrative and detail of domestic life.

--NUI Galway
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Title Annotation:Domestic Life in Ireland: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century
Author:Buckley, Sarah-Anne
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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