Glennan in the County of Monaghan

An Irish Cabin on the Commons of Bray

Finola O'Kane investigates how topographical depictions of cabins, cottages and dwellings shaped perceptions of Ireland in the 18th century and beyond.

Visitors to Ireland often remarked on the long strings of cabins that stretched along the approach roads to every town and village (Fig. 1). These often attracted more attention than a town's new public buildings. Their frequently dilapidated condition gave writers the opportunity to pontificate on Ireland's housing and general poverty. Typically constructed of poor but readily available building materials such as turf sods or thatch, they usually did not possess either a chimney or windows, both of which would have made the building more expensive to heat. Sometimes the cabins clustered together into clachans, settlements lacking a town square, market place or village green that would have made them easier for visitors to interpret. The clachan also had no church or market hall to give it a clear visual focus with the cabins appearing thrown together at random.[1]

Glennan in the County of Monaghan

Glenman in the County of Monaghan

A watercolour view of traditional cabins on the approach to the village of Glennan, Co. Monaghan in Ulster. Drawn by an anonymous artist in 1771.

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In 1779 Arthur Young (1741–1820) prepared the frontispiece plate of 'An Irish Cabbin' for volume two of his seminal publication A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779 (Fig. 2). The small decrepit construction, described in the text as a 'weedy dung-hill', was chosen to represent Ireland – not an image of an Irish city, street, public building or great house. In representing the state of the country, Young's use of the word 'cabbin' rather than cottage was highly considered, with others such as Emily, Duchess of Leinster (1731–1814), using it to contrast the Irish environment with that of her home country of England:

You can't imagine anything more like the country of England than it is all round us here [near Stradbally, County Laois]; shady lanes with oak trees in the hedges, a river just under the windows, fields and meadows with paths thro’ them, no stone walls, no miserable looking cabins near it—in short, this spot is vastly pretty.[2]

An Irish Cabbin

An Irish Cabbin

Arthur Young’s engraved view of an Irish cabin, used as the frontispiece for volume two of his widely read and well received A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779

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Young's illustration shows an example of what the later 1841 Census of Ireland would define as fourth-class housing or 'mud cabins having only one room'. A third-class house was a 'better description of a cottage, still built of mud but varying from two to four rooms and windows'.[3] A critique of Ireland's housing for poor runs through Young's entire tour, with an extensive analysis of cottages and 'cabbins' in the 'Habitations' subsection:

The cottages of the Irish, which are all called cabbins, are the most miserable looking hovels that can well be conceived: They generally consist of only one room: mud kneaded with straw is the common material of the walls; these are rarely above seven feet high, and not always above five or six; they are about two feet thick, and have only a door, which lets in light instead of a window, and should let the smoke out instead of a chimney, but they had rather keep it in especially when the cabbin is not built with regular walls, but supported on one, or perhaps on both sides by the banks of a broad dry ditch.[4] 

Yet in some parts of Ireland Young was more positive. When travelling through Summerhill, Co. Meath he did not hesitate to pronounce one cabin's inhabitants 'as well off as most English cottagers' because the cabin was 'built of mud 18 inches or 2 feet thick, and well thatched' and this was 'far warmer than the thin clay walls in England.'[5] The most elementary form of Irish cabin was called a 'scalp', a word that derived from the Irish word scailp for a 'cleft or fissure in rock', a shelter formed therein, or a cave, den or earthen hut.[6] A slightly larger cabin was called a bothóg[7] and was built into the natural incline of the ground, emerging out of the landscape rather than standing on top of it. In 1796 John Laporte (1761–1839) depicted the most famous Irish scailp, that of The Scalp in County Wicklow (Fig. 3). A spectacular entrance gateway to Wicklow, visitors who entered the county by way of the Scalp enjoyed a sudden and spectacular prospect of the Sugar Loaf mountain.

The Scalp in the County of Wicklow

The Scalp in the County of Wicklow

John Laporte’s 1796 depiction of The Scalp and Sugar Loaf mountain, Co. Wicklow

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The Sugar Loaf mountain also appears in the anonymously drawn aquatint view 'On the Commons of Bray' where a small structure slants towards an even smaller one (Fig. 4). Emerging from the ground, the larger building seems to have a small window and a rudimentary chimney making it only tentatively a cottage and more likely a cabin. Less ambiguity attaches to the smaller structure: with the smoke emerging from the door it clearly has no chimney but still does appear to have a window. To the left runs the river Dargle, whose picturesque route through Wicklow is suggested by the mountain rising in the distance. John Laporte's view of 'The Town of Bray' shows the same river Dargle dividing the town on the right-hand side from the commons of Bray on the left (Fig. 5). Screened by a small plantation of young trees the huddle of small buildings on the common probably included those depicted by the anonymous 'B' (Fig. 4). Laporte's view also carefully separated the sensible upright estate town of Bray, with its Protestant church and large well-appointed buildings, from the cabins and cottages of the common. A townland stretching along the Dargle's northern flood plain as it approaches the sea, Bray Commons was vulnerable to both river floods and tidal surges. Few people of means would have built in such a location. Those that did take that risk were probably squatting on the land, without any legal entitlement to do so. The city of Dublin's twin suburban villages of Ringsend and Irishtown had a similar relationship to that depicted by Laporte at Bray. Irishtown's strings of cabins, many of them illegally 'encroaching' on the lands of the Fitzwilliam estate, did not follow the straight and direct lines of the roads and houses of Ringsend.[8] Separated by more than just a river and a stone bridge, such views suggest the property upheavals of 17th-century Ireland and the spatial legacy of sectarian conflict.

View of the town of Bray

View of the Town of Bray

Another landscape by the artist John Laporte, this scene depicts the buildings of Bray on the affluent side of the river Dargle

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The anonymous 'B' also produced a view of a 'Cabin at Drumcondra', a suburb of Dublin (Fig. 6). Depicting a better class of building entirely, this is not really a cabin because it possesses a chimney and not one, but two small windows. The building's sharp corners indicate that it was constructed of coursed rubble or brick rather than mud and the stepped character of the plan suggests cumulative extensions to an original simpler form. The large timber door, similar to that of a barn, suggests a much larger building than Young's typical Irish cabin. The small wall extending into the trees and ending in a symmetrical corner pavilion suggests that this 'cabin' may have formed part of a grander complex of garden buildings. Drumcondra had many suburban villa landscapes that looked southwards towards the Dublin mountains. This cabin may have been located in such a villa's garden and the wheel-like like contraption before the front door is more reminiscent of a wheelbarrow or garden roller than a farming implement.

Cabin at Drumcondra

Cabin at Drumcondra

This aquatint view of a cottage at Drumcondra was drawn by the same anonymous artist that created the view of the two dilapidated cabins ‘On the Commons of Bray’ (shown above)

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During his tour in Ireland in 1776–1779 Arthur Young made many drawings that he hoped would illustrate his book. Seeking advice in 1777 from the Earl of Charlemont as to how best to publish it he was advised to do so by subscription but found it difficult to get enough subscribers to pay for the ambitious number of illustrations.[9] Young had included illustrations in his books before. His 1770 publication A Six Months Tour through the North of England,[10] described his attempts to make 'a slight sketch' of the bank of the Tees 'where it pours down the rock' and he judged the result to fall 'far short of the original'.[11] His opening image for volume one was of a bridge over a river while volume two was illustrated with a suite of waterfalls, a structure that he echoed in the Tour in Ireland 1776-1779. In The Farmer's Tour through the East of England (1771) illustrations of ploughs, carts and farming implements predominated together with a chart showing the characteristically pedantic 'View of the Dimensions of the Seats of the Nobility & c. throughout this Tour'. Only three of his many Irish drawings of were eventually included in the Irish tour's many editions, condensing Ireland's visual identity into a view of 'An Irish Cabbin' (Fig. 2), a view of Powerscourt Waterfall and the rarer plate of 'Mary's Island, Lough Earne'.[12] Young's comparison of the Irish cabin to a 'weedy dunghill' is more evident in his preparatory drawing than the finished plate (Fig. 7). The surrounding mountainous context (with the text suggesting that of Wicklow or Mayo) is also more legible in the final print, an acknowledgment perhaps of the tourist audience's preference for a wider landscape view. The decision that the final finished plate should exclude the clothed, seated husband and wife, their three naked children, their cow and feeding calf, horse, tied sheep, restrained hound, dog, duck, cock, hen, three chickens and enormous bowl of potatoes is very interesting. It may have reflected not only the author's viewpoint but perhaps also that of his publisher and projected readers. Figure drawing was not Young's forte, but the final plate of a denuded, depopulated and desolate landscape is particularly affecting when compared with the original drawing. Viewing the plate before knowing of the drawing might suggest that Young was concentrating his attention on Irish housing with his typical degree of focus. Knowledge of the drawing changes one’s interpretation of the plate – what is removed from view becomes as interesting as what is not.

Pen and wash drawing of an Irish cabin

Arthur Young's pen and wash drawing of an Irish cabin.

Arthur Young’s pen and ink drawing, used as the basis for the printed ‘Irish Cabbin’ (shown above) 

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It is difficult to overstate the influence of Arthur Young's A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779 on perceptions of Ireland in the 18th century. He was 'not only the best-known agricultural reformer and publicist of his time, with an international reputation, but also a figure of importance in the political and social issues of the day'.[13] Combining critiques of agricultural, aesthetic and economic practices, it remains one of the foremost sources for those studying the general condition of 18th-century Ireland. As Ireland moved towards the cataclysm of the famine of 1845–1849, cabins were but rarely represented in Irish landscape paintings and even less so in its aftermath.[14] In Ireland it remained challenging to maintain any sentimental image of cottage life and the harsh reality of the Irish cabin's form and wider setting complicated its picturesque accommodation into any Irish view. Yet the visual preference for small vernacular buildings continued to influence the representation of Ireland. Tour guides continued to favour Ireland's rivers, lakes, sea-sides, mountains, hills and roads over Irish towns and their buildings. The visual dominance of the Irish cottage, if not the cabin, continued.

Footnotes:

[1] F. H. A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout, Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), p. 80 & p. 75.

[2] Emily Kildare to James Kildare, May 9 in Brian Fitzgerald (ed.) Correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, 3 vols. (Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1949), i, p. 76.

[3] Census of Ireland 1841, Dublin, 1843, xiv.

[4] Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779, (London: T. Cadell and J. Dodsley, 1780), pp. 25–26.

[5] Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779, (London: T. Cadell and J. Dodsley, 1780), p.21.

[6] Niall Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, (Baile Átha Cliath [i.e. Dublin] : Oifig an tSoláthair, 1977), 'scailp'.

[7] Jonathan Bell, 'Miserable Hovels and Substantial Habitations: The Housing of Rural Labourers in Ireland Since the Eighteenth Century' in Folk Life; Journal of Ethnological Studies, 34:1 (1995), pp. 45–46 See also Nessa Roche, 'Cabins' in Art and Architecture of Ireland, Volume 4: Architecture 1600-2000,  (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 332).

[8] Finola O'Kane, 'Dublin's Fitzwilliam Estate; A Hidden Landscape of Discovery, Catholic Agency and Egalitarian Suburban Space' in Eighteenth-century Ireland; Iris an dá chultúr, vol. 31, pp. 94–118.

[9] The British Library, Add. Ms. 35126, Arthur Young Correspondence, Vol 1, f. 172: Earl of Charlemont to Sir Lucius O.Brien, Dromoland, Dublin March 9th, 1777.

[10] Arthur Young, A Six months Tour through the north of England..., 3 vols., (Dublin: P. Wilson, etc, 1770).

[11] Arthur Young, A Six Months Tour through the North of England, Dublin, (Dublin: P. Wilson, etc, 1770), vol. 1/3, p. 352.

[12] Finola O'Kane, 'Arthur Young's Published and Unpublished Illustrations for A Tour in Ireland 1776-1779' in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, vol. XIX (2016), pp. 118–160.

[13] G.E. Mingay, 'Arthur Young (1741–1820)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, January 2015 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30256?docPos=2].

[14] Claudia Kinmonth, 'Rural Life through Artists' Eyes: An Interdisciplinary Approach' in Whipping the Herring; Survival and Celebration in Nineteenth-century Irish Art, Crawford Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, (Cork: Crawford art Gallery, 2006), p. 40. See also Tom Dunne, 'The Dark Side of the Irish Landscape: Depictions of the Rural Poor, 1760-1850' in same; and for England John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape; The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).















  • Finola O'Kane
  • Finola O'Kane is Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

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