Powdered snow sits in piles on the window sill as I look out onto this morning’s antics in my back garden. Two male robins puff out their reddened chests in a territorial dance for the last morsels of breadcrumbs left out by my mother. Behind them a meandering path of trodden steps leads to the wooden shed, a sequence of prints like the stitches of a hem holding the folds of pristine snow together. The turf has been brought in for today’s fire, those caoráns (Irish for fragment of turf) heaped into the weaved basket – what a difference from the summertimes passed in bog-side bliss, the seasonal duty of turf cutting which called upon the entire family to help out. In the barren flat bog lands our abled bodies would work following the rigid cut lines, stacking the peat into jenga-like structures in order to dry. A day of hard labour in the soaking sun left us sun-kissed and aching. The suddenness of a knock on the front door brings me back to the contrasting reality of the pelting snow outside. It’s our neighbour with a circular loaf of home-made brown bread, still warm to touch, which emanates a delicious baked scent. And just in time for lunch, Mom has a pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove. This scene may have aptly portrayed a rural domestic home in 1950s Ireland on the cusp of electrification, but in actuality it is a return to a simpler time which was brought upon us by the great snow storm of 2018. While stranded in the house, entrapped by red weather warnings, there was an opportunity to relish birdwatching, bread baking and soup making.
The Electric Irish Homes research project looks at the effects of electrification on rural Irish housewives and homes during the 1950s and 1960s. Over the past few months I have been interviewing and checking transcripts of the women who were affected by rural electrification – the ‘switching on’ event, how it changed their daily lives and the new electrical products which entered their homes. The recording of Irish women’s memories and lived experiences gives us insight into this specific historical time, as well as highlighting the impact electricity made in the everyday during the twentieth century.
A home in rural Ireland before electricity had the heat of the open fire to keep you warm and the light of the Tilley lamp and that of the Sacred Heart portrait to illuminate the room. However, the literal darkness of these times triggers Catherine Marshall’s (Stoneyford, Co.Kilkenny) memories of children huddled around the kitchen table with the oil lamp in the centre. They hastened to complete their homework while the shadows in the background danced and “became a place for imagination.” In Maria Landy’s house in Kilkenny a king-sized bed was shared by four sisters sleeping top to tail, and the chamber pot would reside underneath in case “you got caught short in the night.” Shared baths in front of the fire were a common occurrence and you definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be the tenth child in. With the introduction of electricity came an initial fear and disgruntlement, farmers refusing to have a pole in the middle of their land, a continuous scare that the “light might set fire to the house” and there was an irrational terror of being electrocuted by the light switch. That said the ‘switching on’ was a ceremonious event for all. Eileen Aylward from Rathmore, Co. Kerry accurately remembers this greatly anticipated event with her 82-year-old grandmother blessing herself and proclaiming “The Light of Heaven to our Souls” as the switch was flicked.
With the light in the home came the launch of new mod-cons or “labour saving devices” that would assist a housewife with the menial duties of running a home. Obviously priority was attributed to the kettle, without it would take the best part of an hour to make a cup of tea. Another favoured item was the automatic washing machine. Before this Mondays were set aside as wash days and many women described the painstaking task of scrubbing the clothes on the washboard, the breaking and cutting of hands over rigorously scrapping the clothes, “it would rip the knuckles off you..” said Josephine from rural Co. Dublin. But when the automatic washing machine arrived it was praised no end “Putting your washing powder in, close the door, turning on the switch and away you go”, it was another pair of hands. Even though jobs were getting done quicker it didn’t mean the load was any lighter. One of the questions I would always ask was “What did you do with all this free time after the electricity?” They were baffled and took a pause for recollection and generally answered knitting.
Alongside the tedious duties of washing, ironing and looking after multiple children these women had the daily chore of baking fresh bread. Marshall affectionately remembers her short plump grandmother with her apron on and white hair tied back in a bun winning the 1957 National Brown Bread Baking Competition sponsored by the ESB. With her simple recipe of equal parts of wholemeal and white flour and a teaspoon of bread soda with buttermilk, the passed down family recipe is merely based on ratios, no eggs otherwise “That’s not bread, that’s a cake.” Her prize for this prestigious accomplishment were a set of hard-bottomed pots which are still in use to this day, an everyday heirloom that brings back cherished childhood memories.
The time before electrification was filled with hardship, simplicity and an attitude of getting on with things, however these women reflect on their past memories with a shared fondness, a glow of nostalgia is noticeable as they indulge in their reminiscing. “They were good days” was a phrase repetitively mentioned as they were brought back to a time where normally granny, the parents and the fellow dozen siblings all lived under the one roof. A time where every member had a role to contribute to the running of the home, a time where people were self-sufficient. The acceleration of change in Ireland since the 1950s has been unimaginable, the life that these women lived is difficult to envision compared to now. But Storm Emma gave us a small insight into these simpler times where we were reminded of the unruliness of nature, the importance of being a good neighbour and enjoyed the pleasures of baking. That said, after those few days of confinement we were all eager to return back to our frantic lives.
Rachel Botha has an MA in Visual & Critical Studies from the Dublin Institute of Technology and a BA in History of Art & Architecture from Trinity. She volunteered on the Electric Irish Homes project in 2017 and 2018.