- Inner Lives: Creativity and Survival in Irish Rural Life*
A patchwork economy of shillings, sixpences, and pennies, carelessly handed out by members of the gentry, supplemented the income of many west-of-Ireland families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Landlords and their friends came to stay at remote private lodges in the so-called “congested districts” to shoot and fish, while the Romantic Movement brought travelers to the same areas in search of the picturesque, and both groups offered opportunities for children and adults to earn tips for minor services. From the middle of the nineteenth century, railways, new hotels, and a proliferation of guidebooks published in London and Dublin attracted increasing numbers of visitors, including visual artists, to those places where the natural beauty of rugged landscapes went hand-in-hand with rural poverty.
Renowned storyteller Peig Sayers was born in 1873 to a subsistence-level, Irish-speaking family in Dunquin, Co. Kerry, and grew up in a home like many of those depicted in Rural Ireland: The Inside Story, cooking over the open fire and eating mostly potatoes, milk, and butter. One sunny evening in the 1880s, she and her friend Cáit Jim were herding their families’ few cows on the hillside above their homes when Peig spotted a horse-drawn cab with a driver and three passengers coming fast along the road below. The girls abandoned their cows and ran down to the roadside in time to meet it. Despite some difficulty communicating in English, they guided the tourists on foot to one of the local antiquities and posed for a photograph, earning a shilling each. The event was still vivid in Peig’s mind as she dictated her autobiography some fifty years later.1
The same quick-witted opportunism must lie behind many of [End Page 7] the works brought together in the exhibition. The poorest people depicted here lived in a world where material goods and intellectual life were home-made. They themselves had not “made it” in any economic sense, though, and would not have been nearly so interesting to the artists if they had. It is clear that many spoke only Irish, that a great many of those who did speak English were not literate, and that the differences between their life and that of the person painting or drawing them inform much of what we see here.
In order to sketch or paint an Irish rural interior—a private space—the artist had first to gain the permission and cooperation of the residents. Prosperous families may have felt honored by such attention, but poorer people can only have been persuaded to admit the stranger, and to pose for him or her, by the possibility of financial reward. The finished image of an impoverished rural interior is a record of an economic opportunity, therefore, and probably of an economic transaction, formal or informal, in which both sides had parts to play.
How did the subjects of these paintings and drawings view the artists who came to sketch their homes, or what can we know of their inner lives? Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Rural Interiors in Art has shown that even the poorest homes had aesthetic value for those who lived in them, and not just for artists and the viewing public.2 The wooden dressers, meal chests, tables, chairs, and butter churns that appear in The Inside Story and in Kinmonth’s book are plain and sturdy. Most would have been made by local craftsmen using simple tools and inexpensive materials, but her discerning commentary on the artwork shows with what careful sense of space and form some owners had arranged them in their homes. She shows how people too poor to afford a dresser might stand their few plates on edge on wall shelves for display, as in Frances Livesay’s (fl. 1869–81) By The Fireside (1875) (figure 1), or prop them along the back of a table, while others hung pot lids, proudly polished, near the hearth to reflect firelight.3 In households that lacked even such simple bought objects as plates and pot lids, artists depict items made by hand with care and...