Ireland, like many other places on the globe, has its own hidden spaces, those lacunae that escape the official record. Millions of people were born, grew up, worked, and were waked in humble rural cottages, spaces lost to posterity because of their commonness, ordinariness, and ubiquity. The cabin was a simple fact of life for those living in it and a commonplace for those merely passing through the countryside. The architecture, placement, and contents of these structures were, on the whole, not worthy of mention to those who resided under their thatched roofs and darkened their thresholds. A word concerning the home might be exchanged among neighbors, family, or between landlord and tenant, but the inner spaces of the cabin were not fit subjects for the printed annals of history. Yet, hundreds of years later, scholars ponder the lives of ordinary people and the lifestyles taken for granted in the moment.
Rural Ireland glimpses into these interiors through painting and artifact. The show gathers paintings that attempted to capture the interior of the Irish cabin and the types of objects that would have been found in those spaces. In the exhibit, furniture and household objects sit next to their representations in oil, watercolor, and ink. The show focuses on nineteenth century Ireland, a time when literacy rates were quickly rising as the availability of printed literature and education increased for the laboring classes. Consequently, chapbooks, broadsides, and periodicals became a standard fixture of the Irish home. The Burns Library contributed a number of these items for the show as well as nineteenth century illustrations of Irish interiors by some of the great artists and engravers of the time.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Professors Vera Kreilkamp and Kevin O’Neill are currently teaching an undergraduate course in the history and art of rural Irish interiors. I recently had the opportunity to talk with their class about literacy and the printing practices. This lively period in Irish history which saw the introduction of wood pulp paper, the iron hand press, the steam-powered press, stereotyping, lithography, and other technical innovations gave the students a chance to reflect on the exhibit and think about how technologies of the word change political and social life.
Check out this review of the exhibit from the Boston Globe:
- Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reference Assistant and Ph.d. Candidate in the Department of English