Exhibitions Update: The Story Behind Rural Ireland

Incoveniences of a Single Life

Erskine Nicol (1825–1904)
Inconveniences of a Single Life, 1909
reproduced from a painting in Mrs. S. C. Hall, Tales of Irish Life and Character (Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1909), n.p.

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.

Inside of William's Cottage

“Inside of William’s Cottage,” wood engraving, The Cottage Fire-Side (1821; reprint, Dublin: Napper and White, 1826), 117.

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.

Listening to Raison

Erskine Nicol (1825–1904)
Listenin’ to Raison, 1909
reproduced from a painting (perhaps called Molly Brierly), exhibited 1901 in Mrs. S. C. Hall, Tales of Irish Life and Character (Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1909), frontispiece.

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.

Rural Ireland: The Inside Story will be at the McMullen Museum on the campus of Boston College until June 3rd, 2012.  See the exhibit website below for more details:

Check out this review of the exhibit from the Boston Globe:

  • Andrew Kuhn, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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