Sleeping through the Ulster Folk Museum

In which I introduce some Scots words, examine underfloor heating, Irish country style, and go off on a digression about the joys of an open air museum.

On a trip to the Ulster Folk Museum this summer I came across a nineteenth-century farmhouse that had been cleverly desinged to keep the family warm at night.

Continuing our theme of the history of bedrooms and bedsharing, I took the chance to take a few snaps.

The Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra, County Down, Northern Ireland

The digression ….

If you ever get an opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, the Ulster Folk Museum should be top of your list of things to see. This is an open air museum set in over 150 acres of rolling countryside in County Down.

Potato farls cooking on a griddle

This is the best museum I have ever been to (and I’ve been to a lot of museums!). I spent many happy days here as a child, poking about in the small homesteads, and sitting on the wooden benches at the National School. The 1920s picture house, showing Charlie Chaplin films, wasn’t there then. Nor was the corner shop selling sweets from jars by the quarter. This is now my daughter’s favourite part of the town.

The museum was founded in the 1960s by my next-door-neighbour, George Thompson. The buildings (some dating from the 1600s) were moved stone by stone from locations all around the nine counties of Ulster to the museum site.

What I love most about the Ulster Folk Museum is that it is a working museum, where crops are grown, machines are operated and turf fires burn in the open hearths.  In the early 1990s I came here to pick potatoes as part of a school trip.  Sheep can be seen grazing in the fields along the country walk, and chickens roam lose around the farmyards.

Depending on the day, you can see the shuttle fly along the Jacquard loom in the weaver’s workshop, posters inked on the presses at the print shop, or soda ‘farls’ cooking on a griddle on an open fire in the Rectory kitchen (‘farl’ means a quarter in Ulster Scots).

Scots words and weather ….

upstairs bedroom in Tea Lane
"Ye'll sleep far better, mam.  Tak' my advice;
The nicht blaws snell - the sheets are cauld as ice;
I'll fetch ye up a fine, warm, cosy pig:
I'll mak' sae comfortable and trig,
W' coortains, blankets, every kind o hap,
And warrant ye to sleep as sound's a tap.
As for the fylin' o the sheets - dear me,
The pig's as clean outside as pig can be.
A weel-closed mouth's eueuch for ither folk,
But if ye like, I'll put it in a poke."

"But, Effie - that's your name, I think you said;
Do you yourself now take a pig to bed?"
"Eh! Na, mam, pigs are only for the great
Wha lie in feather beds, and sit up late;
Feathers and pigs are no for puir riff-raff;
Me and my neibor lassie lie on cauff."

Robert Leighton, 'Scotch Words', 1870

Ulster is the most northern province of Ireland. It is very close to Scotland, and many of the settlers in Ulster originally came from Scotland. Like Scotland, the weather is cold and wet, so staying dry and warm at night was a priority.

In the comic poem “Scotch Words” an English lady visiting an inn in Scotland is offered a hot water bottle by the maid, who worries that she will be too cold to sleep.

The lady misunderstands the well-meaning young woman’s Scots dialect, in which ‘pig’ means an earthenware pot or jar (see the picture below), and ‘cauff’ is the husks of oats (chaff) commonly used to stuff mattresses at this time. She goes home and tells her friends that Scottish people sleep with pigs and calves in their beds.

Hot water bottle ‘pigs’, for hire to wealthier costumers at the Picture House to keep their toes warm.

The underfloor heating bit ….

The family who lived at Cruckaclady farmhouse in county Tyrone, built in the early 1800s, really were kept warm at night by the heat coming from their livestock – but they didn’t sleep with them in their beds! More hygienically, the bedroom was situated above the byre, where the cows slept, so that the heat from the sleeping animals rose up through the floorboards.

The house has a thatched roof and only two rooms. The positioning of the byre was made possible because the house was built on a steep slope, with the front door higher up the slope and the byre on a lower level. The bedroom can be reached from a few wooden steps from the main living area, and the byre is accessed from a door at the back of the house.

Steps to the bedroom abover the byre.
The back of the house with a door into the byre. The small window lets light into the bedroom.
To make even better use of the space, an alcove bed has been built into the wall by the fireplace – another warm part of the building.

More sleeping places …

The Folk Museum is a good place to get an insight into how people fitted sleep around their lives and work over a hundred years ago.

A metal bedframe almost fills the whole room in the tiny upstairs bedrooms in the labourers’ houses on Tea Lane. A baby’s cradle sits in a cosy corner by the hearth in the shoemaker’s kitchen. The bedroom in the weaver’s cottage doubles as a sewing room.

The large open-plan sleeping area in the rectory attic accommodates three beds, a baby’s cradle and a bathtub. The banker’s family can afford separate bedrooms, including a nursery complete with rocking horse and a children’s bookcase.

Back in the countryside, cattle and people live together in a sparesly furnished one-roomed house (Magheragallan Byre-dwelling). The Meenagarrah Cottier’s house is typical of the kind of one-bed cabins whole families lived in across Ireland before the Great Faminine in the 1840s.

Drumnahunshin Farmhouse

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