Ireland Before Electricity
Oughterard Newsletter June 2012
By Michael O'Connor
I remember Ireland before electricity, how could I forget those terrible years of want and hardship, those days of food rationing, when every job was done manually without any help from technology. These were difficult years, living in the country made things even more difficult, especially on the farm. In those days the most difficult task was drawing water in buckets for household use. In Killannin we had to drag water over a half mile from the nearest well which was located beside Ross Lake. At that time the journey was a mass of twisted paths, with many large stones jutting in from all sides, making it impossible to hold onto the water filled buckets. This trip could be repeated maybe four or five times a day.
Preparing a meal without Electricity
To prepare for a meal, the water had to be put into a large pot and hung over the open kitchen fire. It could take almost one hour to the bring the water to the boil to make tea and then another hour to get the potatoes and meat boiled.
If washing had to be done, more water was needed and it could mean another trip to the well. In winter especially, it was much more difficult as the essential jobs had to be done before dark. Fresh bedding had to be provided for the cows in the barn as they were housed every winter. Then the milking, often done in darkness followed by the feeding of the calves, then the cow shed door was closed for the night.
At suppertime the oil lamp on the wall was lit and that was just light for the kitchen. A candle provided light in each room. With everybody in bed, all lights were put out. The following day saw the same routine in operation. When washing day came round all clothes were put into a bag and carried to the nearest stream or river to get cleaned. This was done by rubbing garments on stones until they were clean, then they were hung out to dry on the nearest bushes.
Most of the family worked on the farm including the woman of the house who worked alongside her husband. It was tough being a farmer’s wife in those days!
In summertime the whole family would work together harvesting the turf. This was hard going as in those days, the turf-cutting was done manually by the mother of the house using a sleán – a tool shaped like a spade but with a gable on one side of it. The spreading of this precious fuel was done by the wife and any able bodied members of the family.
This was hard work too, and very tiring on the long days of summer. All families took their lunch in the bog on an open-air fire which gave everyone a break that was badly needed.
As they cut the turf they sometimes dug very deep to get the best quality turf and in doing so they came upon the remains of our old oak forests (dating back 2,000 years). These old roots were often found as deep as ten feet. On taking these roots and allowing them to dry, with the turf, an amazing quality of firewood was discovered. This timber when mixed with turf provided a brilliant source of heat and light to illuminate their kitchens during the long winter nights. It proved really valuable – especially when kitchen rackets (ceilís) were held in the kitchens of Irish cottages when paraffin oil was rationed during World War II. The light from these old oak tree trunks was the only light available during those terrible times, but this did not deter the people from enjoying themselves in the “Rambling Houses” during the 1930s and ‘40s. I had my first dancing lessons in my own home, which was a “Rambling House”.
The night-time pastimes consisted of playing cards, storytelling and the occasional ceilí. The old custom of visiting was very popular right up to the late fifties. People would travel, walking long distances to visit neighbours, friends and relations. They thought nothing of distances, it was a wonderful custom and it gave people a chance to meet and talk about current affairs. This was the period of the seannacai (storyteller) and what scary stories they had to tell. I was often glued to my seat, waiting for some of these frightening endings. I was pretty scared on the way home expecting a ghost to appear at any moment. These were great times when we never worried about happenings around the world.
The Arrival of Electricity
We were in a special world of our own. However this dream world of ours came to an abrupt end it the 1960s with the coming of television. It spelled the end of all that was pure and beautiful, it was the end of visiting, these old and precious customs were no more. Visiting was no more. Everybody stayed at home to see this new phenomenon.
It certainly was a very strange world before electricity but for those of us who were born in that period it was normal, young people today think we are joking when we attempt to tell them of living conditions in those years. The reality of it all is that what we didn’t have we didn’t miss, it was still a wonderful childhood, full of fun and laughter. It was a priceless experience.