When I was studying History in college I had to write a “house history” as part of a local history class. This involved researching a particular house, when it was built, who lived in it, and the general historical context those people existed in. The house I ended up researching was built in the early 20th century, and interestingly enough was probably bought from a Sears catalogue as a flat-pack home.
Needless to say, the type of houses I have encountered in Ireland have been completely different from the type we had in Wisconsin. No wooden houses here. We recently moved into one of the older houses in town, and I have been fascinated with figuring out its history ever since. It is situated on one of the main streets in the town, and is oddly perched between the impressive 17th Century Protestant Church, called St. Mary’s, and the more modern Catholic church (also called St. Mary’s). In fact, one of our windows overlooks a graveyard. As an American I think it is quite scenic with all the beautiful Celtic crosses. However, our Irish friends are none too happy to spend a night at our house on account of the ghosts. The first time I heard this, I laughed. But it is no joke. Several Irish people I have met genuinely believe that old houses have ghosts, and my own partner has been caught saying, “We couldn’t live in that house. It probably has ghosts.” Personally having never lived in a house which is 200 years old I cannot comment on whether or not ghosts haunt old houses (I’m pretty sure the oldest house I ever lived in was built in the 1980s). So far we are (knock on wood) ghost free. However, I am still really interested to learn more about this house.
The view from our window.
I can see the house is old because it has incredibly thick walls. Like really thick. Two whole feet, to be exact. I’ve never seen any walls so thick in America – it’s like pure Medieval to my eyes. The up-side of this is deep windowsills which serve as extra storage space/seating when necessary. I’m not entirely sure when the house was built, but I can see in the 1911 Census the house address does exist. The address is listed as a Shop (it certainly would be a prime location for a shop, and I have often thought what a great yarn shop it could be). The house was built of stone and had 6 rooms. The census form indicates there were two different families living in the house. The main dweller was Mr. Williams, a 70-year-old boot and shoe maker. Williams occupies 4 rooms in the house, which leaves a scant 2 rooms for the other two residents: a 27-year-old Mr. Barry, a Postman, and his wife. This was not the only shop on the street. A young 24-year-old single woman was operating as a grocer a few doors down.
If we go back further to the 1901 Census, we again find Mr. Williams, this time with his wife and two adult children. At this time he had a 22-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old son Patrick who is listed as the town’s Postman. The house is described as a private dwelling (not a shop) but Mr. Williams is still listed as a boot maker. It is interesting to wonder what happened to Mr. Williams’ son, as ten years later a different Postman named Mr. Barry is boarding at the house. Did Patrick die, or simply move away? Even more interesting is that going back to the 1850s and Griffiths Valuation we can see the same address is occupied by a Mrs. Barry – the same surname as the young Postman boarding there in 1911. So what is the connection between the Barry’s and the Williams’? How do these puzzle pieces fit together? There are a few mysteries yet to uncover, so I’ll have to keep digging… But still, how interesting to imagine our kitchen as a cobblers workshop, and imagine the boots and shoes on display in our front windows.
What I find most interesting is imagining the town I live in as it would have been a hundred years ago – the businesses in the town, the people and how they were connected to each other. This gets particularly interesting when researching the Irish Civil War period, as there was a lot of rebel activity in this area. During the fight for independence workers at the local dock yard workshop returned at night to secretly assemble weapons and anything else the insurgents might need. During the Civil War period the dock was one of the Treaty Ports under the Anglo-Irish Treaty (that is, it was a naval port which still belonged to Britain for use by their Royal Navy). This caused turmoil in the town, and eventually led to the new Irish government sending 1,500 troops to uphold the treaty and quash any republican activity in Cork. An armored car and a field gun were landed at the dock and were used to chase republicans out of the surrounding hills.
An armored car on the streets of my town during the Irish Civil War. The building on the right now houses a convenience store, and one of the buildings on the left is now a chip shop.
Now when I walk through town I can imagine the rebels sneaking back into the dockyards to toil in secret through the night, or the gunmen who sat in the granaries and fired upon passing naval ships, or the armored car patrolling the streets. I can imagine a bustling town with a busy dock and a regular steam locomotive coming to and from the city – much more interesting than the current state of the town, with about 70% of our shop fronts left vacant and herds of loitering teenagers roaming the streets. But the rebel spirit lives on in an extremely shady pub located just across the street from the dockyards entrance. If flies the tri-colour flag, a sure sign that outsiders like me should not even think about setting foot inside it.