A friend of mine, an archeologist, Christy Cunniffe, recently posted some small shards of broken pottery he'd come across when excavating in the bog behind an old farmhouse in the Callows, a flood plain on the river Shannon, near Clonfert, county Galway. He loved the colour and the patterns on the broken, unidentifiable pieces. Were they old? Were they cups, plates, vases or bowls? He didn't know, but he loved the idea that people living in these relative poorer homes, had some semblance of colour in their lives, a century or more ago.
I love this quote by Perry Randall, an Irish-American archeologist, based in Texas. "In my archaeological experience (mostly early Islamic and Nabatean) there are few things that make one feel connected to the past more than holding a pottery shard. Even more than jewelry, human remains, or other precious items. There is something about the commonality of broken pottery that transcends the ages and resonates in the fingertips. I have seen two-thousand year old fingerprints on broken pieces of pottery and been amazed."
Give me broken pottery anytime, eh!
Annyway, It got me thinking.
Most 18th and 19th century Irish farmhouses had little or no pottery, and even less cutlery, and let's face it, the vast majority of us Irish fitted into that 'poorer' category, whether living in the towns or in the countryside, Ireland and the people in it were impoverished, victims of a devastating and demoralising colonial system, we were barely subsisting as a people in the 19th century. Fully 90 percent of Irish tenant farmers were living on less that 4 acres of land in the 1840s. There was no money for rent, not to mention any at all for fancy pottery. Whatever money we had, we needed it to send our sons and daughters away from this hell, to a better life in America, England, or anywhere.
Our mugs, if we had them, were pewter, horn or of turned wood, and our plates were usually wooden chargers, not made of pottery at all. There may have been a tin or enamel bowl, and the lid of the big black pot served just as well, if you needed a bowl or platter. There are lots of stories of the pot of potatoes being tumbled out onto a wicker or willow basket, or 'Sciob', and it was the survival of the fittest after that.
By the late 19th century, after the devastation of 'Famine' and social improvements owing to the actions of the Land League agitation, the lot of the Irish farmer was improving. They were finally able to own their land, build proper housing and live something approaching a 'comfortable' life.
With the secure and better housing, came huge improvements in living standards, and tableware became both common and desirable. Houses that previously had no 'luxuries' now had tables and chairs, and dressers laden with delph. The good delph, the plates and cups and saucers, was kept high up on the dresser's shelves, used only when visitors were expected, or for the weddings, wakes and stations. The everyday mugs, and the chipped plates, were kept lower down on the dresser, with the mixing bowl for the bread-making, handy and accessible. A cup of tea never tasted so good as when poured from the whiskey bottle into the big blue and white striped mug when the hay was made or the turf saved.
By the mid-19th century, England had literally hundreds of potteries churning out dinnerware and decorative pottery for practical and even decorative purposes and the price of a cup or plate was now affordable with the mass-production that occurred in the Industrial Revolution. Delph was now common and expected in houses, no more scrabbling in the 'sciob' for a potato, now we used knives and forks and spoons, and plates and cups, just like the posh folk, up in the 'Big Houses'.
The favourite colours of delph in rural Irish farmhouses were 'blue and white' and 'brown and white' delph. Amongst the.favourite patterns was the 'Willow' pattern. It was a blue-and-white transfer-printed composite design, which brought together Buddhist imagery, pagodas, landscapes, birds and trees from Chinese porcelain. The pattern is said to be woven around a romantic story of star-crossed lovers eloping together. Imagine the scandal in the kitchens of Ireland if that got out! (See the picture to the left.)
The other blue-and-white popular pattern was the Dutch 'Delft' or 'Delftware,' from the town of Delft in Holland, and from which we get the anglicised word delph. Their firing-process was borrowed from the Chinese, and the favoured patterns were typically Eastern and Oriental scenes, brought to Holland by the Dutch East India Trading Co. in the 16th century. Later on, the Dutch ceramists copied versions of Dutch masterpieces, especially the ubiquitous Dutch windmill design.
While the Delft pottery dates back to the 16th century, by the early 18th century, the new Dutch monarch in England (yes, the same King William of Orange, of the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim fame), encouraged a 'technology transfer,' as it were, from Holland to England, and the previously secretive tin-glazed Dutch / Chinese earthenware 'method' and the same designs, were soon being mass produced in potteries all over England, but especially in Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, which became the world's greatest conglomeration of potteries in the 19th century, with nearly 150 pottery manufacturers.
The better-known brands of pottery were probably Wedgewood, Denby, Aynsley, Coalport and Royal Doulton, but they were expensive, well beyond the means and imagination of the average household in Ireland. Yet by 1920, there were many, many other companies producing affordable tableware for the masses, exporting their now 'English pottery' all across the British Empire and to America. Johnson Brothers (there were four brothers) from Stoke-on-Trent produced a huge range of tableware from the 1880s onward and their patterns, including Willow, Windmill and English castles were very popular in Ireland.
Eventually, these very popular Willow, Windmill and Castle printed (not hand-painted) designs were knocked off by just about every pottery, in blue and white, green and white, and brown and white glazes, so that by the 1950s, we were 'glazed-over' with full sets of tea- and dinner-ware in nearly every house in the country.
Our kitchen dressers were laden down with dozens of pieces of the good and the plain delph that we used -- jugs, and plates, and saucers and fine china cups, Toby jugs, and milk jugs, and stripey mugs for the tae, so much so, that there was hardly room for the copy of Old Moore's Almanac and the Sacred Heart picture, there was so much crockery. Looking back on it now, so much of the delph on display had been paid for by remittances from our emigrant sons and daughters, the trappings of their newfound wealth, and source our comfort, Thank God.
And when the cracked cup or plate finally broke, or had so many chips off it that even the dog wouldn't be found dead licking the scraps off-of it, the shards or ‘chaineys’ got chucked into the bog or the drain, or the foundations of the shed, waiting for some latter-day archeologist or treasure-hunter to unearth them, reconnect the pieces like a Grecian urn, and marvel at the lives that had touched it or eaten or drank out of it in the past.
Broken pottery to some, a relic of past glory to another! Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith, wrote about such broken crockery in 'The Deserted Village,' which he wrote in 1770. When describing the village tavern, now ruined and deserted, he speaks of the fine tableware that the tavern used, and kept, even when smashed:
'While broken tea-cups, wisely kept for shew,
Ranged o'er the chimney, glistened in a row.
Vain transitory splendours! Could not all
Reprieve the tottering mansion from its fall!'
While today the younger folk favour plain pottery, or simple designs for their tableware, I'd say that there isn't a farmhouse in Ireland without at least one big platter, the family heirloom, still taking pride of place on the sideboard, or in the china cabinet, although ironically, the plates themselves are more likely to be the 20th century knock-off of the original Delft patterns, more 20th century than 19th or 18th, less valuable, but nonetheless family treasures.
The Old Willow Pattern Dish*
'Two pigeons flying high.
A Chinese vessel sailing by.
A weeping willow hanging o’er
A bridge with three men, if not four.
A Chinese temple, here it stands,
Seems to cover all the land.
Apple trees with apples on,
a pretty fence to end my song.
It stood on the old kitchen dresser for years.
A silent witness to the joys and the tears.
The comings and goings of four generations,
the pain and the sadness and some celebrations.
It shared the shelves with the threshing mugs,
the dinner plates and the fancy jugs.
While a hen hatched her eggs in the cupboard below,
and the delph all shone in the firelight glow.
Big floury spuds heaped up in a mound
were on the table when the dinner came ‘round.
There was bacon and cabbage and buttermilk too,
and that old willow pattern dish gleamed white and blue..
It saw great grandmother come home as a bride,
crossing the threshold at great grandfather’s side.
It saw the joys and the laughter gay,
when the neighbours came on threshing day.
It saw the joys at weddings and births,
and witnessed the heartache at a visit from death.
It watched the day the exiles departed,
leaving those left at home so broken hearted.
Then it saw them return to visit a while,
saw grand children come with a laugh and a smile.
On house dance nights in days of yore,
it saw half sets knock sparks from that old kitchen floor.
Heard the music and rhyme ring out loud and clear.
Saw the exile’s song cause a silent tear.
It watched the turf fire burning bright
when the neighbours called to chat at night.
It saw in the rafters the ‘auld Fenian gun’,
and the hurried visits from men on the run.
At Easter ‘16, it saw men march away.
Sean didn’t return. Granny’s hair turned grey.
It was laid on the table with buttered brown bread
when the ‘Tans’ came looking for poor Uncle Ned.
They smashed all the fancy jugs on the floor,
but poor Ned had left home the evening before.
But now the old house is no more.
Gone are the people, the half sets, the floor.
No photographs hang on the old kitchen walls,
only ghosts from the past now come to call.
The dresser has long since crumbled to dust.
The old fan on the hearth is all covered in rust,
But the old dish survives in a new modern home,
a link with the past and of days that are gone.
If it only could talk, what a lot we would learn,
of an age that’s now past, and will never return'
* arranged by Kevin McDermott
(I was sent this poem by Kevin McDermott. I think it captures so much of what the delph and the dresser meant to so many over the years. Kevin McDermott recorded this poem on a CD some years ago, I am hoping to get the audio posted soon.)
My favourite platters are not the perfect ones on the dresser's top shelf, but rather the one that has been cracked, perhaps through careless use, or domestic 'incident.' Voices had been raised, tears spilled, the moment of the accident never forgotten, nor the culprit found, but some time later, the pieces had been saved and the platter had been repaired by some 'tinkering tradesman,' the repair done on the crack with a metal washer and some wire! What's your favourite piece?