The folk tales of Ireland contain a wealth of myth and legend attached to traditional vernacular dwellings. There are several features common to these houses which served to symbolise the life cycle within and may have a resonance for our own very different lifestyle. Among the most striking of these features was the location of the front door and the hearth for the fire which were closely integrated.
In western areas of the country the door was often placed well away from the fireplace with a second door leading out through the back of the house directly opposite the front door. In windy locations these two doors were used to regulate the draught so that the kitchen fire did not smoke. Sometimes they were known as ‘doras na foittine’-the sheltered door and ‘doras na gaoithe’-the windward door. A stranger who presumably did not know the district or was unaware of the direction of the prevailing wind might try to gain admission by the wrong door and be gently reminded that he would make a poor sailor as he did not seem to be aware of the wind direction. In my own modern humble abode I also have two doors both front and rear. However, they do not function as symbols of the wind direction but rather as formal and informal social entry points to the house. I was amused some years ago when one our young children declared that the rear door was really the ‘front door’ as most of her school friends entered that way. It is sad to relate however that some modern houses have no front door at all but only an obscure side entrance thus offering a confusing symbolic greeting to those approaching the house. It is interesting to note that one of my favourite public houses in Galway is called the Front Door over the entrance facing one street and Sonnies on the other street entrance. Little do they realise but they may well be asserting the importance of a unique historic tradition and I’ll drink to that.
John O’Donohue in his book ‘The Four Elements-Reflections on Nature’ stresses the importance of fire as an elemental association in any settlement grouping. The hearth in traditional Irish dwellings is where this fire was accommodated within a house shelter. It was not only a place of warmth however as it was a place for imparting wisdom and knowledge and for social meetings. Here the ‘seanchai’ (storyteller) held court and the cultural traditions of the local people were handed down to future generations. Indeed it was the simple traditional equivalent of our modern technological information highway. Thus, John O’Donohue beautifully described it as ‘a theatre of word’.
However, with the increased urbanisation of modern life rural traditions are no longer learned informally but are taught academically according to explicit rules. The knowledgeable scholar has become the arbiter of public taste, while real choice is now constrained by shared aspirations forged within the confines of accepted good taste and social manners and within the dictates of styles of building deemed appropriate to our modern age. These building types are often the same whether for farmer or urban dweller, large family or small, rich or poor and may bear little or no relationship to community structure.
In the home, the television has replaced the hearth as the primary social focus and the I-Pad or home computer has become the primary means of acquiring or dispersing knowledge. Despite the huge number of animated interactions between those social media forums such as Twitter and Face book, perhaps there is a sad and lonely core of personal isolation at the heart of these endeavours. While I accept the personal value of these technological innovations, when it comes to our homes we should remember that a house should not be simply a structure which gives basic shelter and towards which we adopt an aesthetic attitude and a social aspiration. Rather it should also reflect the activities and personal associations of the people living within it. Hence, like out traditional predecessors we should endeavour to make a conscious place in our home for flexible social interaction whether through food preparation, family dining or indeed group conversation around the fire in the Hearth. It is not for nothing that the Irish proverb had a special place in our hearts:
“Nil aon Tintean mar do Thintean Fein”
(Translated: ‘There is no Hearth like your own Hearth’ or more simply Home is where the heart is.