Thursday, November 08, 2012

Irish history in the details — Sheep and bawns and rushes on the floor

I want my novel to transport readers back to 17th-century Ireland. As a writer, I want to transport myself back in time, so I can absorb enough little details to make the story real.

MacLysaght's book, Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century (previous post) keeps giving me good tidbits, but via slow, rambling prose. I don't have to use them all, but some will lead to edits.

For example, in the draft, Dinah English has a serious talk with her brother John while he's out watching the sheep. Most days, I have him plowing or harvesting. In fiction, you want variety in the your characters' actions. In real life, however, their daily tasks would have been repetitive.

MacLysaght wrote that people didn't keep many sheep in nearby King's County (Offaly) because wolves were so prevalent. Wolves! People brought their livestock into the bawn at night to protect their animals, not only from wolves but also from bandits. I'd seen the word "bawn" before, on a drawing near the Castle in Moate. You won't find it in Webster's Collegiate Fourth Edition, but Wikipedia says bawns were later used for kitchen gardens.

This stone enclosure sits across the creek from the Castle in Moate, County Westmeath, where the Clibborns lived. It may have been used as a protective corral, a roofless barn. I threw that little detail into the story.

The Englishes must have had some sheep, because the wool industry in Ireland had not yet been crushed by the late 17th-century English laws. However, John English can't be a full-time farmer and a full-time shepherd. My semi-fictional family, living in near-poverty, brings their livestock into a bedroom-sized barn at night, so they can't have a whole flock. Maybe just a few sheep, so they can spin wool for their own clothes.

The Clibborn family of the Castle had more wealth. One map drawing (that I can't find right now) labels the eastern courtyard as "the bawn." The same map labels the stone structure across the creek as a "walled garden."

I didn't take any pictures inside the courtyard when I visited in 2009, but I have the impression that horse stalls run along the longer inside walls. This photo shows the outside of the courtyard/stables, which might have been John Clibborn's bawn.

Here's a detail I decided not to use. MacLysaght writes that people in small castles and keeps (I would call them manor houses) in 17th-century Ireland didn't have much furniture. Instead, they threw layers of rushes on the floor, sometimes three feet deep, and sat and slept on them. Wait a minute! I want to be authentic, but that's too alien to our idea of post-medieval history. How would you walk around in a room filled up to the windows with some sort of perpetual haystack? Quennell's A History of Everyday Things in England shows plenty of 17th-century furniture. Even though that's in England, not Ireland, I'm sticking with sofas and chairs and (perhaps) rope beds for my story.

Here's one more detail — that didn't come from a book — as I imagine John English working the family farm. A few months ago, my Uncle Jim told me how he plowed with a mule as a young man in eastern North Carolina. I was astonished! Yes, some people had tractors then, he said, but they were expensive and unreliable. I asked him if he had to be strong to push the plow down; was he working as hard as the mule? Oh, no, the mule did the work, he said, but the walking wore him out. Especially with a single plow, one row at a time. You walked all day long, and the work was mind-blowingly tedious.

By the way, horses can't stand that tedium. That's why mules and oxen make better farm animals.

I'm amazed how, nearly three hundred years later in the early part of the 20th century, my family did the same work, in the same way, as John English probably did back in Ireland.


Veronica Roth said...

I have that book of everyday things in England. It's such a shame that all the wolves and bears are gone now in the British Isles.

Elizabeth Saunders said...

We must like some of the same books, Veronica. Thanks for visiting!