Anyone who has attended first year lectures in Folklore in UCC can attest to the fact that the dresser is a core part of the course.  Weeks are spent looking at the design, the uses and the significance of this item of kitchen furniture. Some might ask: ‘How can a piece of country furniture, something that stands in the kitchen holding ware and bits and bobs, be of such interest and cultural importance?’ Michael Fortune’s Dresser Project is the latest in a small body of work that illustrates and explores an aspect of Irish life that deserves enthusiastic documentation and celebration.


The act of observing and listening, even when focussed on such a narrow slice of life, opens up whole worlds. Thanks to the individuals and families in Carlow, Mayo, Tipperary and Waterford who welcomed Michael into their homes and sheds, and who shared their memories and stories with him, a substantial exploration of the richness and vibrancy of this one aspect of everyday life in Ireland has been made available to us.


The handsome portraits of over sixty dressers are in themselves a treasure-trove of vibrancy and variation, and a source of fascination. All the dressers are different, some crowded with objects and showing the scars and modifications testifying to generations of family living and working life, some resplendent with carefully-displayed matching ware, all with variations in design and decoration reflecting local styles and individual creativity. I confess to spending hours examining just a selection of the portraits: peering at details, comparing designs and displays of ware, and speculating about the lives and uses that shaped them down through the years. The dressers themselves are anything but mute, but an essential element of understanding would be badly served if we relied on images only, without consulting those who maintain, clean, organise, reorganise, use, pass on and receive the dressers about their relationship with them. This Michael has done, and the interviews bring dimensions of meaning, emotion, humour and understanding to the project that are essential to doing justice to the worlds explored.


What is laid before us


A look through some of the images in preparation for the exhibitions and website left me overwhelmed by their richness: there was almost too much to investigate, too much to look at. Whether in a modern fitted kitchen or in the company of an open fireplace or range, or in a shed, whether with bright paintwork, stripped, or with successive layers of paint visible with wear, whether housing full sets of matching delph, a riot of different plates and cups, or tools and old wires, each of the dressers is a living testament to human lives: human work and leisure and relationships.


With each picture, I had an impulse to lean forward and examine all the smaller items of ware and wood, plastic and plant matter. The pen and the piece of dried evergreen branch suspended vertically through the top shelf: are they in old slots for the display of spoons? Are those Bosco eggcups still used? Who won the sporting cups, who uses the magnifying glass, who collected the shells?


The pictures give a sense of profusion, of objects multiplying with the passage of time, leading to a sneaking suspicion that they might even be quietly reproducing of their own accord. Evidence of family relationships sit alongside things a little harder for outsiders to interpret: photos of babies and of children with Santie, new and old portraits of adults and thank-you cards from children are in the company of plastic things with faces from Japanese cartoons and souvenir mugs from around the world. The Pope and Padre Pio make their presence felt, but are outnumbered by the Child of Prague and the many versions of paired china dogs.


If there’s room between the head or top of the dresser and the ceiling, something always makes its way up there: big platters, flowered jugs and bowls that perfectly fit a more constrained space, mixing bowls and electrical equipment, straw hats, the Child of Prague and the Sacred Heart, pots of jam, even, on a dresser-head that seems empty, Christmas wrapping paper peeking out over the cornice.


Patterns emerge in the portraits: local variation in design is to be seen in the Waterford dressers with a central panel and a small central knife drawer, and in the sledge feet in Mayo portraits (the sledge foot, a piece of timber added to the bottom of the dresser at the sides, helped to spread the weight of the dresser and balance it on uneven clay and flagstone floors, and acted as a sacrificial component that raised the dresser off the damp floor and could be removed and replaced easily when it started to rot). Many of the dressers are painted in bright contrasting colours as was traditional in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century, and show evidence of successive layers of paint through wear or in edges that have been blunted by the thickness of the paint. Almost all of the dressers that display a mix of delph have at least one vessel with the distinctive blue-and-white willow-pattern design that became available in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, then ubiquitous.


The bed or shelf of the dresser, traditionally used as a work surface for cutting bread and storing teapots and cups for everyday use, is used variously in the portraits. Some still reflect everyday use, with teapots and cups, eggs and tea, or a handbag and eyeglasses resting there between uses, where others have been overwhelmed with the display of tightly-packed ware and knickknacks. Many of the dressers retain guard-rails on the shelves: plates would be angled forward against these rails to protect against the dust and smuts that came with open fires and clay floors, and still are in many cases.


I was brought back again and again to some individual dresser portraits. A coop dresser, with Ryvita, Robinson’s and baking supplies where the fowl used to be, with an intriguing mini-shelf at the very top under the fascia. A fiddle-fronted dresser in a Tipperary shed, festooned with paperwork, bric-a-brac and tools, with the right hand side of the bottom modified for a grilled door. A Mayo dresser with sledge feet sticking out at the front, a profusion of teapots on the bed, the shark from Jaws at the head keeping a china dog company, a ‘free beer’ sign on display and beautifully moulded doors hanging slightly askew, showing a proud legacy of long use.


I got perhaps most delight from an unpainted Waterford dresser with big serving platters on the top shelf, surmounted at the head with two china dogs and a clock, with willow-pattern plates leaning on the guard rail and the middle panel and little central knife drawer common in the south-east. It’s all straight lines: horizontal lines on the cornice moulding, vertical lines on the pilasters on either side of the shelving, horizontal tongue-and-groove for the backboard, diagonal tongue-and-groove on the doors, horizontal lines on the neatly moulded shelf fronts… but then, at floor level, out of eye-line, is the sweep of a cupid’s bow running underneath the cupboard doors: shallow and wide, almost not there, a subtle, curvy, and essentially tongue-in-cheek now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t interjection.


Other people will see different things to delight them in the dressers: their owners and users will see more dimensions of meaning again. It is a joy that we can listen to the householders talking about the dressers, bringing added layers of meaning and humanity to the story.  We learn how dressers were built by fathers and great-grandfathers or bought to replace dressers that disappeared from empty home places, we get tours of how dressers would be used, and we are exposed to wisdom, emotion and humour. As Jerry McLoughlin says, expressing the complexity of the build-up of layers of meaning in and on this piece of furniture, the way in which it is at once ordinary and a focal point for connections and emotion: ‘You couldn’t say it was a shrine, it’s just the way it is’.



Existing dresser-celebration in print


Complementing the wisdom of furniture makers and dresser users, there is a small amount of writing by folklorists and historians that gives the dresser its due prominence, and which may be of interest to visitors to this website. Furniture historian Claudia Kinmonth’s wonderful volume Irish Country Furniture, 1700-1959 gives an overview of the work of rural woodworkers and furniture makers and explores how lack of access to resources and a scarcity of wood led to notable ingenuity and creativity, and a penchant for recycling and multiple-use items, in Irish furniture making and rural life. The dresser is one of the items to which Kinmonth devotes a full chapter, and she is unambiguous in her celebration of the dresser as an outstanding piece of furniture in the Irish tradition, which fulfilled both display and storage functions and which accrued huge personal and social significance.


Kinmonth is particularly sensitive to the social role that dressers served: as a link between generations (with the dresser itself and the ware passing on through the family, with younger and travelling members of the family bringing small gifts to be displayed on it), as an object of pride and a talking point, as a display of the wealth of the household and the aesthetic prowess of the woman of the house, and as an object to be admired and constantly interacted with through cleaning and rearrangement. She relates telling details that illustrate how the dresser fulfilled functions well beyond utilitarian storage: the fact that a woman in the Glens of Antrim referred to her dresser as her most precious possession, the way in which broken and unusable crockery would be repaired and displayed on the dresser, with the cracks hidden.


Matters of design and construction are not neglected in this book either, and a look at the chapter on dressers would transform how anyone without prior knowledge will interact with this website: giving them ‘the eye’ for appreciation and comparison of so many different (local and shared) design features. Irish dressers tended to be constructed in one piece in contrast to English and Welsh two-piece dressers, built in the house by the householder or visiting woodworkers who often stayed with the family during construction. Many were inbuilt, forming or building on part of the structure of the house, and the space between shelves depended on the quantity and size of the ware owned by the household. The dresser had three main sections: the shelving, used for display of ware from the huge serving platters for meat to cups, plates and bowls (and, in former times, spoons), the ‘bed’ or shelf, used for storage of everyday items such as teapots, eggs and cups, and the bottom half, used for (mainly closed-in) storage of larger, less attractive kitchen utensils, vessels of milk, and kitchen-work-related items. The very top or ‘head’ of the dresser was often used for storing breakable or dangerous objects out of the reach of children, or for display of the largest platters.


The American folklorist and material culture scholar Henry Glassie carries out a fascinating case study in Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community, based on fieldwork carried out in County Fermanagh in the 1970s. In the chapter entitled ‘Home’, he writes at length about his neighbour Mrs Cutler and her dresser. Listening to what Mrs Cutler says about her dresser and her relationship to it shows us very clearly that this is more than just a piece of furniture, rather, it is a forum for the manifestation and enactment of the aesthetic impulse and human relationships. Much of the delph on display is rarely used at all. In Mrs Cutler’s words: ‘Delph is not to use… No. It is for passin on to people who won’t use it.’ (Glassie, 1982: 363). It makes Mrs Cutler ‘happy as money’ to engage in the labour of washing and rearranging the ware on display (365). She takes such good care of it that she hates to contemplate its fate after her own death, and the thought of the dresser in the possession of other generations who may not appreciate its importance prompts the statement: ‘Sometimes I feel like takin an axe and breakin it up’ (361).


Glassie’s ruminations on the status of the dresser as a work of art are worth considering. ‘Standing before the dresser, confounded by the idea that things that can be used must be used, that useful things cannot be art, you would see it as an open toolbox. Letting its order and glow enter your mind, hearing people compliment its loveliness, you would be persuaded that it is an exhibit, an untouchable work of art. Neither is quite the case … The resplendent dresser is a work of art, but it gracefully incorporates utility too. The ratio of display to use, art to tool, varies greatly from dresser to dresser, but all stand through time as beautiful.’ (Glassie, 1982: 363-4).


Moving beyond words


The dresser has been documented and celebrated in the sphere of folklore texts: but to really give it its due it should also be presented in a more visual manner, taking its physical presence, the riot of colours or ordered marshalling of ware, the profusion of stuff of all kinds, the order and disorder, and presenting it in a way that we can process and appreciate without the use of words. The dresser’s very materiality and its beauty suggest that it belongs in the realm of art just as much as in that of cultural documentation: Michael’s project has managed to serve both elements and is to be welcomed as an aesthetic homecoming for the dresser as well as a wonderful cultural resource. Perhaps, along with other art initiatives such as filmmaker Tony Donoghue’s award-winning film Irish Folk Furniture, this project will inspire more work on aspects of vernacular life that celebrate everyday creativity and present aspects of local life, to both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, in a new, visually engaging and creative way.


The fact that Dresser Project exhibitions are ongoing in art centres and libraries in Tipperary, Carlow and Waterford, and in the centre for expertise, preservation, documentation and sharing of knowledge that is the Museum for Country Life in County Mayo, reflects this open attitude towards everyday creativity and meaning-making as having a cherished place in both of the worlds of art and heritage. We owe our thanks to Michael Fortune, and to those who welcomed him and shared their stories, for this achievement.



Clíona O’Carroll, Béaloideas/Folklore and Ethnology, UCC, Cork, May 2016.



Sources:


Glassie, Henry (1982) Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community. Dublin: O’Brien Press.  


Kinmonth, Claudie (1993) Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950. New Haven; Yale University Press.



             


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