How a large bed was a status symbol in Irish society
From Co Waterford’s penchant for big beds to ingenious beds, here’s where our ancestors went to sleep
Did you know that the bed has traditionally been a status symbol in Irish society – and that the size of your leaba says a lot about your social status? It was one of the nuggets that the design historian Dr Claudia Kinmonthfrom Royal Irish Academy and author of Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700 to 2000must have shared when she joined the Drivetime show on RTÉ Radio 1. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity – you can hear the full discussion above) .
“The bigger it was, the bigger it was too,” Kinmonth says. “If you were in a big grand house or an aristocratic house or a castle historically in Ireland, you would have something extraordinarily beautiful with very rich draperies and beautiful textiles.
“But I also think of the Irish farmhouse, which the majority of our Irish ancestors would have lived in and they also had lovely beds, and some of them were certainly status symbols. Some of the survivors were beautifully carved on the front and they had wooden roofs on top. Again, they had curtains on the front, but they are covered with a wooden roof for different reasons. They are really a shelter in maybe a roofed house thatch or they are a very hot shelter in an area that might have had drafts.”
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From RTÉ Radio 1’s history programme, design historian Claudia Kinmonth on the social history she found in Irish farmhouses and huts
There was one county in particular that went crazy for big beds. “County Waterford had very, very large farmhouse furniture compared to the rest of Ireland,” says Kinmonth. “We have a nice example there, which has a canopy over the wardrobe beds and it’s a double bed, so we think it probably would have been slept in by the parents or maybe even several children from top to bottom inside It is raised, it is completely enclosed except in the front where it has panels and a carved linen fold on top and it is painted blue.
“It’s in the Irish Agricultural Museum at Johnston Castle and it’s just adorable. You can imagine that if it was in an open thatched roof farmhouse it would have been a very comfortable space in a location that was perhaps rather drafty. And it would have had nice curtains in the front, which were closed at night to keep drafts out as well.”
Kinmonth says the best bed in the house was the one closest to the fire. “In the one or two bedroom farmhouses that were prevalent in the 19th century, if you were lucky you had a kitchen and you could have a bed by the fire in the kitchen, and that was the warmest place of the house. The bed would be in an alcove on one side. There is a curtain and it is raised and it is nice and warm by the fire. It would have been the best bed in the house and was usually reserved for large – parents, the oldest members of the family.
By day, it was a long bench. At night it folds down to create a double bed with its own bedding inside
“If you had a living room or an extra room, you could have beds disguised as other things. During the day it looked like you had a chest of drawers, wardrobe or press, then at night you opened the doors and it fell a It unfolded into one or two hinged sections and it was a bed at night.
“The living room turned into a bedroom at night and hosted quite a few people. If there were important visitors, it innocently looked like there was a ragman or a press. They had brilliantly disguised beds, so they’re really smart.”
And if you think this looks like your sofa bed, you’re on the money. “The larger farms would have had a full repertoire of beds,” says Kinmonth. “But the most common thing we find on every farm in every county in Ireland is the side bed. It’s the equivalent of our sofa bed today, but made entirely of wood.
“My research shows it was in use as early as 1640 and it is a bench-bed that was usually near the fire. By day it was a long bench. At night it would fold up and jut out on the floor to create a nifty double bed at floor level with its own bedding inside.”