Back when you couldn't come in from the cold

Old stone houses were always freezing. Deposit Photo
Old stone houses were always freezing. Deposit Photo
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

A Romanian girl who is currently working in Ireland as a teacher was the subject of an article I read recently.

The focus of the piece was finding accommodation in Dublin and she said she was very happy with the flat she was in and felt lucky to have a nice landlord.

She had few complaints but did comment that it was often warmer outdoors than inside her flat. That brought back many memories for me, as I am sure it will for a lot of others, especially any who grew up in old stone country houses.

When people of my generation felt cold during our youth, if we complained we were told to either put on more clothes or were given some physical task to warm us up. We quickly learnt not to complain.

For bedclothes, we had layer upon layer of heavy blankets and, occasionally, a hot water bottle to heat a tiny portion of the bed. The remaining bed space was so icy you had to pedal furiously with your legs to generate enough heat for comfort.

When discussing this with a friend of my own age, he described how, like so many children then, he liked to read in bed. The problem was that his bedroom was freezing, but the light switch was at the door.

His solution was to keep a fishing rod at his bedside and he was then able, with a few attempts, to hit the switch while remaining under the blankets.

On frosty mornings, there was always ice on the inside of the window of my bedroom and I could draw faces and write my name on the glass.

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Then there was the compulsory splash of cold water on the face which some might call invigorating but, in reality, was a brief torture. We always dressed quickly.

Who would want to linger, half clothed in such cold?

One great treat was, once dressed, to run downstairs and drape myself over the old, solid fuel Esse cooker, which did heat the kitchen nicely.

Many reading this will perhaps snort in disdain at the luxury of such things as a large solid fuel cooker.

But the rest of the house remained cold and it was how people lived then. I suppose that when compared to the tenements of Dublin at that time, it was indeed luxury. I wonder were old mud-walled cottages with a turf fire lighting 24 hours a day warmer. Perhaps they were.

Some years ago, I spent a few days visiting some friends who resided in a large and ancient stone house in Wexford.

On getting up in the morning, I had to jump up and down and run around the bedroom to try and get my circulation going.

During breakfast, my host remarked laughingly that the butter was actually softer in the refrigerator than when left on the kitchen table. Is this the kind of austere living that we hear so many complain about these days?

Are the people who are now in temporary accommodation and complaining about having to live in hotel rooms as cold as we were? Somehow, I think not.

In my childhood, we burnt coal in what were quite small fireplaces and in the evening my father would cover the coals with damp slack to keep the fire ticking over during the night. I cannot imagine why we didn't burn firewood, of which there was an ample supply on the farm, and construct larger hearths to accommodate logs.

Funnily enough, I don't recall anyone having wood-burning stoves then, although they were widely used at that time in Nordic countries. What a difference they would have made compared with huddling up to an almost useless small fire where the only warm part of you was the bit facing the flame.

Your back was bound to be chilled thanks to the prevailing temperature and the draughts from poorly insulated windows and doors.

There was no double glazing or proper insulation, nor had it been even thought of. I think that, in those days, any form of comfort like a warm house was considered almost sinful while austere living was presumed to be good for both our physical and spiritual health.

I was of course lucky in that we had running water, indoor toilets and hot baths, even if the bathroom itself was arctic.

What must it have been like to run to an outdoor loo on a January morning and then wash under a hand pump?

How times have changed.

Social accommodation is not so bad

If you are young and fit, there is no great hardship in a bit of cold and I would far prefer it to the overheated, headache-inducing atmosphere that seems to be normal nowadays in most office buildings and hotels.

On the other hand, we constantly hear people complaining about social accommodation in hotel rooms even though they have subsidised heating, modern cookers and TVs, access to showers, proper indoor loos and running hot water.

If a rat is seen in a school yard, it's a signal to close the place down, yet in my youth, every farmyard and, indeed, most schools in Ireland had a fluctuating population of rats.

Despite various attempts at eradication, we could even hear them at home at night in the attic and in the walls. In later years, I remember telling my children not to worry about the noise, it was just mice having fun running races against each other as they scampered across the loose plaster overhead.

Given half a chance, rats and mice will invade any building, especially an old one.

They are even in Leinster House.

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