The Voice of the Fire

By Kathleen and Kevin Hanlon

The Voice of the Fire

A few years ago we stayed in a traditional thatched cottage amid the hills of Donegal beside a traditional weaver’s shed still being used. Perusing the Visitor’s Book, we came across the following statement: ‘We specially enjoyed the voice of the fire.’ This beautiful phrase would feature well in John O’Donoghue’s book ‘Anam Cara (Soul Friend) in which he speaks of the importance of the hearth of the home in the disappearing traditional cottages of Ireland.

Those who live, or have lived, in rural Ireland are well aware of the ‘journey’ turf makes from bog to fireplace. O’Donoghue speaks of the turf as the clay of the earth burning in the hearth of the home.

The traditional method of turf cutting began/begins with a ‘spade in the bog’ - a phrase meaning three men working together. They dug the turf and spread it out to dry. Later it was turned for further drying, and then ‘footed’ into small piles. Next it would be either stacked and thatched beside a track or lane, or taken by horse/donkey and cart down ‘the old bog roads’ to the farmhouse. Here it would be stacked and thatched. From here via bucket and fireside creel it ended in the hearth. To sit round a turf fire was/is to reap the benefit of nature’s hard won gift. The turf, in a certain sense, has a journey to relate summed up in the phrase ‘the voice of the fire.’

In bygone times the hearth was a hole in the kitchen floor, but these gave way to the hearth being the stone base floor at the foot of the chimney. A circular iron fender kept the turf and ashes in place. Some had a ‘hobstone’ (a corner seat): some small holes on either side of the fireplace for holding snuff boxes and clay pipes.

The Kettle on the ‘Crook’

A crane hung from the chimney over the fire. It consisted of a movable iron bar with a chain for the various vessels for cooking - a pot of boiling potatoes (praties): a flat pan for frying: a griddle for making pancakes: an oven, which was a cast iron container with a lid in which bread was baked (‘coals’ were placed on the lid). The kettle was always on the ‘crook’ of the crane; and a well used ‘oat iron’ for making oat cake/ bread stood beside the fire.

‘Early early’ the hot cinders were placed on a shovel to one side of the fire-place while the ashes were taken out of the house. The cinders were replaced surrounded by pieces of dry wood and turf. Rarely was a match needed for the fire to ‘take off’. This was the way the hearth fire was kept alight before the days of matches. Pipes, candles and oil lamps were all lit from the hearth fire. In one area in Donegal a hearth fire was kept alight for a hundred years!

‘Of an evening’ people gathered round the kitchen fire for warmth and companionship. When rakers (visitors) called the fire was the tea-making centre with the kettle hung over the fire. Those were the days of ‘stewed tea’ - a thick strong brew beyond the tea-cup-tea of today’s refined taste. There was a saying that you could stand on it since it was so strong.


In the glow of the firelight the ‘craic’ (fun and laughter) was made. Stories were told being magnified in the telling. A story heard in the morning was very different when told round the fire at night. Songs were sung which seemed to have no ending. Jokes ‘rickocheyed’ as quick as a spark from the fire. Raking musicians would ‘make the music’, and the agile and not so agile would get up to dance to a jig, reel, hornpipe, the Highland, Stack of Barley, Shoe the Donkey and more. A soloist would place the fireside tongs on the floor and dance a jig over and around them.

Over the past couple of decades we have experienced these ‘round the fire’ sessions on a number of occasions. It is important to have a few people who grew up in such settings and know ‘the ways of being round the fire. Hospitality is central. Rakers were never asked if they would like ‘the tae’ because the reply might be: ‘I’m just after it’, which meant they had just had tea even if they hadn’t! Tea was made as soon as the people arrived with a drop of the ‘cratur’ (whisky) and soda bread. Later on more substantial food would be served.

Eating finished and mood created it was time for an Old Time Waltz, the back-bone of Irish dance settings - ‘excuse me please’ style so that everybody had a turn on the floor. The great ‘blessing’ of Irish culture is that everybody is welcomed and encouraged to join in - a cultural feature which the author Maeve Binchy thinks is unique to Irish culture. It is an ‘involved culture’.

In round the fire gatherings the ‘old folk at home’ shine. They are usually experts in the craic. Bridget back in her old thatched cottage for a ‘round the fire’ knew exactly when the Haymakers jig finished. She used to do it with her playmates in the school yard in winter- time to keep warm amid the moorlands of Donegal’s mountains.

George, back in his traditional cottage, said he couldn’t sing but with coaxing went on to sing endless verses of ‘The Rose of Arranmore’. His oft-repeated remark was: ‘The fairies have all gone.’ The morning after round the fire in his cottage he agreed that the fairies were back!

Storehouses of Culture

The most fascinating evening we ever spent was visiting Jim and Mary, who had ‘friends’ (relatives) over from Scotland. It was decided to extend the gathering so cars hastened away to gather in neighbours. By nine o’clock the house was full. We had no musicians, instrument, gramophone or cassette player for music yet we danced for hours. A few good singers provided the songs and everybody danced the night away. To create variety we danced to ‘lilting’. Reluctantly we began to go our ways at 2:00am.

All these houses, where these never-to-be-forgotten occasions took place, were simple and uncluttered. There was nothing to get in the way of people - no carpets, expensive furniture/furnishings, television or hi-fi’s. Only the people mattered with everybody encouraged to join in and enjoy yourself. The heart of traditional Irish culture is in people - it is rich beyond belief in customs, speech, song, poetry, drama, storytelling, music, witty conversation, the craic. It has been born, bred, developed, fostered, taught and spread in people’s homes, especially in rural Ireland, and especially in the ‘old folks at home’, who are the last of their kind as the ‘living’ storehouses of Irish culture.