The Irish Dresser
The Irish Dresser
by Meredith S. Chesson
Concurrent Professor, Gender Studies
Fellow, Nanovic Institute for European Studies
Pictures: two mid to late 1800s dressers from The O’Brien Collection
The beautiful dressers you see before you testify to the enduring practice of utilizing dressers to transform Irish residences into homes. Two key elements combine to form a dresser: the lower, usually enclosed press (aka cabinet) and the open shelving unit resting on the worktop formed by the top of the press. At first blush, its fundamental job is to order and store peoples’ belongings: ceramic table- and tea wares, cooking pots, glass vessels, photographs, vials of holy water, letters, travel souvenirs, eyeglasses, heirlooms, money, and even wills. While dressers do in fact curate and display tangible possessions, their far weightier and more expansive accomplishments dwell in their ability to anchor a home, a family, a community, and a region’s history, heritage, and futures. They display and protect peoples’ pasts, presents, and futures, allowing people to tell stories about their kin, their experiences, and their desires while simultaneously communicating the residents’ dedication to family, to hospitality, and to their community.
Dressers offer people a powerful instrument to enact the alchemy of homemaking: reshaping a place, be it an apartment, cottage, or mansion, into a meaningful and nurturing home. Homemakers today and in the past paired a dresser with the main hearth, especially in older homes, or near stoves in more modern dwellings. Linking hearths and dressers is no accident: both fulfill crucial biological, economic, social, and emotional needs in life, providing warmth, nourishment, and a place to gather. In their prominent place within the busiest room in many homes, dressers witness the passage of time, the growth of families, the loss of loved ones, and the challenges and triumphs of people to build and support communities.
Dressers also testify to the resiliency of their makers, owners, and users. Historically, dresser-makers crafted these beautiful possessions as a key furnishing for any home. These craftspeople, typically men in less recent times, usually built other types of traditional furniture, including settle beds, meal bins, tables, wardrobes, and chairs. In island and coastal communities, dresser-makers often were also skilled boatwrights. These craftspeople created many early dressers as bespoke items that were constructed, literally and figuratively, into the bones of a home, tucked under staircases or built into the walls of the residence. Oral histories recount that many dressers served as gifts to newlyweds, and indeed many today also hold delph gifted to generations of young married couples.
Renowned furniture historians Claudia Kinmonth and Bernard Cotton have documented how these craftspeople drew upon local styles and a family’s needs to make a dresser, and thus today we see wonderful variations in dresser styles. For instance, the fiddle-fronted dresser sports carved openings in its press, which owners likely enclosed by curtains in the past, in order to store larger objects, like big cooking pots, or to provide roosting space for chickens. On the red dresser, in turn, rounded shoulders rise up from the press to enclose the worktop: a decorative style common in Connemara. On both dressers the fascia board, the horizontal piece of wood that joins the dresser cornice to the shelving area, is carved with traditional symbols found across many regions, including the hearts seen on both, the stylized fish motif on the red dresser (evoking the Biblical “fish and loaves” story) and the flying wheel pattern on the green dresser. Whatever the regional and stylistic variant, dressers were made to last; a dresser maker once told me that good dressers are “made to grow old”, to accumulate years of paint, delph, and family stories.
On the other side of the dresser-delph equation reside the dresser- and delph-keepers, who accept the responsibility to keep their dresser in good shape. Traditionally, these individuals painted their dressers as often as once or twice a year to freshen them up and keep them clean and bright. Dresser-keepers today and in the past make important decisions to either display or store away in safety the heirlooms and belongings speaking of a family’s historic and present accomplishments and memories. They create personalized tableaus in dressers and on walls and shelves that communicate a home’s or a business’ generosity, hospitality, history, community connections, and heritage.
These two venerable dressers display old delph, a collective term for the ceramic table wares and crockery displayed on dresser shelves (not to be confused with delft, an eighteenth-century tin-glazed earthenware, whose production used a specific set of technologies and materials). The banded and spongeware-decorated mugs on both dressers’ shelves are excellent examples. Sometimes dresser and delph keepers placed hooks along the fronts of the shelves for hanging mugs like these or teacups. People may have used these vessels daily, never, or only during special occasions, such as Easter or Christmas feasts, birthdays, of the visit of a loved relative who lives far away. As Henry Glassie (1982: 364) explains, the crucial elements lie not in the function of mundane belongings, but in the stories attached to them:
Experiencing the dresser visually, you would join the homemaker in one dimension of her delight. The dresser’s beauty is its gift to the visitor, but its more important dimensions abide invisibly. One is social association. The Belleek plate that seems pretty to you and to her also means a wedding to her, a gift, a lost friend.
Dressers and delph exemplify how people nurture deep and abiding associations between the mundane possessions and furnishings of everyday life and the ordinary and extraordinary moments that we treasure in our memories. By displaying or hiding away heirlooms and other precious belongings, a dresser protects and embraces memories of loved ones lost to death or emigration, as well as important life milestones like births, christenings, graduations, pilgrimages, and marriages. Plate by plate and jug by jug, dressers and delph tell intimate stories of life in a family and community, evoking a rich history of successes, struggles, losses, and enduring senses of heritage and resiliency. These objects contribute gravitas to the very nature of a home, restaurant, pub, or hotel, weaving together tangible furnishings with the intangible senses of place and belonging, thereby paving a pathway to the future.
Concerns with climate change, sustainability, and low carbon footprints combine with an increasing appreciation for those belongings that were "made to grow old”, like dressers and their delph. In furnishing homes with old dressers and delph, in creating a welcoming place to nourish our families, and in recognizing the resiliency or our ancestors and their knowledge of living with renewable resources, we help create a more sustainable future for ourselves and our descendants. While we may not think of dressers and delph as anything more than ordinary and silent backdrops to the goings-on of life, they act as powerful agents that can change the world. People use them to tell stories, craft memories of the past, celebrate the present, and overcome present and future challenges. Dressers and delph enable people to enact change, to make their lives more connected to the past and present, and their homes more nurturing for an aspired-for future.
Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982)
More about Dressers:
Bernard J. Cotton, ‘Irish Vernacular Furniture’, Regional Furniture, vol. 3, 1989, pp. 1-28
Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000, (Cork: Cork University Press, 2020)
Michael Fortune’s The Dresser Project and Calendar: https://thedresserproject.ie/The_Irish_Dresser_and_Folklore_Calendar.html
Poetic Reflection: Padraic O’Colum, 1907: “An Old Woman of the Roads”
O, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped-up sods against the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!
To have a clock with weights and chains
And pendulum swinging up and down!
A dresser filled with shining delph,
Speckled and white and blue and brown!
I could be busy all the day
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor,
And fixing on their shelf again
My white and blue and speckled store!
I could be quiet there at night
Beside the fire and by myself,
Sure of a bed and loth to leave
The ticking clock and the shining delph!
Och! but I'm weary of mist and dark,
And roads where there's never a house nor bush,
And tired I am of bog and road,
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!
And I am praying to God on high,
And I am praying Him night and day,
For a little house - a house of my own
Out of the wind's and the rain's way.
Musical Reflections: Three versions of “(A)Round the House and Mind the Dresser”