Liam Corry (Curator of Emigration, Ulster American Folk Park) notes that costumed interpreters can add much value to a famine cabin exhibition. They add the human touch; they remind us that real people lived here. The costume can reflect the period giving another layer of history. The guide can interact with the visitor on the level that the visitor wants. They can get down to the level of the child or they can discuss difficult academic ideas around the Famine with an academic. They can interpret in first or third person roles. They can be seen preparing food, making the shake down bed and other tasks around the house.
In the case of the Single Room Cabin in the Ulster American Folk Park, costumed interpreters can help provide a sense of context for visitors to help them better appreciate the cottier dwelling. They often point out that:
- Many people think that Irish emigration started with the Great Famine. Visitors often encounter this house first, and guides take the opportunity to say that Irish emigration had deep roots long before 1845 as they will find out as they travel around the Park.
- We do not know the name of the family who lived here in 1845. Like so many of the poorer classes, they left no real mark on the record books. They may have died or they may have emigrated. In this way, the cabin can represent a family from the million who died and the million who emigrated during the Great Famine.
- This single room cabin came from the townland of Altahoney, near Park in the Parish of Cumber Upper, County Londonderry in the Sperrin Mountains. It is an example of the type of dwelling occupied by many poor tenant farmers in the decades leading up to the outbreak of the Great Famine in 1845.
- A significant feature of the cabin is the bed outshot – an alcove with a built-in bed extending into the back wall of the house, beside the fireplace. It is best seen from the back of the building. This feature was fairly common in northwest Ulster. The roof trusses and purlins are of bog-birch timber, originally from a house in Lack, Co Fermanagh. Split bog-fir wattles, hazel scallops & grass sod roof underlay – clay downwards.
- Potatoes grown in the ‘lazy beds’ in front of the house would have been the principal source of food for the occupants. The potatoes would have been in a different patch each year as the farmer who occupied the land would have rotated the patches around his farm.
- It is hard to say what the family size was typically. Child mortality before 5 years could be as high as 50%. Sometimes a grandparent would live with the family.
- In good times, the small building at the side of the house would have housed some pigs (for sale). In some dwellings without a shed, the pig would have lay at night in the house with the family. The shed could have been built later as the stone work was not tied into the gable wall. The pig would be bought in the late summer if there was a good potato crop and sold in early spring to a farmer for further fattening.
- In 1841, about 33% of people in Ulster lived in class 4 housing [the lowest class] of which this single-room cabin is an example. In East Ulster, the percentage was a bit lower, in Donegal and Fermanagh it was higher. Most class 4 houses were in much worse condition than this one: e.g. walls were often of mud wall construction, window openings had no glass and were stopped up with skins or cloth, doors were sometimes nonexistent, using whin bushes instead in one case, to close the opening.
- By the end of the Famine in 1851, the number of single room dwellings/fourth class housing went down by 355 000 in Ireland. You can count an average family as being 4 to 4.5 so 1.4 million to 1.6 people vanished from the census from fourth class housing alone. They did not move to third class housing. The houses melted into the land as so many were sod built. In Tyrone over 15000 such houses disappeared, even in County Down over 11000 disappeared.
- The type of person who lived here might have been a small farmer with a few acres or a labourer/cottier. A cottier rented land from a farmer, usually there was a house and some land to grow his potatoes to feed the family. The farmer was repaid by the cottier working for so many days in the year to the farmer. Those cottiers who were better off were sometimes had enough land to graze a cow. However, cottiers got poorer by the famine and did not usually have cow grass. A labourer would have paid the rent in money. He would have had to pay it before he dug his potatoes.
- The ordinary diet of the labouring class was potatoes and buttermilk, with salt herrings or eggs as a special treat. The family sat in a circle around the pot or basket of potatoes and ate them without cutlery. The potatoes were grown in lazy beds nearby.
- Because of the shortage of work at certain times of the year, men in the poorest families sometimes travelled to England or Scotland to help with the harvest. It was estimated in 1833 that they probably earned about £3 for this work. Others went to counties such as Antrim, Louth, Meath and Dublin for the harvest. While the men were gone the poorest families often begged.
- Some poor families in this parish, in an effort to earn money, turned to broom-making using the heather nearby, or became involved in dealing in small items such as eggs, fowl, yarn, potatoes etc and reselling them.
- This house represents the home of the type of family who might have emigrated during the early years of the Famine. The very destitute died, being unable to afford to emigrate unless they got assistance. Approximately 1 million died during the Famine and just over 1 million emigrated.
- History and the writers of history view such houses from the outside. This view can sometimes be pejorative. Very few occupants left a record of their thoughts. People enjoyed each others’ company in these houses, had children and struggled with life as we all do.