Living under a hen

Alice Taylor’s Quench the Lamp is a warm and funny memoir of her childhood in rural Cork in the 1940s, full of anecdotes and observations on farm activities, family dramas, eccentric neighbours, and Irish life before and after electrification.

A chapter on thrift and the “art of making do” shows how objects’ versatility was engineered and enhanced. Pot lids warmed beds, goose wings dusted cobwebs, turf dust was deployed when the cat did “what he must where he shouldn’t”. Bags and boxes were strategically repurposed once emptied of their original cargo.

Newspaper served a multitude of roles, some of them still current even in urban lifestyles:

Our newspaper, the Cork Examiner, was a multi-purpose item. It cleaned and polished windows and it covered bare timber floors before the first lino or tarpaulin went down, thus providing underlay and insulation. Placed in layers on top of wire bed-springs, it eased the wear on the horsehair mattress; cut into the right shape, it became insoles in heavy leather boots and shoes and, later, in wellingtons when they became part of our lives. Even though it could never be described as baby soft, it was the forerunner of the multi-million-pound industry that subsequently provided soft solutions in the toilet-paper business. Rolled into balls it was a firelight, its effectiveness improved by a sprinkling of paraffin oil. Ned [a local shop owner] shaped it into funnels and filled it with sweets to make a tóimhsín, as he called it. At home it lined drawers and was considered mothproof and, when nothing else was available, it was used as a dustpan. One of our more industrious neighbours regularly covered her potato stalks with newspaper at night and this protected them from frost.

Taylor says those who excelled in the frugal art ran the risk of being considered thrifty to a fault – it would be said of them that they “could live under a hen”. Or you might say someone “could live in your ear and rent out the other one without you knowing it”.

A tóimhsín or tomhaisín /’t̪oːʃiːn/, by the way, is Irish for a small measure or amount, or in this case a cone-shaped paper bag or poke, often used for holding sweets. It comes from tomhais “measure, weigh”, and is sometimes anglicised as tosheen, to-sheen, or toisheen.

16 Responses to Living under a hen

  1. JareK says:

    I remember very similar uses of newspaper in rural Poland in the 70s. I could add newspaper being used for wrapping sandwiches as well. Also, room-painters were very skillful in making hats out of newspapers protecting their hair from fresh paint. One could say newspapers back then were much more than they are nowadays :)

  2. howwelivenow says:

    Or, apples wrapped in newspaper for wintering. I remember the heavy sweet scent of an apple variety called Beauty of Bath combined with newsprint emanating from cardboard boxes in my aunt’s spare room.

  3. David L says:

    All these young kids today, they don’t even know what “turf dust” is. Well, now that I mention it, I don’t know what turf dust is either, and I’m not a young kid. Can you explain, Stan?

  4. Stan says:

    JareK: Thanks for your examples. The sandwich one reminds me of the classic food use for newspapers: to wrap fish and chips. Painters’ hats are an excellent innovation. I used to use newspaper in various arts and crafts activities, but I don’t remember ever making a hat with it!

    Yvonne: That’s a lovely aromatic image, and I do like the verbing of winter. I’ve never eaten a Beauty of Bath apple, I think.

    David: Someone else asked me about this earlier, on Twitter; I guess the phrase is less transparent than it seems to me. Turf dust is dust from turf: tiny particles of it that you’ll find in abundance at the bottom of a bag or other container of turf. It’s like peat, but typically dry.

    • David L says:

      Thanks, Stan. Now for the next question: what do you mean by a bag of turf? For me, turf = sod, i.e. the thick strips of grass growing in soil that you use to lay down a new lawn. Is your turf the same as peat, or some cousin of it?

      It’s fascinating how apparently simple words and phrases can be so mystifying. I grew up in rural England, not rural Ireland, and a bag of turf is quite unknown to me.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      On the subject of newsprint-wrapped fish-and-chips, you deftly beat me to the punch (or salt and vinegar), there. Drats!

      That specific use came almost immediately to mind on my initial reading of Ms. Taylor’s quoted memoir segment on the multiple ways newspapers, specifically her Cork Examiner, could be creatively repurposed.

      Just curious why the traditional oil-based* newspaper inks didn’t somehow rub off on, or leach into the wrapped hot fish & chips? Perhaps the ambient grease acts as a repellant or chemical barrier? (Or, the scrumptious contents are usually eaten by most, toute suite, thus no ink absorption would obtain.)

      *These days, in the spirit of ‘going green’, I understand many hardcopy newspapers (what’s left of them) have switched over to largely vegetable-based inks, like soy. I gather, far fewer messy ink transfers to the reader’s hands than the earlier oil-based varieties would likely occur.

      • says:

        It is my experience, getting the papers in France, that they make one’s hands is grubbier now than ever before, but I put that down in part to the filthy stuff you read in them

      • says:

        sorry, I probably meant to write ‘handses’ not ‘hands is’

  5. Brasil says:

    If ever a voice has captured the colors, the rhythms, the rich, bittersweet emotions of a time gone by, it is Alice Taylor’s. Her tales of childhood in rural Ireland hark back to a timeless past, to a world now lost, but ever and fondly remembered.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    On my book wishlist Stan. I remember my father taking an edge off the Cork Examiner, a small white splice and using it to light his Gold Flake. Why waste a match? And, so hard to explain to younger others, we had NO rubbish. There was no dustbin collection when I was small. Everything was repurposed or composted.

  7. Stan says:

    David: Here’s a bag of turf. It’s usually a recycled fertiliser or animal-feed bag. In this context a sod is one full piece of turf (there are Irish words for fragments of different sizes). It’s peat that has been cut and then sun-dried for burning as fuel. Search Google Images for “turf bog” and you’ll get a sense of it.

    Alex: I used to wonder about the ink problem too. Timing could be all-important.

    Brasil: Very well said. It’s not a past I shared, being a generation or two removed from it, but its legacy is everywhere and many of its ideas lived on in later generations. Taylor evokes the era beautifully.

    WWW: Why waste a match indeed. I would do the same myself if I were lighting a Gold Flake with a living flame nearby. It’s amazing how much unnecessary packaging there is for everyday items now, and how heedless some people remain about its disposal.

  8. Can’t do any of THAT with your iPad newspaper app …

    • Stan says:

      Not a bit of it, Martyn. Though I imagine the iPad makes for a better tray if you don’t mind the risk of scratches and spills.

  9. […] Had he a secular alternative to hand – old newspapers, for instance – he might have made a tóimhsín for the sweets and allayed his […]

    • says:

      Is this a deliberately obsolete use of ‘allay’ (e.g.OED, CD-Rom version 2009: ‘Allay’ 3), or am I missing something ?

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