The chiollagh, or open hearth, is a feature of the old Manx farm and cottage kitchen which is rapidly passing into obscurity. Indeed, not more than half a dozen or so remain in use in the whole Island. The introduction of the small range consisting of iron hob, grate and oven, offering as it did greatly increased culinary efficiency with a considerable saving in time and labour, sounded the death-knell of what, for centuries, had been in many ways the centre-piece of a very fine, if very tiny nation.
It is difficult in these days to asses truly the full importance of the chiollagh in the folk life of the Manx. There are many facts which make manifest its high position. For one thing, from a structural point of view, it was usually the soundest and most elaborate feature of the house. For another, it provided the means whereby food, the reward of toil, was prepared for the family. Further it was by the fireside that honour-places were accorded the visitors to the house. And it was to the chiollagh that the family repaired when work was over and night’s stillness lay around. By the dim light of the cruises or the tallow dips, and embraced in comfort by the warmth of the peat or the bons of gorse, the old people would delight in that peculiarly Manx institution which will go down in history as the ‘cooish’. Or, perhaps, the younger ones would sit side by side on the bink beneath the chimney, gazing up through the curling blue spirals of smoke to the stars…engaged in that other art which is Manx only because it is also universal and which in this fair land is known as ‘sooreyin’.
Let us then put a sight on the chiollagh and see what manner of thing it is. We shall find many still extant in the ruinous tholtans of the countryside and it is mainly from a study of these that knowledge in this branch of folk-culture can be gained.
The Open Chiollagh
It seems a justifiable step to divide the chiollaghs into two quite distinct types, which, in the absence of proper definitive terms, might be called the ‘open’ and the ‘recessed’. The open chiollagh appears to be more primitive, demanding less skilled workmanship and employing poorer material, and therefore appearing from a constructional view-point, less sturdy.
Unlike the recessed chiollagh, which requires skilful building in stone, the chimney-flue is not enclosed in the thickness of the gable-wall, but the smoke is carried to the roof by a rectangular hood or funnel which tapers towards the roof on each of its three faces. This hood is supported on a wooden beam which extends from wall to wall parallel to the gable, at a height of from four to five feet, and a yard or more from the chimney-wall. In ruined cottages the former presence of an open chiollagh can always be observed from the fact that a shallow channel tapering towards the top exists in the middle of the upper gable.
The open type, whilst very prevalent on the northern plain, was certainly not confined to that region. Two examples now lie beneath the Baldwin reservoir and at Kirk Michael, Ballarragh and even so far as Port Erin and the Sound there have been others.
The Recessed Chiollagh
From the accompanying elevations (see photos) that the recessed chiollagh, unlike the open one, does not extend across the full reach of the gable wall, but has a wide stone-built flue erected above the mantel-tree, which is in turn supported on pillars of masonry at either side of the fire-place. More often than not the beam or lintel is of slate from a nearby quarry but sometimes a ship’s timber cast up on the shore would be appropriated to this use and in the Curragh area we find lintels of darrag or bog-oak, dug up in marshy fields. The general rule among the small crofters at any rate, was to make good use of what material lay nearest to hand and in the Curraghs (where open and recessed chiollaghs were present in about equal strength) the cost of carting slate lintels from the nearest quarries in Sulby Glen might be prohibitive to all but the better-equipped farmers. Often the latter, whilst making use of slate lintels for the chiollagh, windows and doors, resorted to the local bog-oak spars for the roof. The special advantage of the darrag is that, being fossilized oak, it is exceedingly hard and durable and does not easily catch fire.
The Built-in Oven
A great advantage of the recessed chiollagh was that it enabled the house to enjoy the luxury of a built-in oven, a recess with a narrow entrance in one or other of the side walls. These were usually made of rounded stones skilfully corbelled into a dome-shaped roof and although the customary position was mid-way up the side-wall, they were sometimes (as at Cronk ny Geayee and Langness) built actually on the floor level. The method of baking was to light a good fire of gorse-bons, which give off a great heat and little smoke, actually inside the oven. When the interior was considered hot enough, the fire was quickly raked out, the floor of the oven brushed clean with a goose-wing, the confectionery put inside and the entrance sealed with a well-fitting piece of slate. This process might have to be repeated several times before the bread or cakes were properly baked.
chiollagh – open hearth
cooish – a cosy chat
sooreyin – courting
tholtan – an abandoned, traditional Manx dwelling
gorse-bons – gorse sticks
darragh – oak
Cronk ny Geayee – Windy Hill
(source: The Journal of the Manx Museum Vol.IV June 1938 No.55; photo of Harry Kelly’s cottage courtesy of Peter Killey at Manxscenes Photography)