Pigs in the parlour

Irish cabins

To the Editor of the Morning Chronicle

Sir

Whenever I contemplate a wretched Irish hovel, the blood mounts in my cheeks, and I vent certain short and very emphatic ejaculations upon the ruinous infatuation which keeps the Irish Proprietors in another country, while their presence is so indispensably necessary at home. The residence of the wealthy is as essential to the prosperity of a country, as the distribution of the blood by the heart to the health and strength of the body — no agent can effect these salutary purposes — the countenance of the master, and the sweet and conciliating benevolence of his wife and children, that anticipates with considerate kindness the wants of the tenantry, can alone render Ireland what it might and what it ought to be, and superadd to the natural advantages of its fertility, the blessings of civilization, and all the minor comforts and decencies which flow from its diffusion.

I have been led into these reflections by some circumstances which occurred during a walk which I lately took through part of the county of Wicklow; towards evening I approached a very tolerable looking dwelling, and with the instinctive curiosity of a Pedestrian Tourist, poked my nose into an apartment, which from its being boarded, was, I conjectured, originally intended for a parlour. I heard an odd rustling at the other end of the room, and after a few minutes perceived the snout of a sow maternally employed in arranging the litter for her interesting and numerous family — though an Irishman, I confess I felt a little hurt at this subversion of all order in lodgment, and exclaimed to the man of the house who just then came out of the kitchen, “My good friend, why in the name of decency do you put your pig in the parlour?” “Why, then, in troth I’ll tell you that, Honey,” rejoined Mr O’Shea, “I put the pig in the parlour bekase there’s every conveniency in it for a pig.”

As this was the literal truth, I had nothing further to say on the subject, but followed my host into the kitchen, where his wife and family were just about to sit down to their supper. As I was advancing to take a seat in the chimney corner, my stomach came in very unpleasant contact with a hard substance, which, upon investigation, I found to be the horn of a cow. “Why, what brings the cow here?” I demanded. “Why our little Sally, plase your honour: she brings her in every evening now that the nights are growing short and could; for my woman says nothing makes a cow fall off sooner in her milking than her being out under the could, and I never gainsays Peggy in these things, for there’s no better milker in the country.”

As I had no reason to question Peggy’s talents in the milky way, I sat down quietly on the three-legged stool, and while she was busied in preparing some rashers of bacon and eggs for my supper, I began to ruminate on the strange fatality that converts every cabin into a kind of Noah’s Ark. I had just turned up my face to the roof, in the act of ejaculating my wonder, when, to my infinite surprise, I felt a warm substance descending on my nose, which, upon further and more accurate inquiry, I found reason to attribute to a cock and six hens, who were just poising themselves for the enjoyment of a comfortable nap, during the night, upon a tie of the rafters.

I own I was a little provoked at this accident, and expostulated sharply with Mrs O’Shea upon the subject; but the same argument of heat that was submitted in favour of the cow was urged with still more cogency on behalf of the hens, to whose regular laying, I was assured, warmth to be essentially necessary. Having nothing further to object on this point, I proceeded to search for my handkerchief to wipe off the unpleasant topic of our altercation, when, to my still further dismay, my hand, in its progress to my pocket, popped into the mouth of the calf, who, mistaking it for the accustomed fist of Miss Molly O’Shea, began to suck it with the most indefatigable perseverance. From this last and most alarming dilemma I at length extricated myself, and having in vain offered some pecuniary remuneration for my entertainment, I departed with a high sense of the hospitality of my hosts, and with genuine concern that they were not better accommodated.

Since this occurrence, I have spoken frequently and strongly to some of the few Irish Proprietors who have real feeling on this interesting subject, and they have promised me to do what they can towards the amendment of cottage building; and putting from humanity out of the question, I conceive it to be strongly and decidedly their interest to promote such an improvement. From the encreased extension of our agriculture, the race of labourers are becoming daily objects of the most important and increasing care; and when it is considered how materially their health and strength depend upon the comfort and cleanliness of their habitations, those who have the means and opportunity will surely spare no effort in promoting the well-being of their workmen, by attention to those essential particulars.

I am, Sir, your humble servant, TT

Morning Chronicle 18 September 1812. Apart from a reference to guinea-pigs in a parlour, this is the earliest use of the phrase “pig[s] in the parlour” found in the invaluable online British Newspaper Archive on 3 March 2016. The British Newspaper Archive is run by Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, in partnership with the British Library.

2 responses to “Pigs in the parlour

  1. Whilst not wanting to perpetuate the stereotype, in 1877, a shareholder in the Great Southern and Western Railway suggested that the company’s cottages for staff could be improved.

    He was advised by the Chairman that the company preferred single storey cottages as when they had built two storey cottages, the men had put pigs, cows or poultry in the lower rooms.

    Source: G.R. Mahon, Irish Railways in 1877, Journal of the Irish Railway Record Society, Vol 14 No 88 p 378

  2. I had a quick look forward to the 1840s. The keeping of pigs in parlours was not specifically associated with Ireland: it was mentioned, jokingly or not, in England, Scotland and the Americas. I haven’t, however, recorded all the instances I found. bjg

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