Riches of Clare: The Tradition of Pipe Smoking

Clare Champion, Friday, March 5, 2004

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local-authority run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Tomás Mac Conmara tells us about an old habit which is rarely seen today.

Pipe smoking is a habit rarely seen these days due to smoking restrictions and cultural change, but also due to the emergence in the early 20th century of the cigarette.

In the days before cigarettes, and for some time after, the common man and woman smoked tobacco from a clay pipe. Indeed, the widespread distribution of such pipes even today, is indicative of their once common usage.

Clay pipes, or “Dúidíns” as they were known in Ireland were once found in almost every house in the country. Their association with traditions, along with the pleasure of “taking a puff”, led to their growth in popularity throughout the country but most particularly in the rural communities of Ireland. They were often associated with storytellers who would keep an attentive crowd in suspense in the midst of a story while having a smoke from his dúidín.

Clay pipes were also particularly prominent at wakes, where trays of tobacco filled pipes, Guinness and whiskey would be provided for the mourners. As soon as a person died, relatives or friends would buy a number of items for the funeral ceremony and these typically included a half barrel of porter, a gallon of whiskey, snuff, tobacco, and of course clay pipes.

It may seem strange now, but the clay pipe was one of the most important parts of any wake and was considered improper to be without them. A gross or more was usually purchased and this would then be filled with a twist of cheap tobacco, and passed around to all the mourners in the room.

Traditionally, the shank of the clay pipe was dipped into some Guinness or whiskey, a process that scaled the mouthpiece and imparted a good flavour to the clay for the smoker. Upon receiving the pipe it was customary to say “Lord have mercy” and in time the pipe became known as a “Lord ha’ mercy”.

The village of Knockcroghery, County Roscommon, was for almost 300 years the dominant area for production of clay pipes in Ireland. Towards the end of the 19th century, seven different families were involved in the production of clay pipes in the village, but this local industry ceased abruptly on June 19, 1921, when a party of Black and Tans burned down the village during the War of Independence.

Today in Knockroghery, where Curley’s Claypipe factory once stood, this old craft has been revived. Using the original tools and techniques, clay pipes are painstakingly hand made using the same skills employed by the artisan’s centuries ago.

It was the popularising of tobacco by Sir Walter Raleigh at the end of the 16th Century that led to the growth of the clay pipes in Ireland. Initially, they were of small size, directly linked to the expense in obtaining the “better tobacco” from Spanish colonies in the New World. After relations between Spain and England improved, larger pipes began to be produced with the stem sometimes reaching a foot long.

Great effort was made to look after your clay pipe. Due to their fragile nature, tapping the pipe against a hard surface in order to dump tobacco or ashes out was ill advised. The pipe was cleaned by placing it on the coals of a fire where all the residue would burn to ashes. This process could actually result in making the pipe more durable.

Although clay pipes are relatively common artefacts of the past, to see someone slowly manipulate a piece of tobacco and a pipe into a smouldering extension of themselves while telling you about the old days is indeed a rare event, not least because of our changing attitudes to tobacco.

The clay pipe in the picture is currently in collection at Clare Museum. Stamped on the bowl is “Peter Maloney, Ennis”.

View a Clay Pipe

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