This piece was originally broadcast on RTE’s Radio 1 programme Sunday Miscellany, 21 February 2016. You can listen here. Chaneys starts at 3.32.
I have been digging in my garden in a Dublin city estate for almost 20 years. The estate is a lovely little shamrock shape of cul de sacs: the Drive, the Crescent, and the Park, with green spaces such as the Big Ring, the Little Ring, and the Backers. The houses were built over a period of several years in the late 1940s and into the 50s. Before that, the area was farmland around the local village (still referred to as a village), and even before that still, an Anglo-Norman settlement, and the wooded landscape where Cú Chulainn played hurling.
Almost every time I dig in my garden (which isn’t nearly enough, for me or for my garden), I unearth broken pieces of china: someone’s plates, bowls, or cups from another life. Most are fragments of white delph, as the Irish call it, but a lucky few are patterned. I love finding the ones with a print or design on them, a sudden shot of colour under my spade or trowel. I secretly hope to be able to find and restore all the broken bits of one dish, like some buried treasure jigsaw puzzle.
Amazingly, these appear in ground where I have dug many times before, as if they are washing up on the shore of my garden beds.
My favourite is an oddly shaped segment with a dusty pink rose, a tiny piece of art. A triangle says, in green, ‘Made in England’, with a large B underneath. There is a piece of fine china, edged in gold, and chunky brown fragments of crocks. There are so many shades of blue, in delicate Chinese patterns or florals of every size and style. Thin stripes in red or blue line the occasional edge. A larger piece has an Asian gentleman in front of a cabinet topped with an oversized urn and flowers. He is gesturing toward a person beside him, but both gesture and person – except for their tiny hairpiece and forehead – are lost somewhere in someone else’s garden.
My son has a habit of finding things in the Backers, the most interesting a 1972 copper coin, he tells me, until he remembers the ‘skeleton of a broad sword, probably a Viking’s.’ My mother finds old toy cars and marbles in her beautiful garden on Vancouver Island, Canada. Small toys buried? Of course. Viking sword skeletons? Obviously. Broken dishes? But why? It puzzles me, these bits from another time. One suggestion is that the fill used in these gardens was actually taken from landfill which contained the detritus of other homes. Why then only dishes and not, for instance, tins?
When I started looking into it, another suggestion I found on Mother Earth News, in an article by Rachel Conlon, was that Victorians used pieces of their crockery to enrich the soil: bone ash is a component (unsurprisingly, really) of bone china and other ceramics, and the minerals found therein nourish the soil (personally, I think compost would work better). Daughter of the Soil suggests that previous gardeners have used the pieces as crocks in the bottom of plant pots, which have then at some point been tipped into the existing garden.
Called chaneys (or chaineys), they were once gathered by children and used as play money – intriguingly both here in Dublin, and in the Caribbean. Taken from the words china + money or china + pottery, the pieces were found in back yards or on the beaches of St Croix, and as Dublin-based jeweller Pebbles says, washed up on the shores of the Irish Sea. (Check out their jewellery – it’s beautiful, and the descriptions read like shards of poetry). Willow pattern china was used as ballast on ships, and was cheap. Broken dishes could have been tossed out anywhere. Some of the pieces in St Croix date back to 1750-1900 and there are many artisans making chaney jewellery, including ib designs who buy their materials from local schoolchildren.
In China, people known as ‘ceramics diggers’ search for remnants of pottery around building sites, and then sell their finds to collectors at markets. Their pieces can date back to the Yuan or Ming Dynasties. Incidentally, Rachel Conlon’s home and land is in Ontario, Canada and Daughter of the Soil Rebsie Fairholm lives and gardens in Cheltenham, England, giving this phenomenon a truly international scope.
So who was tipping plant pots into the earth around my home? Or who enriched the soil of the growing space that is altered now to roads, paths, houses, shops?
I used to think I’d keep the pieces to make a mosaic for my garden. With no hope of making a fortune from them, I may do that someday, but for now I’m just hoping for a matching piece.
And I have found a few things that we know were left by the builders: