By Triona Byrne
For two countries so close to each other geographically, Ireland and England have very different attitudes to building conservation. We spent two weeks in Ireland recently as part of the Scholarship, and after living in the UK for 6 months, it was eye-opening to see the contrast in built heritage first-hand, and explore the socio-economic reasons that have led to this.
There are myriad explanations for the obvious contrast, not least that the two countries have had mightily different histories – while England has a history of colonisation, Ireland’s past is brimming with invasions and conflict, up until very recently. Economic reasons also play a huge role. Ireland’s economic cycles tend to fluctuate wildly, with drastic cycles of ‘boom and bust’, whereas Britain’s economy has smaller cycles of recession and prosperity. This has a huge impact on the construction industry and the finance available for conservation projects, which also impacts the lure of construction or an apprenticeship/trade as an attractive career path for young people.
Ireland’s building stock includes several structures surviving from prehistoric times – places like Newgrange, a stone age passage tomb, along with many ring forts, dolmens and burial tombs. However these are not as easy to spot as the early medieval round tower, a common sight on the skyline. Although these are not uniquely Irish, a vast number were built around the country from 500 to 700 AD when Ireland was made up of many monastic settlements. Ireland became known as ‘The Land of Saints and Scholars’ due to the flourishing arts and learning of this time, when the rest of Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages. The round towers built at this time were defensive structures, with tiny windows and doorways several metres above the ground, accessed by a retractable rope ladder. Irish round towers are unique in that they have a stone cap, unlike similar round towers built elsewhere in Europe at this time.
More common again are ruined structures from the time of Norman and Anglo-Norman invasions, dotted around the countryside. The tower house, the ubiquitous building of this era, was a tall, defensive, stone structure, designed to keep out invaders and provide a good vantage point around the surrounding land. These structures had thick walls, narrow windows (or none at all) and defensive features such as machicolations. These were clearly not ideal living conditions, and so it is not surprising that they were abandoned and let fall to ruin as the Middle Ages drew to a close. However it is interesting to contrast the buildings of this time with those being built in England, where a typical village was comprised of a church, a manor house and timber framed cottages. This village structure was not possible in Ireland, where attacks and invasions were a regular occurrence and a strong defensive building was the optimal home. Peasants of this time lived in small mud huts with a roof of organic matter, none of which survive to this day.
Between the 12th and the 20th century, the Irish and English fought bitterly for control over Ireland. During this time, the English were generally the stronger side and under their reign, much of Ireland’s culture was suppressed, including the Irish language, traditions and religion. This influenced the building of churches – the Penal Laws stated that “when allowed, new Catholic Churches were to built of wood, not stone, and away from main roads”. Hence the majority of Catholic churches in Ireland today were built in Victorian times.
Probably the most famous Irish building is the traditional Irish cottage. These cottages were built by and for farming families, usually with a stone plinth, earth/cob walls and thatched roofs. Windows were very small, due to the cost of glass (particularly while there was a window tax) and the cottages were one-room deep. This one-room depth was most likely due to the length of timbers available to form the typically A-framed roof.
There were predominantly two types of cottage layout – one where the front door opened directly into a parlour (where the hearth was located) and with bedrooms at either end of the house. The second type had a front door opening in to a small lobby, which was created by a jamb wall standing perpendicular to the hearth. Some jamb walls had a “spy window” that allowed a person sitting at the hearth to see anyone entering the house.
For me, these buildings define the Irish countryside and its history. They are part of our heritage and represent the industrious farming people who built them. Unfortunately, my views do not seem to be shared by the mainstream Irish public. The majority of these cottages are being left to fall into ruin.
As people today generally want houses with large, open-plan spaces and modern conveniences, they abandon the humble cottage and build new, contemporary buildings on the same plot of land. This results in the high number of ruined cottages that are all over the countryside. This is a sad state of affairs, and is in contrast to the UK where old buildings will usually be adapted for modern use. However the British approach can also be to the detriment of the building, as original walls are ripped out to create “bright, open living spaces”, which historic buildings are not famous for, and inappropriate materials are used. Neither the British or Irish approach is ideal, and it should be applauded when an old building is accepted for what it is and carefully conserved using traditional methods. We saw an excellent example of this in Stansfield, Suffolk recently where we spent a day with Bill Sargent limewashing an old thatched wattle-and-daub cottage that is being sympathetically repaired.
Since Ireland achieved independence nearly 100 years ago (excluding Northern Ireland), Irish people have taken strides to distance themselves from the poverty and oppression that maintained a stronghold on the country for so long. This sadly includes many of the beautiful buildings that were built by British landlords and landowners from the 17th to the 19th century, many of which were destroyed or else let fall to ruin. It also includes the humble cottages and farm buildings that are a reminder of the poverty of the past. Ireland’s lack of a large public funding body for built heritage like the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK, and organisations like the National Trust and the SPAB, all contribute to this lack of appreciation for building conservation. However, I believe the attitude of the general public is slowly changing and Irish people are beginning to realise that our rich built heritage is a valuable and unique asset that must be protected. I am hopeful that the philosophies of the SPAB can spread to Ireland and that there can be a shift in the public perception of our past and the beautiful buildings that connect us to it.