The Irish Aesthete Recommends VIII

Donegal 1

A survey conducted in Northern Ireland in 2005 concluded that while there had been 40,000 thatched dwellings in the six counties half a century earlier, only 150 of these now remained. Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson, authors of Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, believe the situation is no better, and very possibly worse, in that county despite it being ‘home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of such vernacular cottages in Ireland.’ They also note that ‘One of the most enduring images of Ireland and Irishness is that of the traditional rural cottage.’ In 1935 the Swedish ethnologist Dr Åke Campbell who had arried out a survey of rural housing in this country, wrote ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’ One might add that being made of natural, local materials when these dwellings are forsaken, they dissolve back into the soil from whence they came. Would that the same could be said of the bungalow which is the most common form of housing type found in rural Ireland today.
One must avoid succumbing to excessive sentimentality: despite what we perceive as its inherent charm the traditional cottage tended to be small, dark, with poor insulation and extremely limited facilities. It is understandable that anyone inhabiting such a place would wish to replace it with a more comfortable residence. Still, it remains a matter of shame and disappointment that so little has been done to ensure the conservation of our historic dwellings since their loss means part of the nation’s collective history also disappears; tellingly many of the best examples featured by Gallagher and Stevenson have been preserved in open air museums and folk parks, or else converted into holiday homes. But very many more have fallen into dereliction and this book is as much a lament as a celebration of Donegal’s traditional cottages. The book is splendidly produced and illustrated, and with a text both informative and engaging. It also serves as an invaluable record of what still survives, but may not do so for much longer…
Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is published by Under the Thatch Ltd. For further information, see:

Donegal 2

13 comments on “The Irish Aesthete Recommends VIII

  1. the Elegant Economist says:

    In Scotland we have a similar aesthetic perplexity – very few of us who regret the loss of these homes would care to live in one through a wet winter, or put up with their simplicity full-time. Despite problems arising from part-time communities, sympathetic holiday conversion and use does seem one of the few viable options. Unfortunately there’s also a snobbish blind side to ‘bungalow disdain’, at least in Scotland, with inapppropriately styled or frankly ugly 19thC landowners’ shooting boxes lauded as characterful/quirky/charming…

    • Thank you for getting in touch; you make some interesting points very concisely. The problem of what to do with modest old vernacular housing is a global one, and it is notable in this country that the majority of our architects do not seem especially interested in engaging with the process of coming up with a contemporary solution, that is to say finding a style that is indigenous (rather than following the latest international trends), uses local materials and fits comfortably into the environment. It is true that bungalows inspire a considerable degree of snobbish disdain (from which none of us are immune) but the fact remains that in many settings their style is inappropriate and destructive of the locale’s character. A conundrum…

      • the Elegant Economist says:

        To be fair, there are some excellent individual examples of modern rural design, and a few (too few) good affordable developments – but alas not many people can afford the former, and the (political) will of local councils seems generally lacking to support the latter. In a nutshell, our everyday built environment isn’t valued enough as a constituent of our communal lives.

  2. Zick, Steven says:

    Fascinating, and sad. Do the houses get knocked down, or simply re-roofed with slate or corrugated iron? Time to buy the book, where no doubt this question gets answered…

    • As you are no doubt aware, in Ireland houses do not get knocked down. Instead they are simply abandoned and left to fall down over whatever period of time it takes to achieve this result. The re-roofing in slate or corrugated iron usually occurs while a building remains in use; once it is no longer deemed fit for purpose, whether any roof remains in place rarely troubles the owner. And yes, the book will provide you with a lot more information relevant to the houses of County Donegal but also to much of the rest of Ireland.

  3. Greg Stevenson says:

    many thanks for the kind review. I was staying with my friend Hilton Marlton when I read it – I believe you may know each other

    all the best Greg

    • Dear Greg,
      You are most welcome: your book is admirable and has excited considerable interest today, which I hope will translate into both sales and greater appreciation of Irish traditional cottages.
      I don’t think that I have had the pleasure of meeting Hilton Marlton, altho’ his work is splendid.

  4. Tom says:

    The style reminds me very much of Cape Vernacular, The first house I owned in Cape Town was a very sympathetically extended Cape Vernacular cottage; the original cottage now serving as the entrance hall allowing a view to the garden and pool at the back and all the other rooms in two L shaped wings extending from each side of what had once been the longitudinal. I like bungalows, my cottage here in Angola is a bungalow with cathedral ceilings making it very light and airy. Even now at the height of our summer I rarely feel the need for air conditioning. I have lived here for twenty years so perhaps I am used to the climate! The restaurant is thatched but all the cottages are roofed with wriggly tin lined with timber.

    Once again, a very interesting and thought provoking article and, as usual, well considered comments.

  5. Thank you as always for getting in touch, and for your kind remarks. I suppose all cottages to some extent are similar, being built with modest means and with limited facilities, hence their primary function is to provide shelter, and the aesthetics are incidental but, since local materials are used, attractive.

  6. John Phelan says:

    Unfortunately what was one of the prettiest cottages in the county has been de-thatched recently and replaced with modern slate. I guess insurance companies are making it harder for people to insure their homes if thatched.

    • Oh dear, that is most dispiriting to hear. If only the local authority would encourage the preservation of traditional thatch – don’t those in positions of responsibility recognise what an asset it is, how attractive it is, and how much visitors to this country appreciate seeing our heritage preserved (in answer to my own questions: no, it appears they do not).

  7. John Phelan says:

    On a positive note the pretty cottage pictured at the head of this page has had it’s cement render removed and replaced with a correct lime plaster. The roof timbers on the inside are amazing. I must send you on the pics.

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