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The Natural Environment

See how rural Ireland and its people traditionally used natural materials to create practical tools and solve everyday problems.


In the Ireland of 1850, most people lived off the land. A small number of wealthy landowners owned the land; they in turn leased it to their tenants. The question of land ownership dominated Irish political life from 1870 until the early twentieth century when the majority of tenant farmers became the owners of their small farms.

The fertility of the land affected the quality of life of the vast majority of the population. In Ireland some areas contain desirable resources such as rich, well-drained land with easy access to a bog for turf used for fuel. Others are characterised by rocks and poor soils.

Mixtures of good and poor land exist in most regions, though most of the good farming land is in the east and southeast; the land is predominantly poorer west of the Shannon river and large areas of bog dominate the centre of the country.

Thatched house on seaward side of the road near Kinnadoohy, Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, 1966.

Natural Materials for Building

Farmers relied on local supplies of stone, sod or clay to build their houses. Walls were often covered or rendered with a layer of whitewash made from lime or seashells.

The primary factor affecting the quality and appearance of thatched roofs was the choice of material. Both wheat and rye straw had long life spans; wheat was the first choice for its cleanliness, uniform length, and ease of preparation. If wheat or rye straw were not available, oat straw, barley straw, reeds, rushes, flax or marram grass were used.

Straw - A Local, Natural, Plentiful Material

People took advantage of local natural materials to make everyday items. As a result, in different parts of the country similar objects were made of different materials. Straw was a cheap, readily available material that people used to make a wide range of everyday objects.

A lobster pot made from rushes beside a hen's nest made from straw.

Irish Folklife straw objects such as mattresses, baskets, stools, horse collars and hen's nests demonstrate the material’s versatility. Each maker used the straw’s combination of lightness, flexibility, and strength to serve a specific function. For instance, the craft worker who made the stool used the strength of pieces of straw bound together, while the maker of the hen's nest took advantage of the insulating quality of the straw fibres.

On the flood lands of the River Suck in Co. Roscommon, bulrushes, lashed and woven around a wooden frame were employed to make a raft used for fishing and fowling. Such a raft can be seen on exhibition and demonstrates how well people adapted natural materials to hand to serve local needs. It is the only example of its type surviving in northern Europe.