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Traditional Irish Architecture FAQs

Does the Museum have a traditional house on view to the public?

In Summer 2003 the Education Department at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, undertook a house building skills project. Skilled craftspeople worked in the grounds of the Museum to demonstrate and explain the variety of materials, tools and techniques that were used at different times in building traditional houses in Ireland. 
The resulting structure was made from the sustainable, managed and renewable natural resources of wood, earth, stone and straw, and sourced locally, as was the case for many thousands of years in the vernacular dwellings of our ancestors.
Tours and workshops to explain the project and demonstrate skills such as wattle weaving, thatching and lime-washing are held at regular intervals or can be pre-arranged for groups.

How many people lived in a typical house?

Large families could live in relatively small houses. Pieces of furniture such as the settle bed and press bed were especially useful. The settle was a long seat during the day and a bed at night and the press bed could be folded away during the day, both providing a place to sleep but saving space and fulfilling other functions during the day.
Many houses feature an outshot protrusion in the building, usually next to the hearth, into which a bed was built. The grandparents or the most elderly family member would sleep in the outshot to take advantage of the heat of the fire. 

How many rooms would a typical house have?

Houses varied in size and design. The kitchen and living space generally occupied the central area of the house and a bedroom may have been situated beyond the living space at the end. There may also have been a parlour (or good room), which would be used to display the best of the families possessions and kept for important visitors such as the parish priest.

How much raw material is needed to thatch a roof?

The typical thatched roof had a layer of sods (either earthen or turf) on top of rafters and laths, onto which the thatch was fixed. This sod layer served as a draught-proof insulating layer and fireproof barrier.
A variety of materials are used for the thatch such as water reed, rye, wheat, oat, and barley straw, sedge, flax, rushes and heather. Large volumes of hazel and willow, as well as bramble, are used as scollops (pins) and rods. Súgan (straw) ropes are used as binders. Approximately three acres of straw and 4,000 scollops are needed for a typical roof.

Is thatching still a common method of roofing a traditional style house?

Though thatch is an intrinsic part of our vernacular architecture, it has been in sharp decline since the late 1950s. Water pollution and fertilisers, coupled with a change in the UV rays of sunlight, acid rain, and increased levels of rain and wind all make thatch less durable. It is also very labour intensive and therefore expensive. The production of straw and reed for thatching in Ireland has virtually collapsed and the vast majority of thatch materials are now imported. Also, the skill is not passed down through generations as much as it once was.

What determined the choice of building materials for a house?

In any locality, both the weather and the availability of materials affected what was used to build a house, and therefore the style of the houses. Irish forests had been destroyed over the previous four centuries, so timber was not readily available. For most people the only source of building timber was the wood dug up from bogs or found on beaches. As a result, poor farmers had to rely on other local materials, such as stone, sod and clay to build their houses.

What materials did people use to build their houses?

Prior to the 20th Century, most people used either stone or clay to build the walls of their home. Stone was preferred because of its durability, but if it was not locally available, clay (mud) served instead. Stone was more readily available in the north and west, while clay predominated in the east and south-east, but homes made of each type of material were found throughout the island. Walls were often covered with a layer of whitewash made from lime or seashells. Sod houses were usually temporary dwellings, built by labourers who moved from one locality to another in search of work.

What other factors did people think about when building their house?

The conditions of the landscape influenced how people built their homes. For example, people who lived along the west coast of Ireland were exposed to Atlantic storms, and built their homes with the strong end walls towards the sea. When possible, they located the building in the shelter of a valley.   

What other materials were used for roofing houses?

When the material was locally available, farmers preferred stone to thatch, lending a special character to houses in certain areas of the country. Houses in Liscannor, Co. Clare were roofed with local sandstone flags, and slate was used on houses in counties as far apart as Donegal, Mayo, Waterford, Cork, and Tipperary. In the 20th Century, corrugated iron sheets tended to replace both stone and thatched roofs.

What roof styles do traditional Irish houses have?

Roofs were built in two traditional forms. Hip roofs wrap around all four sides of the house and have a curved appearance. Gable roofs are more angular, with triangular sides (the gables).
Houses were generally thatched, that is binding vegetation firmly together in series of layers at an angle that allows rain water to run off the roof. In gable walled houses the thatch is usually secured by gables projecting above the level of the thatch or fastened to the walls by mud or plaster.  Gable house roofs on the west coast were often had a distinctive dome-shape.  The gable roof occurs in most areas, but is predominant in the northern half of the country.  Thatched hip roofs, mainly found in the south and east, are attractively rounded and curved. 

What tools are used to thatch a roof?

The principal tools and implements used are still the leggat, beetle or bat, a knife, a sheep shears, and a ladder. Reed pins serve as temporary tensioning tools. A stitching needle and a stoppler and a thruster are also used.

What variations exist in thatched roofs?

The choice of material used to thatch a roof affected its quality and appearance. Both wheat and rye straw had a long life span. Wheat was especially sought after as it was clean, uniform in length, and easy to prepare. If wheat or rye straw were not available, thatchers would use the most suitable fibre at hand — oat straw, barley straw, reeds, rushes, flax, or marram grass. Thatching techniques varied regionally and affected the appearance and quality of finished roofs.

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