The Traditional Irish Cottage
The Traditional Irish Cottage.
We are all familiar with postcards from Ireland. The pictures on these postcards are pictures of sheep, donkeys, green fields, castles, cliffs or cottages. A case can be made for the uniqueness of the green fields of Ireland. but let’s face it, cliffs are cliffs and animals are animals. On the other hand the traditional Irish cottage is the one image that is always associated with Ireland.
The traditional Irish cottage is an institution of its own! All it requires is to be a lime-washed one-storey structure with small windows and a low door with a thatched roof. Such cottages are dotted around the Irish countryside. Reports say there are over 2,000 thatched cottages along the roadsides in Ireland. The familiarity of the traditional Irish thatched cottage is the exact reason why you will see so many of them on postcards, calendars and tea towels.
Many Irish emigrants hold fond memories of the Irish cottages from their homestead, back in Ireland. Irish emigrants settled in numerous countries across the globe. The one thing that connects them to Ireland is their memories, happy, joyful memories from their childhood. These memories are often triggered by an image, a sound or a conversation. A picture of a cottage, the sound of the wind rustling through the thatched roof, the smell of porridge being made on the stove, brown bread being baked… These triggers are what activate our memories, allow us to reminisce and relive the lovely memories, all the while keeping them alive in our hearts. If a picture on a postcard can bring a smile to your face, put a twinkle in your eye, then let’s buy more of them!
The only solution that would be more effective would be to purchase your own cottage. There are many derelict cottages scattered across the country that would greatly appreciate new life being breathed into them. Rebuild and restore. Imagine the joy of owning your memories, the possibility of creating new memories to join the ones in your heart…
What is a traditional Irish cottage?
The vernacular or traditional Irish cottage is a narrow rectangular mud structure, roofed with tree branches or driftwood which is thatched or roofed with straw. The floor was mud scattered with hay. The fire was the heart and hearth of the home and sat accordingly in the centre.
The building would have been made using whatever supplies were available to them locally. The cottage structure was made of stones, rocks and mud. Stray branches and driftwood were collected and used as supports for the roof. The size of these pieces of wood determined the width of the cottage. Straw bundles were placed on top of the wood to roof the cottage. They were secured to the building with ropes. This process was known as thatching. The pitch of the roof was very low and determined by the surrounding landscape. Each cottage was built to blend with the surrounding countryside, to allow the natural landscape to help protect the cottage from the elements. This was especially important in the West of Ireland where the Atlantic Ocean drove wind and waves at the coastline.
In early times the fire was in a pit outside of the cottage for fear of an ember spitting and burning the cottage to the ground. People soon realized the benefit of having the fire inside the house and built a fireplace into the wall. Once the fire became an indoor fixture the out shot bed was developed. This was a nook that shared the wall with the fire. It was often a small space holding a pallet bed, it was usually built into the wall. A curtain was hung across the nook to keep in the heat from the fire’s wall. The elders in the family usually spent their days in the bed, especially during the harsh winters.
The fire is and always has been an important part of life. In fact, lives revolved around the fire. It kept people warm and dry, they cooked over the fire and socialised in front of the fire. Across the top of the fire was a stone or wooden lintel. This supported the fireplace and was strong enough to hold the pots and kettles full of water and food over the fire while boiling.
The front door was a half-door. This allowed natural light to spill into the cottage through the open top half, while the bottom half kept the animals outside and the young children inside. Directly opposite the front door was the back door. They faced each other so there was always a doorway protected somewhat from the elements.
The windows were small with wooden frames. Sash windows that lowered and rose for ventilation became the most popular windows. The inside window sill was very deep due to the depth of the walls.
As families grew so too did the cottage. A room would be added to one or both ends of the cottage as required. Though rarely did they expand upwards to include another storey. The roof rafters were used for storing tools, supplies and food. Generations of family would gather for occasions in the original homestead: aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins and siblings celebrated life together.
The traditional cottage changed with people’s needs and society. Slate roofs replaced thatching, running water replaced traipsing to the well, the stove replaced cooking over the open fire, aluminium and PVC replaced wooden windows and doors, concrete replaced mud walls. Despite the changes and progress in raw materials and society, the traditional thatched cottage has stayed true to itself and the Irish folk that built and rebuilt them.
And this is the reason why so many of the Irish, both home and abroad, have such fond memories of their traditional cottages.
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- Caitriona Hurley