There are commonalities in cottage design throughout Ireland from the 1860s, the chief being that thatch, whitewash and linear design are used. Traditional houses were often rectangular, one room deep and three bays wide. Inside, there were three rooms which led to each other, and often the door and windows were on one side of the house only. The kitchen was the chief room containing a hearth. It was sparsely furnished and flanked by bedrooms either side.
Irish cottages are related to a type of European vernacular building known as ernhaus where the hearth is of major importance to the dwelling. They also inherited some characteristics of medieval longhouses[i] and features of medieval Anglo Norman building influenced some cottages in the in south-east[ii].
There is also evidence that Irish cottages are descended from so called “byre” dwellings[iii]. Agriculture was vitally important in Ireland and livestock was a valuable commodity to be protected from weather, thieves or predators. Most farmers did not have outdoor shelters and brought their livestock into the house at night. Their houses became known as “byre” dwellings, where animals lived on one end of the house and the family on another, with a sunken channel which took effluent from the building and separated the living quarters. The animals provided additional heat to the human family. When sheds were built outside to house animals, the byre evolved to become a bedroom or parlour, it was floored, whitewashed, given a window and absorbed into the house’s design, its original purpose never to be fathomed by later inhabitants. The channel evolved too, to become a pathway from front door to back door.
There are two chief differences in Irish cottage design regionally which were identified by Kevin Danaher as ‘direct entry’ and ‘lobby entry’. In the north-west and in upland areas, the chief type of cottage is the direct entry type; that is the main room (kitchen) is accessed by the front door, often the back door was directly opposite the front door, and the front door was at the opposite end of the kitchen to the hearth. The walls are of stone and roofs have raised gables and windows are on one side of the house. The bed outshot or “hag” is often associated with direct entry cottage types. This was a projecting back wall usually 3ft deep, which contained a fitted bed, close to the fire. Elderly or infirm family members could continue to take part in the life of the house in this area which was occasionally closed-off with a curtain or with timber doors for privacy.
Lobby entry cottages are found around the south east of the country. With these, a wall or partition separates the door from the hearth, forming an open porch inside the front door. This screen wall is parallel to front of the house and is variously known as the ‘spy wall’ and has a small low window which faces the visitor to the house on entry. The person sitting at the fire can see through this window to the visitor at the front door. The spy wall protected the fire from drafts and offered privacy to the occupants if the door was open, as it often was. These lobby entry cottages also had hipped roofs and often the material for the walls was tempered clay with stones, whitewashed. An overhanging thatch, hipped on both sides was also a characteristic of these cottages. (I will discuss whitewash and thatch in future blogposts).
Throughout Ireland entrance doors were traditionally made of sheeted wood, and a popular design was the half door. It allowed light, ventilation and kept animals and children in or out. It also allowed for conversation with passers-by or neighbours. Windows were minimal in size not more than 2 ft wide and usually located away from the prevailing wind, and rarely located on gables on ground floors. Window openings were often closed up with boards, fleece or straw, as glass was expensive and drafts were common. A window tax imposed by the British government on the number of windows in all dwellings was enacted but did not have a major influence in Ireland. In the late nineteenth century, casement windows were replaced by wooden sliding sash types with two-over-two pane format, as glass became more affordable. Sash windows became very popular on Irish cottages as living standards improved in the later nineteenth century, and their fenestration is part of the recognisable fabric of the Irish cottage.
Illustrations by the author, 2016.