Since farming began in Ireland around 5000 years ago agriculture has lefts its mark on the people and the landscape. Ireland’s beef and dairy industry has been an important part of the economy since Ancient times. This article explores the 'byre dwelling' a house for humans and cattle.
Good pasture suits the rearing of cattle as, unlike sheep, they need good land. Owning cattle became a symbol of prosperity, and they frequently feature in Irish folklore and history. Dairy featured more prominently in the Irish diet than beef and was a chief export, with Irish butter renowned for its quality since medieval times. As rustling was a constant threat the protection of precious cattle became ingrained in the Irish farmer’s psyche. The history of building in Ireland, from Bronze Age enclosures to medieval ‘bawns’ at tower houses, to the green patchwork of fields, is influenced by the management and protection of herds by our farmers throughout history.
Security: Throughout this period, it became accepted for humans to take shelter with livestock to guard them. This custom was not just known in Ireland but in many rural parts of Europe. However, the prolonged poverty of Irish farmers along with the small size of their holdings meant the practise continued well into the nineteenth century. This is evidenced in a common type of home in Ireland known as byre houses. These were homes that people shared with their cattle. Some of them were purpose built and some evolved to take livestock in to them, and many were one roomed and often could accommodate as many as four cows and one large family.
Design: As per the accompanying diagram, byre dwellings were divided by a sunken channel to allow effluent to be drawn from the building. The byre and dwelling areas were on either side of the channel. The front and the back door of the building were opposite each other allowing for traffic of the animals, for the channel to drain and to let varying winds circulate.
Cows were only taken in for milking and at night and were tethered to the wall to stop them roaming to the living area. Often byre dwellings were partitioned with curtains, and animals were given fresh bedding frequently, which included sweet smelling plants such as heather. The cows would thrive from the heat of the family’s open fire and enjoy shelter from the elements. The family would benefit from the additional heat given off by the bodies of the animals.
Reaction: This may seem impoverished and unsanitary to us today but these people would not have been the poorest of the poor because they owned livestock. They would have benefitted from this pragmatic living arrangement in comparison to other small farmers and there was certainly little social stigma at the time of living in such a dwelling, from their fellow countrymen at least. Colonial British commentators were generally horrified at the Irish tradition of living under the same roof as livestock, citing it as yet more evidence that the Irish were savage and incapable of self-governance.
Evolution: Eventually exterior byres were built to accommodate cattle and the old byre dwellings often evolved and were extended into bigger houses with more rooms. The former byres were partitioned with a wall, given a window and converted into a bedroom. Long after byre dwellings fell out of necessity, the practice of bringing farm animals into the house continued in some parts of Ireland. Cows were sometimes brought into the house for Summer milking as it was considered lucky for the creatures to see the fire. Smaller sick animals could be brought in to benefit from the warmth of the fire. Other livestock were common in homes, as evidenced in the chicken coop dressers in later Irish cottages and the factual basis for the ‘pig in the parlour’. The large part agriculture plays in the Irish economy, as well as the protection of farms and livestock, continues to this day, under rather more modern circumstances.
Painting above: Basil Bradley (1842-1904) 'Milking in a byre cottage, Connemara' (1880).