The Irish rural thatched cottage has long been a combination that reflected the eked-out existence of an impoverished, but culturally rich people. By the mid twentieth century an Irish school of landscape painting was well established, with a sizable number of artists from Northern Irish, Protestant, urban backgrounds. These artists’ ‘national identities’ were at a pronounced remove from the wild unsophistication of the Irish west and the western cottage represented a shared cultural tradition through the medium of folk architecture.
The west of Ireland has a visual Otherness: the green patchwork of farmed fields which characterise the rest of Ireland do not feature in this area. It is dominated by purple mountain, brown bog, lakes and wild skies; orange grasses and a barren treelessness emphasised by the wild, ever changing weather coming in from the Atlantic Ocean.
An Irish school of landscape painting: In the early years of the twentieth century Irish artists portrayed the west and it became a place of pilgrimage for landscape artists. There was a certain dignity in the way the inhabitants persevered in the wild landscape that contrasted with times past. It gave a positive national identity for the rural Irish, where before little existed, celebrating the relationship of the people to the land they lived on.
The most influential was Paul Henry (1877–1958), a Protestant from Northern Ireland, who depicted traditional archaic turf stacks and potato pickers, in a modern way influenced by French Realism and Impressionism. Henry’s imagery of the west provided a view of rural Ireland that became recognised globally and was featured on travel and tourism publicity.
Artists from Northern Ireland: The Republic of Ireland (the South) was largely Roman Catholic, rural and had been neutral during the Second World War. Northern Ireland in contrast, as a part of the United Kingdom, meant Belfast and other towns suffered from German bombing raids. Northern Ireland was mainly Protestant, urban and industrialised.
To Northern Irish landscape artists of the mid twentieth century, the west of Ireland held a particular Otherly draw for artists such as Georgina Moutray Kyle RUA (1865-1950) Charles Lamb (1893-1964) and Frank McKelvey (1895-1974). Later, Rowland Hill (1915-79) and Maurice Canning Wilks (1911-84) portrayed tranquil cottages in their work against vibrant landscapes. Markey Robinson (1918-99), Gerard Dillon (1916–71) and Gladys Maccabe (b.1918) opted for traditional subjects with a pronounced modernity and like Henry (a generation earlier) chose to live amongst the landscapes they portrayed if only for a while.
Artists from Northern Ireland seemed especially compelled to depict the west of Ireland, perhaps in seeking difference, or in seeking a common cultural identity. It is pertinent that these artists did so in the mid twentieth century, prior to the worst of the sectarianism and the Troubles which had a devastating effect on Northern Ireland until recently.
The Irish cottage in art: By the early twentieth century, Irish politicians saw the west of Ireland depicted by artists like Henry, and the thatched cottage, increasingly associated with the idea of a Utopian unspoiled Ireland unsullied by British colonialism which might be revived. The cottage became a reflection of the lives lived within them and the opposite of Englishness and in this way became slightly politicised.
However, their vernacular architecture had the hand of no fashionable architects in their design but of local craft traditions handed down through generations. Although often vulnerable to the elements they had an eternal quality in that they clung to the landscape and grew from requirements of climate and availability of materials. The cottages in these ways represented in visual terms the identity of the Irish people on the island of Ireland.
Irish cottages, of three rooms, thatch and a central hearth were of a folk-architectural type known in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. In particular the ‘direct entry’ type discussed in this blog is an architectural type that characterises the rural places of the North East in Antrim, to as far south as Kerry. Irish Cottages truly were an expression of folk not politics, an all-Irish type of architecture with which all traditions could identify. It is little wonder then they provided aesthetic sustenance and allowed Northern Artists to identify with them.