Cottages of Ireland

A Short History

Ask most people what they think of when they think of Ireland, you would probably be answered with “Shamrocks, Harps, and Thatched Cottages”, and probably in that order. But, sadly that iconic symbol of Ireland, the Thatched Cottage, have been disappearing from the Irish landscape for generations. The plague of emigration has struck many parts of the island and hundreds of these one-time homes have been left to ruination. The thatched roofs have been allowed to rot and disintegrate, the rain to wash the mortar out from between the stones and leaving only house-shaped piles of dry stones. It is these that have become such a familiar sight in Ireland’s rural landscape. Those old cottages that have not been allowed to fall to wreck and ruin have been given a modern conversion for the roofing, such as corrugated-iron, slate, and tile.

Nowadays, there are less than 1,500 traditionally thatched cottages left in the whole of Ireland, which make it more vital than ever that we preserve them. Although they have proved themselves, over the generations, to be durable and environmentally friendly, in our modern technical age they are seen to be obsolete products of Irish history and tradition.

Though in some places, people are restoring old cottages or thatching new cottages built in the style of the old, less than 1 in 100 of the population live in them. It is quite a difference from the days of 19th century Ireland when over 50% of the population slept under the security of a thatched roof.

Thatching is one of the greatest symbols of our traditional building in Ireland and it has been around since prehistoric times. A thatched roof was the key part of any traditional building for it was the thatched roof that provided the family with shelter and protection at a very cheap cost. These buildings were usually constructed by local tradesmen, who used locally sourced materials to complete the work. These men were plentiful in number in years gone by and their trade had been handed down from father to son. The buildings themselves were, however, usually small in size (traditionally one room), simple in their design (usually rectangular in shape) and were built from local materials such as mud or rocks for the walls and thatch for the roof. 

The availability of these building materials in sufficient quantities was vital to the creation of the cottages. The idea of bringing in materials from other areas could not be considered, especially before the introduction of modern transport such as railways, lorries, or canals. The transportation of large, heavy loads was impossible also because of affordability. Even if adequate transport systems had been in operation it was beyond the means of the ordinary Irishman and peasant to pay for the materials, their transportation, and the employment of skilled builders to construct the cottage.

Naturally, the materials used in the building of rural cottages varied across the years, and from region to region. The materials employed would depend on the financial resources of the family, and also on what was available locally. The walls of the building were the most important parts of the construction but could prove to be the most expensive. Poorer families, for the most part, used mud that was tempered with strengthening agents such as straw, reeds or animal matter. Lime mortar, however, was the most desirable material for walls but it was the most expensive.

For many hundreds of years, the most indispensable material in creating the roofs of Irish cottages was thatch. In normal circumstances these roofs began with overlapping layers of sod were placed on the timbers. Then, on top of this layer, the straw thatch was laid. This thatch was derived from a variety of natural materials such as wheat and flax, which was carefully cut and threaded by the Thatcher until every part of the roof was covered and protected from the elements. In most cases, it would take the thatcher to place over 5,000 handfuls of straw to complete the work on the roof. This craft was a skilled trade and was passed down through the generations from father to son, and for the thatcher, the work was regular, since the thatched roof, depending on the material and its condition, would require replacing anywhere from five to twenty years.

Thatch had been the main roofing material for centuries in Ireland, but this began to change after Ireland won its independence from Britain. The new ‘Free State’ government, when it was established in Dublin, began to offer grants to the people for home improvements. Thatch now began to fall out of favour as Ireland’s homeowners took advantage of the funding to replace thatch with slates or tiles, which did not need to be repaired or replaced as often. The side-effect of all this was the virtual disappearance of the Thatcher’s craft, that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Lack of work in their trade saw the Thatcher move from rural Ireland into the towns or emigrate to other countries. Becoming a rarity in Ireland, where it was once so common, gradually made thatched roofs an expensive option for homeowners and the exorbitant cost of repairing thatch caused many cottages to be abandoned to decay or used to house livestock. Sadly, in our more modern times the decline in the popularity of thatched cottages, thatching has become rare as a family trade. But it has not totally disappeared, and several groups and individuals are continuing the craft throughout Ireland by helping to restore existing cottages and to assist in building new ones.

From various records and research, the thatched roof in nineteenth-century Ireland was a sign of poverty. The grand houses of the Landlords had slated or tiled roofs while the peasantry occupied the thatched, mud-walled cottages. Perhaps it was the stigma of poverty that was attached to thatched roofs in Ireland that helped in its demise when materials such as tiles and slated became more available. As new slated roofs sprang up throughout the country many people may have become ashamed of their poor-looking homes, so when the time came and modern materials became more easily available and affordable, they had no hesitation in abandoning their thatched roofs.

TURF

Ireland’s Natural Resource

Any person who lives outside of Ireland, when they hear the word ‘Turf’ think of the green grass of a football pitch, or the horse-racing course, or a golf course. But for us Irish, the word brings to our minds lapping flames in a fire on a cold winter’s night, and the distinctive sweet smell that accompanies it. More commonly known as ‘Peat’ in other countries, we prefer to call it turf except when we refer to those modern hard, compressed blocks which are sold as ‘Peat Briquettes.” In modern days of smokeless fuel, the briquettes have grown in popularity, but mostly in the urban areas. In the rural areas of Ireland, the cutting, drying, and use of turf are still widespread.

Cutting the Turf

Gathering the Turf

‘Turf’ is an early form of coal which has been providing heat to homes, cottages, and castles throughout Ireland for centuries. In fact, we Irishmen and women have been cutting turf for over 2000 years with a special type of spade instrument, and it laid out and turned several times to ensure it dries fully. For those readers who have not had the joy to travel through Ireland’s beautiful villages, towns, countryside, mountains, and lakes it has hard to describe that unique aroma which belongs to the turf fire and the peace, serenity and comforting warmth that it provides. Those of you who have been fortunate to visit our beautiful country know that the smell of turf is something you cannot forget. Thinking about the word itself can conjure up faint traces of that aroma and bring back memories of wonderful days and evenings spent in a country with a unique beauty and history.

Bringing the Turf Home

To start the story of turf, we must begin by discovering what it is. Put simply, ‘TURF’ is dried peat and has been used as a source of fuel for the Irish people for thousands of years and is harvested from the bog-lands that once covered large areas of Ireland but is now disappearing. For the uninitiated, a ‘bog’ or ‘bog-land’ is a wetland that accumulates peat, which made up from deposits of dead plant material, such as mosses like the ‘Sphagnum Moss’. There other names for bogs that are used in other areas of the world i.e. ‘Mire’, ‘ Quagmire’, ‘Muskeg’ and ‘Fen’, which are covered in plants and shrubs of the heather family and are rooted in the ‘Sphagnum Moss’ and peat. The gradual accumulation of decaying and decayed plant material in the bog functions as a ‘Carbon Sink’, which means they soak up much more carbon than they emit, making it the ideal material for fuel.

Transfer from the Bog

‘Bogs’ are found where the ground surface water is acidic and low in nutrients. The ‘Fen’ is alkaline and therefore is not a ‘Bog’ in the true sense of the word. Usually, these bogs are ‘cloud fed’, which means they receive all their water and nutrients from rainfall and other precipitation, rather than from streams or springs. You find such environments as these are isolated from the surrounding landscape, and as rain is acidic and very low in nutrients, they become home to organisms that are tolerant of acidic, low-nutrient environments. The water content in these bogs are directly related to their climate and are not dependent on flowing streams or rivers, therefore it is the temperature that dictates how quickly water evaporates from these bog-lands.

Any water flowing out of the bogs has a characteristic brown colour that is derived from the dissolved peat tannins. But because of the low fertility and cool climate, there is relatively slow plant growth in the bogs, which also means decay is slower in the saturated soil and, therefore, the turf accumulates, and large areas of the bog landscape can be covered in peat to the depth of many metres. The bog, however, is not just important for the resources that can be recovered there. They have distinct animal, fungal and plant species that are unique to those areas and are of high importance for biodiversity in such areas that would otherwise be settled and farmed.

Turf, nevertheless, is the chief resource of the bog-lands of Ireland. As has been said it is an organic fuel that is created by accumulation and partial decomposition of vegetable matter in areas where the climate is, for the most part, wet and mild, and the drainage is poor. Turf, or Peat, deposits are the first stage in the formation of coal and, if the climate was drier the turf would dry quicker and decompose more quickly. But, currently, the moisture that is retained in the ground does not allow the vegetable matter to completely decompose. Turf, then, in its natural state is ninety to ninety-five percent water, and in the summertime, it is cut into blocks with a specially created spade and set in stacks to dry. When they are dry, the blocks of turf weigh between three-quarters of a pound to two pounds each. This dried peat is brought home by the cutter and placed on the fire, where it burns with a smoky flame and a very distinct, pleasant, odour.

The turf was the primary source of heating and cooking in Ireland for many centuries and great tracts of bog-land once covered the country. Today, bog-land covers about fifteen percent of Ireland, though in Counties such as Mayo large expanses of bog can still be found. Turf brings back lovely childhood memories for me as I can recall days visiting relatives in Sluggan, outside Carrickmore. I remember, as a young boy, helping as best as I could with the back-breaking work of cutting, stacking, drying, bagging and storing the turf for winter. Each morning of my short stay, my aunt would drag me out of comfortable bed to get ready for work in the bog. Though hard work, it was like an adventure to me as a young boy as I heard the men tell stories, make jokes, and talk about country life. The hot black tea from a tin mug and the soda bread and wheaten sandwiches were a treat that you could not help looking forward to when you saw my aunt coming over the brow of the hill with everything to hand.

For the hearth and for the cooking range the turf was harvested from the bog. It was all done by hand, using a two-sided spade called a “Sleán” to slice blocks of the turf from the bog. And, by God, it was hard, time-consuming work that in years gone by required entire families to be involved in the process. The turf was cut three blocks at a time, and you could hear the squelch of the spade in the still air, as it lifted in and out of the bog. The aim of the cutter was always to leave a ‘straight-face’ in the cutting for the next cutter who followed. Each turf cutter was followed along the bank by a ‘lifter’ who lifted the sods onto the bank where they were to dry. It was an important job because the lifter had to ensure that the wet turf sods weren’t broken as they were transferred to the bank.

The sods were left to dry on the bank until the sods of turf were able to develop a ‘skin’ thick enough to stop them breaking. It took every available hand to gather enough fuel to sustain the family throughout the cold winter months, for there was not just the cutting, but also the drying of the turf to a stage when it would light when it was needed.

There was a definite art to standing the sods of turf upright and leaning them against each other in a process that was called ‘footing’ the turf. This was usually started about a fortnight after the turf was cut, weather permitting, and this was an activity that involved all the family. ‘Footing’ was a back-breaking activity that involved four sods being lifted at one time and ‘footed’ together, which meant stacking them together in a pyramid style to allow air to circulate around the sods.

Then, when thoroughly dry, the sods are ready for ‘Rickling’. This process took place about a week later, but it could only take place when the sods were sufficiently solid. ‘Rickling’ was like building a wall with eight or nine sods of turf. Three sods laid in a horizontal row East-West with approximately one sod space between them. These were then topped with a further three placed North-South, followed by another two or three placed East-West on top. Although there are a lot fewer people who cut turf these days, in some the western counties of Ireland turf stacks can still be seen in the summer months, balancing against each other to dry out in the wind and the sun. Once the turf is deemed dry enough it is gathered together and brought to a turf barn or shed for storing. Some of the turf is also bagged and sold by individuals and shops to those not fortunate to have a turf-bog of their own. Either way, the sods will probably not see a match until the cold days of winter set in.

Conclusion

One terrible story, concerning the harvesting of turf, concerns the Irish peasantry during the years of the ‘Great Potato Famine’, 1845-1850. As we have seen, even in recent times cutting turf and saving it is hard and exhausting work and a day in the bog is still a daunting prospect for any person. So many of the Irish peasantry were starving with hunger and weakened by the lack of food that they were too weak to work at any job, let alone harvesting turf. This, of course, resulted in the Irish Peasant having an inadequate supply of fuel for the winter months, particularly the of extreme and bitterly cold temperatures experienced in 1846-1847. Those who did not die of hunger and disease and were evicted by heartless landlords froze to death in their thousands at the side of country roads throughout Ireland. The lucky ones were those with energy enough to salvage cowpats, dry them and burn them to provide some heat.

Today the majority of turf cutting is carried out by large companies, such as ‘Bord na Mona’ for large energy creation plants, peat briquettes and even compost for gardens. Their work is done by huge machines in the vast bogs of that cover Ireland’s inland counties.  Nevertheless, you can still see turf stacks in many places in the West, even places along the coast. Most foreign visitors to Ireland will only experience the glory of a glowing turf fire and its pleasant aroma in the family-run country pubs these days. It is a sad fact that because it is not a smokeless fuel turf has been banned from our major population centres. If the present trend continues it will mean that finding a turf fire will be like hunting the ‘Loch Ness Monster’, for even the poteen distillers have abandoned turf for bottled butane gas. That’s what is affecting the taste …