The House in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Composed from the Book of Kells



SECTION 1. Construction, Shape, and Size.

Letter B
EFORE the introduction of Christianity, buildings in Ireland, whether domestic, military, or sepulchral, were generally round or oval. The quadrangular shape, which was used in the churches in the time of St. Patrick, came very slowly into use, and round structures finally disappeared only in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. But the round shape was not universal, even in the most ancient period. The great Banqueting-Hall of Tara was quadrangular, as we see by its ruins at the present day; and in case of many of the ordinary good-sized dwelling-houses, the walls were straight and parallel. Some of the old lisses or forts still to be seen are of this shape: and even where the surrounding rampart was round, the wooden houses it enclosed were often quadrangular.

The common Irish word for a house is tech, Lat. tectum. A dwelling in general is denoted by arus; a homestead by baile, now generally anglicised bally, but used in a more extended sense to denote a townland. The word brug or brugh [broo] was also applied to a large dwelling.

It has sometimes been stated that there were no towns or cities in ancient Ireland: but this statement is misleading. There were many centres of population, though they were never surrounded by walls; and the dwellings were detached and scattered a good deal—not closely packed as in modern towns. In our old writings, both native and Anglo-Irish, we have many records of towns and cities. Then we know that some of the large monasteries had two or three thousand students, which implies a total population much larger. Some of the provisions of the Brehon Law show that numbers of lis-dwellings must have been clustered together.

The dwelling-houses, as well indeed as the early churches, were nearly always of wood, as that material was much the most easily procured. The custom of building in wood was so general in Ireland that it was considered a characteristic of the Irish—more Scottorum, "after the manner of the Scots"—as Bede expresses it. Yet we know that the Britons, Saxons, and Franks also very generally built in wood. Wooden houses, highly ornamented, continued in use in Dublin, Drogheda, and other towns, down to the last century.

But although wood building was general in Ireland before the twelfth century, it was not universal: for some stone churches were erected from the time of the introduction of Christianity: beehive-shaped houses, as well as cahers and cashels (see below), were built of stone, without mortar, from pre-historic times: and the remains of these primitive structures—churches, houses, and cahers—are still to be seen in many parts of Ireland. In all these mortarless buildings, the stones, though in their natural state—not hammered or chiselled into shape—are fitted to each other with great skill and accuracy: or, as Petrie expresses it, "with wonderful art."

Trim Castle

FIG. 75. Trim Castle originally built by Hugh de Lacy the Elder, end of twelfth century; but afterwards rebuilt. One of the Anglo-Norman strongholds referred to farther on. (From Cromwell's Tours. Drawn by Petrie).

The dwelling-houses were almost always constructed of wickerwork. The wall (fraig) was formed of long stout poles placed in a circle, if the house was to be round, standing pretty near each other, with their ends fixed deep in the ground, the spaces between closed in with rods and twigs neatly and firmly interwoven; generally of hazel. The poles were peeled and polished smooth. The whole surface of the wickerwork was plastered on the outside, and made brilliantly white with lime, or occasionally striped in various colours; leaving the white poles exposed to view.

When the house was to be four-sided, the poles were set in two parallel rows, filled in with wicker-work. The height of the wall depended on the size of the house. In small houses it was low, so that often the thatch was within reach of the hand: in large dwellings it was usually high. The walls of the Banqueting-Hall at Tara were at least 45 feet high. In the large houses there were often two stories. When there was more than one apartment in a house, each had a separate wall and roof: except, of course, where one apartment was over another. Building in wickerwork was common to the Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, and Britain. It is very often referred to in Irish writings of all kinds. In the Highlands of Scotland wattled or wicker houses were used, even among high-class people, down to the end of the eighteenth century; and it is probable that they continued in use in Ireland to as late a period.

In many superior houses, and in churches, a better plan of building was adopted, by forming the wall with sawed planks instead of wickerwork. In the houses of the higher classes the doorposts and other special parts of the dwelling and furniture were often made of yew, carved, and ornamented with gold, silver, bronze, and gems. We know this from the old records; and still more convincing evidence is afforded by the Brehon Law, which prescribes fines for scratching or otherwise disfiguring the posts or lintels of doors, the heads or posts of beds, or the ornamental parts of other furniture.

The roof of the circular house was of a conical shape, brought to a point, with an opening in the centre for the smoke. It was of wickerwork or hurdles supported by rafters sloping upwards from the tops of the wall-poles all round, to the centre at the very top. The roof of the quadrangular houses was much like that of the common run of houses of the present day. If the house was large, the conical roof of those of circular form was supported by a tall, strong pole standing on the centre of the floor; in case the house was quadrangular, there was a row of such supporting poles, or two rows if the structure was very large. Straw was used for roof-covering from the earliest times, and its use has continued to the present day: but rushes and reeds were also very common. Whatever the material, the covering was in all cases put on with some degree of art and neatness, such as we see in the work of the skilled straw-thatchers of the present day.

A better class of roof than any of the preceding was what is called in Irish slinn, namely thin boards of oak, laid and fastened so as to overlap, as in modern slated or tiled roofs. Sometimes, anticipating modern usage, they employed materials superior to any of the preceding. The Annals of Ulster record that in the year 1008, the oratory of Armagh was roofed with lead.

The thatch of ladies' greenans (see p. 300, infra) was sometimes covered with birds' plumage, so arranged as to form bright stripes of brown, reddish purple, and other colours: and sometimes the hoods of chariots were similarly roofed.

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