Dwellings, Fortresses, Ecclesiastical Buildings

Patrick Weston Joyce

75. Dwellings and Fortresses. Before the introduction of Christianity, buildings of every kind in Ireland were almost universally round. The quadrangular shape, which was first used in the churches in the time of St. Patrick, came very slowly into use; and round shaped structures finally disappeared only in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The dwelling houses were almost always of wood. The wall was formed of strong posts, with the intervening spaces filled with wicker-work, plastered, and often whitened or variously coloured.

76. The homesteads had to be fenced in to protect them from robbers and wild animals. This was done by digging a deep circular trench, the clay from which was thrown up on the inside. Thus was formed all round, a high mound or dyke with a trench outside: one opening was left for a door or gate.

These old circular forts are found in every part of Ireland, but more in the south and west than elsewhere, many of them still very perfect—but of course the timber houses are all gone. Almost all are believed in popular superstition to be the haunts of fairies. They are known by various names, Lis, Bath, Brugh [broo], Dun, Cashel, and Caher—the cashels and cahers being usually built of stone. Some forts are very large—300 feet or more across —so as to give ample room for the group of timber houses, or for the cattle at night. The smaller forts were the residences of the farmers. Very often the flat middle space is raised to a higher level than the surrounding land, and sometimes there is a great mound in the centre, with a flat top, on which no doubt the strong house of the chief stood. In the very large forts there are often three or more great circumvallations. Round the forts of kings or chiefs were grouped the timber dwellings of the dependents, forming a sort of village.

In most of the forts both large and small, whether with flat areas or with raised mounds, there are underground chambers, which were probably used as storehouses, and in case of sudden attack, as places of refuge for women and children.

77. Where stone was abundant the surrounding rampart was often built of dry masonry, the stones being fitted with great exactness. In some of these structures the stones are very large, and then the style of building is termed Cyclopean. Many great stone fortresses still remain near the coasts of Sligo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry, and a few in Antrim and Donegal.

78. For greater security dwellings were often constructed on artificial islands made with stakes, trees, and bushes, in shallow lakes: these were called crannoges. Communication with the shore was carried on by means of a rude boat kept on the island. Crannoge dwellings were in very general use in the time of Elizabeth; and the remains of many of them are still to be seen in our lakes.

79. Churches. From the time of St. Patrick downwards, churches were built, the greater number of wood, but many of stone.

The primitive stone churches, erected in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries are simple oblongs, small and rude. As Christianity spread, the churches became gradually larger and more ornamental, and a chancel was often added at the east end, which was another oblong, merely a continuation of the larger building. The jambs of both doors and windows inclined so that the bottom of the opening was wider than the top: this shape of door or window is a sure mark of antiquity. The remains of little stone churches of this antique pattern, of ages from the fifth century to the tenth or eleventh, are still to be found all over Ireland.

80. Round Towers. In connection with many of the ancient churches there were round towers of stone from 60 to 150 feet high, and from 13 to 20 feet in external diameter at the base: the top was conical. The interior was divided into six or seven stories, reached by ladders from one to another, and each story was lighted by one window: the top story had usually four large windows. The door was placed 10 or more feet from the ground outside, and was reached by a ladder: both doors and windows had sloping jambs like those of the churches. About 80 round towers still remain, of which about 20 are perfect.

Formerly there was much speculation as to the uses of these round towers; but Dr. George Petrie set the question at rest in his Essay on their Origin and Uses. It is now known that they are of Christian origin, and that they were always built in connection with ecclesiastical establishments. They were erected at various times from about the ninth to the thirteenth century. They had at least a twofold use: as belfries and as keeps to which the inmates of the monastery retired with their valuables in case of sudden attack. They were probably used also, when occasion required, as beacons and watch-towers. These are Dr. Petrie's conclusions, except only that he fixed the date of some few in the fifth century, which recent investigations have shown to be too early.

81. Later Churches. Until about the period of the Anglo Norman invasion all the churches were small, because the congregations were small. Towards the close of the twelfth century, when many of the great English lords had settled in Ireland, they began to indulge their taste for architectural magnificence, and the native Irish chiefs imitated and emulated them; large cruciform churches in the pointed style began to prevail; and all over the country splendid buildings of every kind sprang up. Then were erected—some by the English, some by the Irish—those splendid abbeys and churches of which the ruins are still to be seen, such as those of Kilmallock and Monasteranenagh in Limerick, Dublin (Christ church and St. Patrick's); Jerpoint in Kilkenny; Grey Abbey in Down: Bective and Newtown in Meath; Sligo; Quin and Corcomroe in Clare; Balintober in Mayo; Knockmoy in Galway; Dunbrody in Wexford; Buttevant; Cashel; and many others.