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History of Irish Cottages
The very words 'Irish Cottage' conjure up images of thatched roofs, whitewashed walls, half-doors, smoke curling from the chimney, and open turf fires.   Those words also evoke feelings of warmth, nostalgia, comfort and contentment.  Much of that is with good reason as the Irish cottage was, for two hundred years, a great feature on the Irish landscape and home to millions of Irish people, many of whom emigrated to the United States and elsewhere.   Click here for Cottage Insurance advice
The thatched Irish cottages were simple affairs, and while the basic design was the same throughout the country, there were differences on a regional basis. One major regional difference would have been the use of mud walls, rather than stone, in some areas.  Strange as it seems, when the mud walls were dried and given several coats of whitewash, and when the thatched roof was allowed to overhang the walls, they remained dry and lasted for many decades. 
(There's lots more information on Traditional Irish Cottages further down the page)

Irish Thatch Cottages.  In this Irish Village there was an entire street of thatched Irish Cottages

Old Village of Thatched Cottages in Ireland


 What is a Cottage? It is probably a good idea that any article that discusses 'cottages' should, in the first instance, define just what a cottage is.  Immediately there are problems.  Some dictionaries suggest 'a small house of single storey'.  Others suggest that the small house  has to be in a rural setting to be classified as a cottage.  But not all agree.  In England, for instance two story houses in the countryside are very often referred to as 'cottages'.  A definition of Irish Cottages can also be problematic but does have more clear-cut  criteria.  Usually the Irish Cottage is single storey, in a rural setting, and not occuoied by the a farmer and his family.  For houses occupied by the farmer are always 'farm-houses0 no matter what the size.  In past times, the Irish-Cottage was built on the land of the farmer and occupied by the farm labourer and his family.  Some farmers would have many such cottages on his land, and occupancy of the cottage was part of the wages of the agricultural labourer.
A similar situation existed with large estates and large mills.  And so we find Estate Cottages and Mill Cottages throughout Ireland and fitting into the category of Irish Cottage. The estate workers or the mill workers were seen by less fortunate workers as privileged because of the house that went with the job.  However, very often, the occupiers of such cottages saw themselves at a huge disadvantage.  They had no room for negotiation with their employers regarding wages, hours worked, or days worked.   Fearful of the wrath of an angry employer, the occupiers of those Irish Cottages had to learn to doff the cap and tug the forelock and toe the proverbial line.

On the other hand, many cottages were owned by their occupiers and perhaps it is those rural, occupier owned, thatched cottages that we think of when we are discussing Irish Cottages. 
If you are renting an irish Cottage and want an original old cottage rather than a modern fabricated Irish cottage, you should ask the vendor before booking.  All too often people book Irish Cottages for the Holiday only to find when they get to their destination that the cottage has been built in the last ten years and bears no resmeblance to Old irish Cottages other than the fact that they are small and might have a thatched roof.

Building an Irish Cottage
Roof timbers in Irish Cottages were relatively easy to obtain in areas near afforested hills or in good farm land where trees were still plentiful and had not yet fallen prey to the onslaught of modern chain-saws. In some rocky, coastal areas it was a different story and roof timbers had to be imported into the area. In these coastal areas people were always on the lookout for  timbers washed onto the shore from ships that had encountered storms.   

For over 9.000 years,  thatch has been used as a roofing material in Ireland especially on Irish Cottages. Nowadays, the difficulty of finding people to do the thatching, the further difficulty of acquiring insurance for thatched Irish cottages, the need for continual maintenance of this roofing material, and the availability of cheaper more durable roofing have all mitigated against the preservation of this important part of our heritage. 

Where stone was available for Irish cottage building it was used.  Stone was either collected by horse and cart on the sandstone mountains or quarried from the limestone quarries that existed all over the country.  The limestone quarries served many purposes. Limestone could be burned to produce lime for the fields and lime with which to make mortar for building. It could also be broken into small pieces for road making, roughly shaped for building walls and cheaper houses, and finely cut and dressed for building more substantial houses.  Public buildings were usually of 'ashlar' construction, i.e., cut and dressed stone.

 

 

 

Irish Cottage

 

 

Irish Cottages in Census Results Ireland
A census taken in 1841, showed that 40% of the population of Ireland were living in one roomed mud-walled cabins. Many of those 3,500,000 people may not have shared our romantic ideas of comfortable warm Irish cottages.  For many, the conditions must have been cold, damp and insecure.  That insecurity came from the inability to own their own homes and the threat of eviction that hung over many a thatched Irish cottage.  Sometimes that threat came from a landlord but very often the threat came from the larger farmers on whose property the cottage dwellers or cottiers lived.  Rent was usually paid by labour on the farm and when times were bad and there was no work in the fields, they had to rely on the benevolence of the famers. Along with the Irish cottages went an acre of ground and it was possible to keep a cow on the acre and grow enough potatoes to feed the family for an entire year.

Other cottiers were in a more secure situation as they worked in the local mills, at trades like carpentry, wheelrights, cart making, stone wall building etc, and there would have been a demand for their labour.  For practical reasons and as a reflection of the prosperous times we live in, the traditional Irish cottage is now being replaced - some would say 'sadly replaced, - by modern bungalows and two storey houses built of concrete blocks and with slate or tiled roofs. Other cottages have been abandoned and left to ruin.  Regardless of the romantic view we all hold of Irish Cottages - after all, for many of us, it's where our families came from - old irish cottages were often damp, smoke filled, badly lit, conducive to bad health, filled with foul air, and cold.  Pity the Irish mother with six or seven children, and a newborn,  and a pig and a dog and ducks and a few hens swarming around the place on a wet day, trying to cook for the family and the husband coming home from the field. It was anything but romantic.  However, notwithstanding the hardships, it was always the little home and the memories of family in those Irish Cottages that caused most longing in the hearts of emigrants who had to leave the country.

This Irish cottage is part of a deserted village in County Galway. Over time, all the occupants left the village and the majority emigrated to Philadelphia.

Deserted Irish Village, Co. Galway

Details of how the Rich continued to party and hunt, and wear fine fashion, and drink imported French wines, while the poor of Ireland died and emigrated during the Great Famine can be read in
 In Terrible Discordance 
(
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An Old Irish Cottage Song

 The Old House
Written by John McDermott 

Old Irish Cottage Poem

An Old Woman of the Roads 
Written By Padraig Colum

Sung by John McCormack

Lonely I wander through scenes of my childhood
They call back to memory the happy days of yore
Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted
No light in the window, no welcome at the door.

Here’s where the children played games on the heather
Here’s where they sailed their wee boats on the burn
Where are they now? Some are dead, some have wandered
No more to their home will the children return.

Lonely the house now, and lonely the moorland
The children have scattered, the old folk are gone
Why stand I here, like a ghost or a shadow?
’tis time I was movin’, ‘tis time I passed on. 

 

 

 

 



O, to have a little house! 
To own the hearth and stool and all! 
The heaped up sods upon the fire, 
The pile of turf against the wall! 

To have a clock with weights and chains 
And pendulum swinging up and down! 
A dresser filled with shining delph, 
Speckled and white and blue and brown! 

I could be busy all the day 
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor, 
And fixing on their shelf again 
My white and blue and speckled store! 

I could be quiet there at night 
Beside the fire and by myself, 
Sure of a bed and loth to leave 
The ticking clock and the shining delph! 

Och! but I'm weary of mist and dark, 
And roads where there's never a house nor bush, 
And tired I am of bog and road, 
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush! 

And I am praying to God on high, 
And I am praying Him night and day, 
For a little house—a house of my own— 
Out of the wind's and the rain's way. 

 

  There are still plenty of thatched Irish cottages to be seen in rural Ireland but you need to be on the lookout for them. Coastal areas seem to be the places to find them.  Many of these have been built in modern times as holiday homes and we should be thankful that some people have taken the time and made the investment to preserve an Irish tradition that is under threat. Others have been lovingly preserved, with the owners battling against all the odds to  hold on to something from their ancestral past.
  Tiny Irish Cottage with thatched roof.
  There are very few tiny Irish cottages like this one preserved today. They would have been quite a common sight in the 1800s in Ireland.  The original door may well have been a half door. The half door were a wonderfully practical solution to an everyday problem.  Air was needed in the houses because of the lack of ventilation, the numbers of people who lived in them, the amount of cooking, the open fire, etc.  Opening the door would have allowed the hens and the pig to wander into the kitchen so the half-door was invented whereby the top half could be opened independently of the lower half.  The half door became an important part of the social life of the occupants of the house.  At any moment a neighbour could put his/her head across the half door for a chat or the occupant couuld stand inside the door, resting on it, and smoke a pipe of tobacco.  You can still experience living in an Irish Cottage by renting an Irish Holiday Cottage for a few weeks in many parts of Ireland.

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The  fire in this wonderful Pete Weber picture is assisted by the fire machine or belt operated bellows which was a feature of most houses with an open fire. The wooden bench on which his cousin, Julia Cronin, sits is called a 'Form' pronounced  'furm', presumably a Gaelic word for bench. A pot hangs on the adjustable crane.   Ellen Cronin at her fireplace in Old Graigue, Clogheen, Co. Tipperary

   From the     Weber-Cronin Collection 1932.

© Peter Weber, California. 

Julia Cronin tending the open fire. 


As with all Irish Cottages of the period, the fireplace would have been the centre of the home -figuratively speaking. While others claim "There's no place like home", the old Irish proverb is more specific...Níl aon tintean mar do thintean féin.  "There's no fireplace like your own fireplace." Whether the house had mud or stone walls, or the roof was of thatch or corrugated iron sheeting or slate, the fireplace was always built of stone. In most cottages the fireplace was in one gable end wall but in houses of a larger design the fireplace was in the middle wall of the house, and the centre of the home in the literal sense.  
Simple Floor plan of two roomed Irish cottage with centre wall fireplace. This plan allowed the occupants to have a fireplace in two rooms served by a single chimney. It also allowed for a sort of internal porch.  The room on right could be either a bedroom or a parlour.  A small bedroom loft was often a feature of the kitchen. Access was gained by a ladder type stairs. In some areas it was common to have a tiny projection from the wall of the kitchen called an 'outshot'.  Here, an elderly member of the family could sleep at night and be part of the days events by day. It was closed off by a curtain which allowed privacy

Clogheen History and images

 Floors                                                                                                                           

Floors in Irish Cottages were usually of compacted dried mud.  Yellow clay is found in many areas beneath the subsoil and this was the preferred 'mud' for floors. Cinders were used beneath the clay floor as an effective insulation. Limestone slabs were available to those with money enough to procure them.  These were ideal for the dances that often accompanied the local musicians who frequented the houses.  Entertainment was provided in the homes, usually chatting, gossiping, story-telling, match-making, singing, playing music and dancing. Many of our grandparents and great grandparents grew up in these houses, and had fond memories of sitting around the turf fire, listening to the stories and the songs, or watching the mother of the house cooking the day's food in the large cast-iron pots that hung on a crane over the fire. The skill of these women in catering for the often large households with just an open fire for cooking is extraordinary. Cakes were baked in 'bastibles' with a lid.  These were iron pots about five inches deep and 14 inches in diameter. The bastibles often had a handle so that they could be suspended from the crane over the flames. Red hot turf was placed on top of the lid so that the cake-bread cooked evenly right through.  Potatoes were boiled in bigger pots called 'skillets'.  These skillets were similar to the pots that one sees in depictions of a 'pot of gold'. Such dreams! And then the young ones grew up and took the boats to America in search of the pots of gold that they had dreamed of in their Grandfather's Irish Cottage.  

 

 

Click image to enlarge.

This picture of the rear of an Irish cottage style farmhouse was taken in 1932 by Peter Weber of California when he holidayed in Ireland visiting his mother's home in Clogheen Co. Tipperary.

The roofs are interesting in that one can see the older thatched building on the left and the newer slated roof on the right.  in the foreground is a blockwheel cart which was used around the farm and to bring turf from the nearby turfbog. These wheels are a direct link with our ancestors as block wheels have been found dating to three thousand years ago. In the picture one can see that the owner of the cart had just brought some bushes from the fields with which he and his family would light the fire which was essential  to cottage and farmhouse living. 

Thatched House Insurance

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