In County Clare the earliest of man's
shelters were probably crude constructions in roughly hewn stone or
timber and wattle construction. There is no evidence that man inhabited
on a permanent basis any of the many caves in the county probably due
to the fact that these were already the dwellings of bears and wolves.
Those which were not attractive to bears and wolves were not attractive
to humans either since they could suddenly flood after heavy rain. Edenvale
Cave, on the western side of Ennis, has offered some interesting human
artifacts which suggest at least some temporary human habitation. In
the treeless north and west of the county, the earliest dwellings in
all probability were entirely of crude dry stone construction and may
have looked very like the later beehive huts or clochans of the Dingle
penninsula. These are built on the corbled system of overlapping stone
courses. Dwellings in the rest of the county where woods and forests
were more common, may have been built of timber and wattle. While no
remains of neolithic age houses (3000 to 2000 B.C.) have been excavated
in Clare, there have been extensive excavations at Lough Gur in county
Limerick and Ballycastle in Mayo. The study of each of these sites has
given us a greater understanding of the early domestic scene of our
island's earliest inhabitants.
Earthen forts, or fairy forts as they are popularly called, are the
most common field monument throughout the country. A recent estimate
is 30,000 to 40,000. A great many of these are located in County Clare.
From the year 2000 B.C. on, ringed forts were being built in the county.
Many of these forts formed residential enclosures while others were
merely for penning in cattle. In the residential forts small huts either
circular or rectangular would have been built in which the people lived.
These would have been similar in style and construction to the earlier
less protected shelters. Once the Celts started to arrive in Ireland
from about 1000 B.C. on, the construction of ringed forts flourished.
With the arrival of
the Celts the concept of the crannóg as a place of habitation took hold.
These innovative structures consisted of building a fortified timber
palisade on a naturally occurring or artificially provided island in
a lake or marshy area. A submerged causeway or set of stepping stones
usually linked the crannóg to the dry land, their position known only
by the inhabitants of the crannóg. Usually the crannóg was one hundred
feet in diameter with up to three independent timber, or wattle and
timber, houses constructed within the enclosure. The level of comfort
within these enclosures was primitive due to the damp location and the
general lack of light and ventilation within the houses. However they
provided a safe haven against a hostile world and were quickly and cheaply
constructed. That crannógs were a popular form of residential development
is proven by the fact that many were inhabited up to early mediaeval
times. In pre-historic times some stratification of society took place
and, while the stronger and richer tribesmen lived in crannógs or ring
forts, a great many people must have lived outside the protection and
comfort of such structures. Their lives must have been very precarious
With the arrival of
Christianity new building styles were slowly introduced to the country.
Churches and monasteries now became the most important building form.
However, no tangible improvement or development took place in the provision
of housing. The habitation of forts and crannógs continued with the
poorer people living in crude timber and stone huts and cabins.
Slowly, by the end of the sixteenth
century the primitive structures as described above developed into the
early form of the traditional country cottage which became so prevalent
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still familiar to
us to-day i.e. the long rectangular single storey building with solid
walls and thatched roof. These early forms of the cottage were still
surrounded by a defensive wall or pallisade.
If earthen structures
are excluded, tower houses are the commonest kind of ancient domicile
found in the Clare landscape, of which over 200 survive. Most of these
tower houses are the fortified private residences of the fifteenth,
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were the houses of the minor
notabilities of the period. These tower houses are much smaller in size
than the large scale highly fortified castles such as Bunratty. Mostly,
tower houses are tall and elegant, if somewhat stark, stone houses of
very simple and universal plan, usually three or four stories high.
Quite often these tower houses are dramatically sited, as at Carrigaholt
and Doonbeg, usually for defensive reasons rather than aesthetic. Generally
they are well proportioned with battered or sloping walls which heighten
the sense of drama. The essential
feature of the tower house is its vertical planning in which each chamber
is placed, one on top of the other with only one principal room per
floor. Sometimes, minor spaces such as closets and latrines were placed
in the thickness of the walls or in projecting turrets.
It is not unusual to find that a later single or two storey domestic
wing was added to the basic tower house in less security conscious times.
Quite often the tower houses were completely incorporated into larger
houses and buildings, the most famous being Lemenagh Castle. Here, an
early seventeenth century addition was made by Maire Rua McMahon onto
a late fifteenth century O'Brien tower house. Another interesting incorporation
of a tower house into a larger building, and not without its connections
with a previous example, may be found in the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis.
In this instance an old tower house was incorporated into the old town
jail, which building in turn formed the basis of the town hall, which
in turn became the banqueting suite of the hotel in the 1960s. An original
fireplace from Lemenagh Castle has been incorporated into a vaulted
room which once formed part of the tower house.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Lemenagh Castle may be seen as the link building in the transition
from the early castles and tower houses of the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries and the later unfortified country houses of the landed gentry.
While a great many of these eighteenth and nineteenth century houses
have disappeared, a quite considerable number still survive. The most
interesting country house in County Clare, from an architectural point
of view, is Mount Ivers in Sixmilebridge, designed by a member of the
Rothery family of architects from County Limerick, who also designed
Shannon Grove, Pallaskenry in that County. Mount Ivers is a charming
early eighteenth century brick house, which looks even earlier due to
its antiquated (for the time) detail and design. It is often compared
to an abandoned dolls house, given its strong vertical lines and the
slightly wild nature of its setting. New Hall, just outside Ennis, is
another very interesting brick eighteenth century house. This house
is attributed to the local Ennis architect and painter, Francis Bindon,
who also designed Carnelly House near Clarecastle and is said to have
worked on the great house of Rushborough in County Wicklow. New Hall,
like Mount Ivers, is built in lovely mellow brickwork and boasts some
very fine stone detail, especially the front door case. This house dates
from about 1750. Easily the grandest nineteenth century residential
structure was Dromoland Castle built by the O'Briens as their country
seat on the site of an older Georgian house near Newmarket-on-Fergus.
The house is built in the popular gothic castle style of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries.
Concurrent with the evolution and development of the country house
of the nobility and the lesser landed gentry, the humbler dwellings
of the tenant farmers and artisans continue to be built much on the
lines of the evolved dwellings of the sixteenth century as discussed
previously, except now these were built outside ringed fortifications.
Essentially, a typical rural dwelling of the poorer classes from the
seventeenth century right up to the 1950s consisted of a long rectangular
cottage, and in very poor areas, a single-roomed cabin. As in all dwellings,
the roof is the most important element of these cottages. In Clare,
due to the lack of native forests, good roofing timber was scarce and
so in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries roofs were formed with
very small timbers with short spans. Quite often driftwood, which was
washed ashore, was used in the coastal areas. The roof was then covered
in a waterproof layer of thatch, or sometimes stone flags.
Walls, usually of rubble or of mud dried in the sun, were invariably
whitewashed. Sometimes the whitewash was dyed a deep blue or pink and
indeed these strong colours may still be found in country dwellings
along the west coast of Clare.
Floors were usually of mud, or in the better of houses in the later
period, the kitchen would have a stone flagged floor with suspended
timber floors in the other rooms. The form and outline of these buildings
was always simple, but well balanced and pleasing to the eye. Design
and positioning of smaller elements such as windows, doors and chimneys
were usually well executed and in spirit were derived from the grander
details of the larger houses of the nobility. The principal room in
all these houses was the kitchen with its, sometimes, enormous hearth.
The hearth was the social and work centre of the house where all the
cooking was done on the fire and all conversation and entertainments
took place sitting around it in the evenings.
Up to now all the dwellings discussed have been rurally based, for the
sole reason that up to the seventeenth century no urban settlement of
any reasonable extent had taken place.
Some small village settlements did
exist at such places as Bunratty Castle and Ennis Friary prior to the
seventeenth century, but these hardly amounted to what we would call
a town in the historical or modern sense.
From the seventeenth century on Ennis did develop as an urban settlement
with substantial town houses and other commercial buildings. The earliest
houses were in what is now modern Abbey Street and a number of interesting
houses from the seventeenth century survive and, if not fully intact,
some important elements at least still stand. Bindon Street, built from
the 1830s on is an example of a street of the late Georgian period.
These above mentioned houses would
have been the dwellings of the quite well off families of the town and
would have been in stark contrast to the houses of the great mass of
people who made up the town's population. Extensive rows of low single
storey cottages extended along the main routes into town. These for
the most part were very humble cottages indeed. Many of these dwellings
survived up to the 1960s, especially in the Turnpike and Drumbiggle
areas. Conditions in these cottages were very poor with cramped living
accommodation and no services, such as running water or internal plumbing.
During the 1950s and 1960s
great areas of these poor dwellings were cleared by the local authorities
and new housing estates were built with all modern services laid on.
While many of the new housing areas built in this period may not be
very imaginative, the houses are invariably well built and the living
conditions of the inhabitants have been improved immensely.
Good examples of local authority housing estates are at the Turnpike,
Ennis, St. Michael's Villas and the very fine local authority housing
estate to the north of the Church at Clarecastle, an estate called St.
Michael's Terrace built during the 1950s.
Of particular note during this modern period of house building is the
development of Shannon New Town. Here, many of the new theories of modern
town planning and housing development had been experimented with since
the 1950s. The range and scale of dwellings is immense.
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CULLEN, L.M. Life in Ireland (1968)
DANAHER, K. Ireland's vernacular architecture (1975)
MC DERMOTT, M.J. Ireland's architectural heritage (1975)
CRAIG, M. The architecture of Ireland (1982)
CRAIG, M. Classic Irish houses of the middle size (1976)