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Clare Archaeology
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Dwellings by V. Leyden

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
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 indeed.

Christian Period
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.

Tower Houses
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
Big Houses
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.

Vernacular housing
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.

Town Houses
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.

Further Reading

WEIR, H. Houses of Clare (1986)
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)

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