Prior to the modern age in which building materials can be procured from great distances, the architecture of different countries (and of different regions within the one country) tends to have a special or local character about it. One area, like the city of Dublin, will build in brick, imported as ballast from the west of England; another like Kilkenny uses local pale grey limestone; in Cork the stone is either white limestone or red sandstone or, as frequently happens, the two are mixed together. Other areas use a mixture of granite and limestone. The roofing materials can also be different: slate, tile or wood thatch. And they can be applied and fixed in different ways. Since building was for centuries a traditional activity employing specialist tradesmen, different ways of doing thing in different areas were handed down from father to son.

Vernacular architecture is a term used to describe the sort of buildings which are totally characteristic of a particular place and which have arisen naturally from the use of local materials assembled in a traditional way, almost as if no one had thought about how they would be put together. Vernacular architecture is the visual language of the ordinary buildings of any city, town or village. It is never designed by an architect but has happened casually because of somebody's need to have a building in a certain place. The vernacular buildings of any country are the lifeblood of its real environment.

Buildings in Towns

Most of the ordinary buildings in Irish towns date from the Georgian or Victorian periods though it often happens that older work is disguised by a more recent façade. A trained eye may detect the presence of a building dating back to an earlier period, perhaps to about 1700 or even before that, by the existence of heavy square chimney stacks, rooms with a fireplace set diagonally across a corner, and the presence of a high pitched roof covering a wide area. Occasionally a wall of thin rubble stones in a back yard may survive from a still earlier period.

The shape and proportion of windows can often provide a guide to the time that a building was built. If they are divided by stone mullions with a moulding - like a label - above them, they will be seventeenth-century or very early eighteenth-century work. Most windows in Ireland are 'sash windows' with two frames that are balanced by weights and slide vertically past each other to open at the top and bottom. Early windows have many small panes. They get bigger and the glazing bars that divide them become more slender in the later Georgian period. In Victorian times plate glass and windows with only one vertical bar to divide the sash are common. Windows get larger over the same period and, in the nineteenth century are often set in brick frames with fancy sides and have a segmental head rather than a flat top.

The doors of houses in towns often have a fanlight - semicircular or rectangular - to give light to the hall and the doors may have columns on either side of them or elaborate brackets to support a canopy. These features are typical of the Georgian and early Victorian age.


Jenkins Jewellers (1979), Church Square

Digital reproduction of an original black and white photograph. This building is an example example of the rounded corner, which is an architectural feature of Monaghan town. Taken in 1979, the premises was occupied by M. Jenkins Jewellers. It has since been renovated and refurbished however the rounded corner remains. It is currently occupied by Flemings Book Shop.

Photograph kindly made available by Monaghan County Museum

Jenkins Jewellers (1979), Church Square - Photograph kindly made available by Monaghan County Museum

Boynagh House, Kilmainhamwood

Boynagh House is shown with its thatch fully intact and in a good state of repair. It was built on a very elevated site overlooking Whitewater Lake. It is said that it was built as a monastery, by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. Count Plunkett stayed in this house. Peter Galligan thatched this house on a number of occasions. A purpose made net was fitted over the entire roof and tied to the walls a number of years ago in an ineffectual effort to conserve the thatch.

By permission of Jack Fitzsimons

Boynagh House, Kilmainhamwood - By permission of Jack Fitzsimons

Wyatt Window, Assembly Rooms

The Assembly Rooms were built circa 1794, at the junction of Dublin Street and Cox’s Lane. The Street façade is neo-classical in design with a pediment and cornice. The large Central Wyatt window is of particular significance. It is a tripartite sash window with narrower sidelights and a segmental arch. This style was made popular by the Wyatt family of Architects during the eighteenth century.

Carlow County Library

Wyatt Window, Assembly Rooms - Carlow County Library

Fanlights in the Rathmines area of Dublin

By kind permission of the Rathmines, Ranelagh and Rathgar Historical Society

Fanlights in the Rathmines area of Dublin - By kind permission of the Rathmines, Ranelagh and Rathgar Historical Society

Village and Farm Buildings

The vernacular buildings in an Irish village or farm are usually built of rubble stone work, which is covered with rough cast mortar to keep the wall dry. The walls are whitened with lime wash or coloured in orange and yellow tints, using powdered brick or stone, or cattle urine, to provide the colour. More recent buildings are rendered with a cement finish and, since they are usually built of breeze or cement blocks, have a harder edge to them than the old stone walls. Sometimes lines are drawn in the wet cement to suggest the effect of a masonry wall.

The relative importance of the people who lived in a village was often marked by the quality of the buildings they inhabited. Single-storey thatched cottages were for the poorest; when people did better in life they had slated roofs and built houses on two storeys. The doors and windows often had brick surrounds. The blacksmith and owner of a mill would have larger houses and the most important would be for the professional class, such as a doctor's house. Protestant clergy often lived in a Glebe House, like a smaller country house with a symmetrical front, outside the village and the the parish priest would have a substantial Victorian house. When a local landlord wished to provide for his labourers a set of improved cottages might be built to enhance the village. An architect or engineer would be employed to make the design which usually resulted in some Picturesque architecture being added to the village.


Thatched Cottages

Throughout Ireland the most inexpensive and therefore the most common form of roofing material was thatch. The stems of different plants provided the roof cover. In mountainous regions heather was sometimes used however by far the most common material was straw. What was considered to be the best was reed thatch.

Thatch has to be renewed after a number of years. Usually the new thatch is placed on top of the old and, as a result, the thickness of a thatch roof can become as deep as two feet (600mm). Thatch makes for a warm building but it can become infested by rats and other vermin. Different parts of Ireland used different methods of fixing the thatch. In some areas it is carried up to the side of a gable and a cement cope is laid over the edge of the thatch.

Elsewhere the thatch is carried across the top of the stonework and trimmed against the outside of the gable. In the Midlands hipped roofs are common; here the thatch is laid in a triangular slope from the ridge of the roof to the side of the cottage and there is no gable. In exposed situations on the coast, where a gale could strip the thatch off a house, a network of ropes is thrown over the roof to hold the thatch in place. In Donegal the ropes are tied to stones jutting out from the wall at eaves level. Elsewhere they are anchored to large stones lying on the ground.

Following the introduction of corrugated iron as a building material, old thatching was frequently covered with iron sheeting and the new roof covered with tar. Black corrugated iron roofs were a common feature of the Irish countryside between about 1890 and 1950. Later, before the danger to health was known, asbestos sheeting which did not rot or need a coating of tar, replaced the corrugated iron.

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