How They Built And Arranged Their Houses

Before the introduction of Christianity, buildings of every kind in

Ireland were generally round or oval. The quadrangular shape, which was

used in the churches in the time of St. Patrick, came very slowly into

use; and round structures finally disappeared only in the fourteenth or

fifteenth century. But the round shape was not universal, even in the most

ancient period. Look at the plan of Tara, at the beginning of this book,

and you will see that the Banqueting Hall was quadrangular, the only

building of this shape on the whole hill. And in this respect Tara may be

said to represent the proportion for the whole of Ireland: that is to say,

while the generality of buildings were oval or round, some--very much the

fewer in number--were quadrangular, sometimes long in shape, sometimes


There were many centres of population, though they were never surrounded

by walls; and the dwellings were detached and scattered a good deal--not

closely packed as in modern towns. The dwelling-houses, as well indeed as

the early churches, were nearly always of wood, as that material was much

the most easily procured. But although wood-building was general in

Ireland before the twelfth century, it was not universal: for many stone

churches, as we have seen, were erected from the time of the introduction

of Christianity; and there were small stone houses from time immemorial.

The dwelling-houses were almost always constructed of Wickerwork. The wall

was formed of long stout poles standing pretty near each other, with their

ends fixed deep in the ground, the spaces between closed in with rods and

twigs neatly and firmly interwoven; generally of hazel. The poles were

peeled and polished smooth. The whole surface of the wickerwork was

plastered on the outside, and made brilliantly white with lime, or

occasionally striped in various colours; leaving the white poles exposed

to view.

In many superior houses, and in churches, a better plan of building was

adopted, by forming the wall with sawed planks instead of wickerwork. In

the houses of the higher classes the doorposts and other special parts of

the dwelling and furniture were often made of yew, carved, and ornamented

with gold, silver, bronze, and gems.

In the sunniest and pleasantest part of the homestead the women had a

separate apartment or a separate house for themselves, called a 'Greenan'

meaning a 'sunny apartment' or a summer-house; to which they retired

whenever they pleased.

The roof was covered with straw, or rushes, or reeds, or with thin boards

of oak, laid and fastened so as to overlap, like our slates and tiles.

Occasionally churches were roofed with lead.

In great houses there were separate sleeping-rooms. But among the ordinary

run of comfortable, well-to-do people, including many of the upper

classes, the family commonly lived, ate, and slept in the one principal

apartment, as was the case in the houses of the Anglo-Saxons, the English,

the Germans, and the Scandinavians of the same period. But the

sleeping-places and beds were shut in from view; for in at least the

better class of houses in Ireland there were, ranged along the wall,

little compartments or cubicles, each containing a bed, or sometimes more,

for one or more persons, with its head to the wall. The wooden partitions

enclosing the beds were not carried up to the roof; they were probably

about eight or nine feet high, so that the several compartments were open

at top.

The homesteads had to be fenced in to protect them from robbers and wild

animals. This was usually done by digging a deep circular trench, the clay

from which was thrown up on the inside. This was shaped and faced; and

thus was formed, all round, a high mound or dyke with a trench outside,

and having one opening for a door or gate. Whenever water was at hand the

trench was flooded as an additional security: and there was a bridge

opposite the opening, which was raised, or closed in some way, at night.

The houses of the Gauls were fenced round in a similar manner.

Numbers of these old circular forts still remain 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 erected within them are all gone.

Almost all are believed in popular superstition to be the haunts of

fairies. They are still known by the old names--lis, rath, brugh,

mur, dun, moat, cashel, and caher: the cashels, murs, and cahers

being usually built of stone without mortar. The forts vary in size from

40 or 50 feet in diameter, through all intermediate stages up to 1,500

feet: the size of the homestead depending on the rank and means of the


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 the strong wooden house of the chief stood. The outer

defence, whether of clay, or stone, or timber, that surrounded the

homestead was generally whitened with lime; and on the top all round,

there was a hedge or strong palisade for additional security. Beside

almost every homestead was a Kitchen Garden for table vegetables. And hard

by were several enclosed spaces for various purposes, such as games and

exercises, storing up the corn in stacks, securing the cattle at night,


For greater security, dwellings were often constructed on artificial

islands made with stakes, trees, and bushes, covered with earth and

stones, in shallow lakes, or on small flat natural islands if they

answered. These were called by the name Crannoge. Communication with the

shore was carried on by means of a small boat, commonly dug out of one

tree-trunk. The remains of these crannoges may still be seen in some of

our small shallow lakes. In most of them old ferry-boats have been found,

of which many specimens are now preserved in museums.