My home is located five kilometres outside of a town in rural Offaly. The first original structure began in 1890. It followed the traditional form of the vernacular Irish cottage. The house was a single room deep and was divided by a wall that was the hearth. It had a thatch roof and the walls were over a metre deep and made from limestone. There were two out-houses used as sheds for animals. The fireplace was made from a specific type of brick called Pullagh brick. Today the original walls and fireplace are still there.
When I was younger, we had a lot of jobs on my family farm. Some of them were tough, but the toughest was the turf and picking stones. Every year before the fields are tilled, rocks and stones naturally come to the surface of the soil when it is ploughed. In order for the seeds of corn or barley to be planted, the tilling machine that does this has to be on level soft soil. Before this happens, the stones must be taken off the land.
Picking the stones for just one field would usually take a full day of work. The bucket of the digger would be lowered, and we would throw all the rocks into it and it would load them into a trailer. We would fill a whole trailer. Usually, the rock would have been limestone. As a result, we always had an abundant supply. Whenever we had to build anything, it was limestone walls on a foundation of concrete. Larger boulders were used to start off the wall and a uniform height was established; this was the first course of the wall. Smaller stones and rocks were used to build up to this height and it was levelled off. We called these stones pinners. Once the first course was built the process was repeated. When there was a need or function, it wasn’t an issue due to the supply of stone. When a shed for cattle had to be built it was built with the intention and needs for cattle first. It was these exclusive features that made the architecture unique. The above photo is my house in 1990, when my mother and father moved in. The two out-houses that were on the left-hand side were partially demolished. There was an apple orchard on the right and in the photo you can see the extra mound of limestone.
Today the form of my house remains much the same but with an extension to the rear and the side. There is a pitched roof, but the original walls remain. Our kitchen is where the fireplace is and is surrounded by the metre-deep walls. The fire is constantly lit with turf and the room is always warm. Limestone has a high latent heat rate, so it retains warmth for a long period of time. Since the walls are so thick, there is additional heat retention. This causes our kitchen to be its own micro-climate.
The fireplace is made from a specific brick called Pullagh brick. Pullagh is located on the edge of Clara bog in Offaly. Clara bog itself is approximately five kilometres in width and sketches one kilometre top to bottom. Pullagh bricks are unique in their appearance and traits. The clay that is used is high in loam and peat. The peat soil causes the brick to turn different colours. After the furnacing process, the bricks are pastel pink and yellow colours. The factory that produced the brick closed when better quality bricks were readily available. The bricks also have the same heat retaining qualities of the stone and more. The bricks had been made since the 1800s, so they are not the same quality and standard that they are today. Although they are not modular all the bricks are the exact same. They chip easily and crumble, are full of cavities and bubbles. The workmanship of the wall is acceptable but is not perfect to any extent. Saying this, the wall has a character to it that does not seem to be found these days with typical brick walls. There is a kind of evidence in the wall build up that has a hand-crafted feel to it, given it was built in 1890 with basic tools.
The use of local materials and local knowledge. A vernacular should arise from its context. Stone comes from the land and craft is the knowledge of the person who intends to build and use it. This relationship between builder and occupier is direct. A connection is created when there is a personalised aspect. The below image is my mother cleaning the fire place when the house was being improved in the late 1990s. Today the fireplace is the focal point of the house where every one sits, eats, and talks.