Growing up in Co. Louth meant that family walks on Sundays were part of our religion. I traipsed the length and breadth of the ‘Wee County’ long before hikes and hill walks were trendy, a real Táin trail blazer.
One of our traditional Stephen’s Day walks was around a headland of the Cooley Peninsula reached by one of the tiny spidery byways leading from the Carlingford Road and stretching to the coast. We would leave the cars at Lily Finnegan’s pub, meet with other families we know, and head along the shore where we risked hypothermia for about half an hour before heading inland and back to the pub for crisps and coke. Just before we reached the warmth and safety of the pub, we would pass the tiny village of Whitestown. As a child, I was fascinated with this special hamlet. The cottages and outhouses seemed to happily tumble over and around one another like chips in a bag, the buildings clustered and huddled together in a natural and playful way. When I became an architectural student, I was a little disappointed to discover that I wasn’t the only person who appreciated Whitestown.
It turns out that Whitestown is one of the most intact ‘clachans’ still remaining and inhabited in Ireland. A ‘clachan’ is a rural habitation pattern that dates back to medieval times or earlier. It is a settlement of clustered houses with no church, shop or school, which evolved because of the practice of collective farming known as the rundale system, where tenants jointly lease and cultivate land. The buildings of Whitestown are a mixture of single and two storey with white washed stone or lime rendered walls. The roofs are of corrugated iron, thatch or slate. The windows are traditional: small with sash openings. A few buildings have fallen into a state of disrepair and some are derelict stubs of walls overgrown with weeds. Some have been fully and properly refurbished or maintained, and others incorrectly so, their lime render stripped away, the raw rubble walls exposed. Walls which were never designed to be exposed to the elements now try to weather the sometimes harsh conditions here.
The quaint buildings are situated on both sides of the public road and are naturally placed in a naïve pattern, almost as if children arranged them to live in close quarters with their best friends. Sometimes the gable faces onto the road, sometimes the main elevation, sometimes a garden, sometimes a shed. The houses and sheds jostle together, shouldering one another for position. The homes are linked together by walls and outbuildings small and large, creating a pleasing and harmonious pattern of lanes and courtyards.
The outdoor spaces associated with this settlement seem to defy categorisation. Once you step off the main road you can freely enter semi-public spaces. These could be a lane to a front door, a gated garden, a shared courtyard giving access to two or more dwellings or even a pig-sty. Strangely, as a visitor, now entering the heart of this tiny town, you still feel comfortable and at home, free to wander and observe and be observed in the semi-public (or are they semi-private?) outdoor spaces, free to gaze over the walls of the tiny private gardens that some houses have, glimpsing the private indoor lives through the open front (or are they back?) doors.
At first glance it might seem that Whitestown is an isolated rural village, a quiet road with a scattering of small rural dwellings, but in fact it is the opposite of this. The unique groupings of the houses, outhouses and outdoor spaces mean that the inhabitants live in unusually close quarters in a tightly knit and caring community. This successful grouping of houses promotes a neighbourly lifestyle giving the residents hugely supportive social connections that are often absent in busy bustling city life. The lifestyle supported by the historic ‘clachan’ building fabric is of huge social significance, it seems.
Today only a small number of the inhabitants of Whitestown are farmers, but a few indigenous people still live in Whitestown in houses that have been in the same families for several generations. Some of these families view the ‘blow-ins’ with some suspicion. They feel the village should never have been exposed to the outside, (much like the poor rubble walled houses denuded of their lime render coats). Some houses are owned as holiday homes and some by artists and writers, lending an appropriate bohemian flavour to the community. Despite the fact that one house has fallen victim to the Airbnb plague, and although the professions of its occupants may now be more diverse, the benefits of living in close contact within a small group of people are plainly still enjoyed here. The buildings are well cared for, the grass verges trimmed, the gardens planted, the window boxes are full.
It seems that the rural habitation pattern that developed almost centuries ago may still be a pattern that has relevance and importance today. It is a pattern that is obviously far more suitable for rural development than the single dwelling with a large garden that now seems the norm in Ireland. It may also be a suitable model for suburban development. Originally Whitestown was home to sixty-five households: perhaps this is just the right size for successful and happy communities. Perhaps this scale and style of grouping houses closely together with common and shared outdoor spaces in conjunction with marginally more private outdoor spaces could work well even today in different settings. Is it possible to simply let our homes extend into each other’s plots, as they do here in Whitestown, to allow the plots of land around our homes to overlap, to let those plots unite us rather than divide us?
If you ever find yourself on the Cooley Peninsula, take the winding road to Lily Finnegan’s Pub, walk around the headland, wander through the village of Whitestown and finish up with a pint and a bag of crisps.