Building of the Month - October 2016

Traditional Houses from the Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection

The images and text of this Building of the Month are reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland. More drawings from the Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection are available here

Almost ten years ago I received a call from Rosa Meehan, curator with the National Museum of Ireland, to ask if I was any relation to John Cumming who, in the 1940s as an architectural student, had worked on a survey of thatched houses in County Waterford. He was my father and since that call I have been hooked on a story which provides a fascinating glimpse of Ireland during the so-called “Emergency”.

The story begins in the summers of 1943, 1944 and 1945 when architectural students from University College Dublin carried out surveys of vernacular buildings in counties Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Louth, Waterford and Wexford. The Material Culture Survey, as it was called, was a project sponsored by the National Museum, the Irish Folklore Commission and the Royal Irish Academy. The Academy provided a small grant towards expenses. Louis Peppard, a recent graduate, seems to have been the organising force within the School of Architecture.

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 01 - Baile an tSaigairt, An Spid


The earliest drawings in the Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection are the work of Åke Campbell (1891-1957) and Albert Nilsson (later Eskerod) (1904-87), both Swedish scholars of traditional architecture and the first to systematically study the traditional Irish house in the 1930s.

This drawing shows the front elevation of a hipped-roof thatched house. The footprint of the house is oval-shaped – a style known from the medieval period and once found throughout West Connaught. The internal room is likely to be rectangular in plan. The door and two windows are placed non-symmetrically, a style typical of older houses. The windows are also of different shapes. In the doorway we see the bottom closed portion of a half-door. Half-doors were characteristic of traditional houses and served many functions including keeping young children inside and animals out. They also offered a window on the world allowing light, and air, into the living area which otherwise often had only small windows. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 02 - An Fall Mor, Contae Maigh E

AN FALL MÓR, CONTAE MAIGH EO (1935: Åke Campbell)

This house was probably originally a one-roomed byre-house. A bedroom was added in a later extension behind the fireplace. A ring for tethering a cow is set into the wall opposite the fireplace. Spaces for a calf and hens are also marked, as is the drain for animal manure. A byre dwelling – i.e. one shared by both people and farm animals – typically had opposing doors. These functioned for ease of movement of animals, to let in light and to regulate wind. They also were useful in the control of levels of smoke within the house. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 03 - Tuar Mhic Eadaigh, Contae M


This house measures 38 feet and 4 inches in length. The “outshot”, also known as a cailleach, housed a bed in a projection in the wall beside the fire. It was usually for use by the oldest member of the household. The flagged floor of the kitchen and the street outside is shown in detail. The furniture is arranged to make use of the wall space and keep the area in front of the fire clear. Included are three beds, one table, three chairs and form of bench. There is also a stool at the hearth and a dresser next to the outshot. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

The headline of The Irish Times of the 7th July 1943 reports “Fierce fighting on the Russian Front”. By contrast, beneath is a photograph of students sketching in the peaceful north County Dublin village of Lusk surrounded by a group of curious children – an experience that anyone who has done fieldwork will recognise. The accompanying report notes, with a tinge of nationalist pride, that in 1935 when the Folklore Commission required a survey of cottages in Connacht they had to go to Swedish universities to find the trained workers to undertake the task, but ‘for the last two weeks work of this kind has been done voluntarily…by students of University College Dublin’. The report concluded with a comment from one of the sponsors that ‘it would help give a rural bias to the education of young architects’.


LUSK, COUNTY DUBLIN (1943: John E. Burke)

Features of the house include a lean-to external porch and a semi-hipped thatched roof with red brick chimney. The brightness of the thatch suggests it is wheat straw. However, it is more likely that such a house was thatched in oat straw as oaten thatch replaced wheat in this area in the late nineteenth century. Today it is difficult to source straw for thatching as the older, longer varieties of straw have been replaced with new varieties grown only for their grain. A corrugated-iron roofed extension is also visible. Corrugated-iron was replacing thatch from the 1930s. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 05 - Lusk, County Dublin

LUSK, COUNTY DUBLIN (1943: John E. Burke and Barbara McDermott (née Tobias))

Shown is a short row made up of a pair of semi-detached two-roomed thatched houses and a forge or smithy. The house entrances are unusual. The jamb wall at the hearth of the middle house extends to create a short dividing wall within the kitchen. The other house features a curved wall that creates a corridor entry into the kitchen. Neither of these are the more usual direct entry- or lobby entry-type house entrances. The houses are generously furnished and include beds, chairs, tables and even an altar! In the forge, the anvil, bellows and brick chimney are also shown. The bellows is shown in plan and section. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Robin Walker, later a noted architect, in a piece he wrote for The Irish Times gave the student perspective. Fourteen students travelled, on their bikes, to Lusk where they camped in the grounds of the Church of Ireland rectory. A smaller, ‘more adventurous’ group of three, including himself and my father, went to the Irish-speaking fishing village of Curragh in County Waterford. His report continues: ‘They went, they admit, in a half hearted way, prepared to do about two cottages. That, they thought, would be sufficient to give them a better standing with their teachers in the School of Architecture. But the cult of folklore gradually gained possession of them, and they remained to do thirty-seven cottages – in fact every cottage in the district’. That the cult of folklore had grabbed them all is clearly indicated by the numbers that continued with the project and went to Clogherhead the following year. One of the group, Neill McDermott, did his final thesis on Menlough village in Galway.

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 06 - Clogherhead, County Louth

CLOGHERHEAD, COUNTY LOUTH (1944: Barbara Tobias Margaret Burke Louis Peppard)

The front elevation shows that this house is built of rubble stone in contrast to the adjoining cut-stone arched gateway. Traditional houses were usually whitewashed – that is rendered with lime – providing a protective, insulating but breathable layer. The plan shows the unusual internal layout of this urban house. Features of note include three fireplaces and the partitioning of the living room to provide separate bedrooms. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

What of the drawings themselves? They are without exaggeration a mine of information. Buildings are finely drawn in plan, elevation, section and perspective – but adding to their importance are the small details of fittings and furnishings. Beds, chairs, dressers and other furnishings, even a Waterford jug, have all been carefully recorded providing an invaluable picture of life. A number of plans of the villages surveyed were also drawn which in their density provide an interesting antidote to the traditional image of the isolated rural house.

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 07 - Curragh, County Waterford As the training of architects in the 1940s was still strongly in the Beaux Arts tradition some have asked ‘what was the interest in vernacular buildings?’. Apart from the general validity of the project, the question posed misses the cultural and political context of the time. An interest in folk traditions fitted perfectly the spirit of the period. Saorstát Eireann, Official Handbook of the Irish Free State, published in 1932 to mark ten years of national independence, had for its frontispiece a typical Paul Henry cottage landscape – an image no doubt chosen as encapsulating the essence of the nation, its ambitions and achievements. The national ideal was a rural one as exemplified by De Valera’s Saint Patrick’s Day speech of 1943: ‘The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age’.

CURRAGH, COUNTY WATERFORD (1945: John Cumming Patrick Hamilton Robin Walker)

This isometric drawing is drawn to scale. Two items of furniture are shown in the drawing: a low-backed settle-bed and a creepie- stool. Settles were designed to take advantage of the wall space in traditional houses. They were bench-like seats by day that could be opened out to form an enclosed box-like bed at night. A bellows is shown beside the creepie. This mechanism was designed to help light a fire, especially one where coal was used. By turning the handle on the bellows wheel, air is forced through an underground vent blowing air out under the hearth and providing oxygen to help to light the fire. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 08 - Curracloe, County Wexford


The front elevation and section shows a substantial house with attic rooms lit by dormer windows. The six windows in the front of the house are arranged symmetrically, the arrangement showing the influence of formal classical architectural styles. The house plan shows the internal arrangement including a jamb wall built at right angles to the hearth creating a lobby at the house entrance. Lobby entrances of this type are common to the Wexford area. Those sitting by the fire are sheltered from an open door. The addition of an opening in the jamb wall allows those seated by the hearth to see those passing or entering the house. The opening, or “spy hole”, is indicated by broken lines in the plan. Image and text courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland

The establishment of the Irish Folklore Institute, subsequently the Irish Folklore Commission, in 1930 was a clear recognition that although this was the ideal, it was under threat and the customs, music and stories of Ireland would be lost if not recorded. The connection between archaeology and folklife studies was also important – vernacular artefacts, buildings and customs could potentially provide clues to archaeological questions. Michael Duignan of the National Museum, later professor of archaeology at U.C.G., spoke to the students to get their support for the project. It is also interesting to note that Adolf Mahr, the controversial director of the National Museum who had returned to Germany just before the outbreak of the war, had posed the possibility of having a national folk museum.

None of this was unique to Ireland. From the U.S. to Occupied Europe there was an awareness of a changing world, or possibly an idyll that should be aspired to. But whatever the motives, it had to be recorded. The Archive of Folk Culture was founded at the U.S.’s Library of Congress in 1928. Alan Lomax, the folk music collector, was its first paid employee. Under the Vichy regime, the noted museum curator Georges-Henri Rivière used a project to record the vernacular buildings of rural France to hide resistance activists and those avoiding labour draft to Nazi Germany – benefiting many young architects. It has also been suggested to me that architectural students undertook a similar recording project in occupied Holland, which proved to be invaluable for reconstruction work after the war.

Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection 09 - Curracloe, County Wexford


The traditionally-shaped three-roomed house shown in this plan is arranged in a half courtyard layout. Courtyards of various layouts are the most common type of farmyard. However, it is unlikely this half courtyard functioned as a farmyard as there are no windows or doors leading to it from the house. From the front elevation, we know there is a step up into the house through the “windbreak” or short walled porch. On entering the house, the hearth area is concealed by a jamb wall with “spy hole”. As commonly found in houses with parlours, such as this one, the parlour is located in the room behind the hearth. Image and text courtesy of National Museum of Ireland

Over two hundred drawings were made. They are a wonderful resource. Their scanning and publication, on the National Museum of Ireland’s website, is particularly welcome. However, publication also raises again the question of the survival of thatch in Ireland. Already in 1943, of the thirty-seven houses recorded in Curragh, a third were derelict. I have not been able to identify any of those recorded that survive today.

The surveyors (1943-45):

  • Dermot Brady
  • Denis Buckle
  • John E. Burke
  • Patricia Clancy (née Almond)
  • Joseph Clarke
  • John Cumming
  • Donal Daly
  • Cormac Flanagan
  • Patrick Hamilton
  • Brian P. Hayden
  • Brian McElhinny
  • Barbara McDermott (née Tobias)
  • Neill McDermott
  • Gerard O’Brien
  • Kevin O’Donnellan
  • Louis Peppard
  • George Sutton
  • Margaret Tuite (née O’Keefe)
  • Patrick Tuite
  • Robin Walker
  • Liam White

Willy Cumming, Senior Architectural Advisor, National Inventory of Architectural Heritage

The images and text in this Building of the Month are reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland. More drawings from the Irish Folklife Architectural Drawing Collection are available here
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