Celtic life: Ancient Ireland’s houses and villages

Historians think that St. Patrick arrived in Ireland around 432 AD.  What did he find when he arrived? What kind of buildings did he and his fellow priests erect when King Daire ceded them land in Armagh, near the huge lake called the Lough Neagh?

In asking this question, I am also asking myself as an author–what kind of village did my fictional Caylith and her immigrants set up when first they arrived in Derry, the land ceded to her by High King Leary?

Historians and archaeologists alike conclude that for centuries, the Irish as well as other Celtic people constructed their homes from a combination of woven saplings and hardened daub. This type of construction is called “clay and wattle,” or “wattle and daub.” In fact, this same building technique lasted there and in the UK well into Shakespeare’s day (the 1500s), even though the overall construction by then had become more “modern” and sophisticated. And think of today’s use of rebar and concrete–exactly the same principle, using more modern materials.

On the western coast of Ireland, there were many stone houses, where granite and other building supplies were plentiful. But in Derry, Armagh and Meath, the best supplies were the limber rowan trees and the boggy grasslands.

Let’s take a look at the houses that would have existed when Patrick walked the boglands of Old World Ireland, and when Caylith and her people extended the village of Derry along the swift River Foyle.                                                                          

First, builders would select hundreds of limber tree saplings, usually of the rowan or ash trees, that were plentiful throughout the island. They would begin by forming a circle within a circle– or sometimes a double square–of older, sturdy trunks to form the framework. Or they might merely construct one solid wall in a circle or rectangle. These trunks would be sunk into the ground to form a wind-resistant structure. Then they would weave the saplings back and forth inside the space between the double circle, or simply through the larger standing trunks as shown in the photos.

When the outer framework and inner latticework were finished, workers would make a daub or clay from wet soil mixed with peat, straw and even dung. The sticky clay would be worked all through the latticework of saplings and allowed to dry. Spaces would be left for windows, which could be shuttered to shut out the incessant rain.

The overall construction of the round houses called for a cone-like roof, and it would have been thatched using long dried grasses. With a hole in the center for smoke to escape, the house would have looked like those of many other people throughout the ancient world–from the homes of Cherokees and Aztecs to Africans throughout the entire vast rural plains of the south.

To ensure that the hardened clay would not deteriorate, the builders used a combination of chalk and lime–a whitewash–to spread over the outside of their structures. This technique resulted in what would no doubt seem startling to our modern eyes–whole villages, complete with large churches and monasteries, stark white and reflecting a dazzling appearance for many miles around.                                                                    

In The Dawn of Ireland novels, true to modern Irish Gaelic, a clay-and-wattle house is called a teach–pronounced somewhat like “chalk.” A larger, many-roomed structure is called a brugh.

On a subsequent post, I will explore the inside of a clay-and-wattle house, and I will talk about the larger, more complex structures and earthworks that a nobleman or king would have constructed.

For a fictionalized account of houses and of village life in the Ireland of St. Patrick, please see my Dawn of Ireland series:

Storm Maker on Amazon: Erin O’Quinn
http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire
http://www.bookstrand.com/captive-heart

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19 thoughts on “Celtic life: Ancient Ireland’s houses and villages

  1. Well, I just happen to know that you’re reading my first Dawn of Ireland romance, STORM MAKER. Thank you so much–for reading it and for visiting my blog! xxErin

  2. Thank you kindly, Lindsay. When I see these houses and think of St. Patrick, I wonder what he must have thought, freshly arrived from venerable Rome, when he saw the rather primitive accommodations? Most likely, in my imagination, he would have begun to think immediately of how to turn the native trees and bogs into libraries and schools–far more quickly than it could have been done using traditional building techniques.

    I appreciate your wonderful comments. Slán, Erin

  3. I hate wordpress–it never lets me comment! Anyway, interesting blog, Erin. As an anthropologist (MA-U of Chicago) I’m fascinated. I was thinking that wattle and daub is used in Africa too and then you mentioned that. Thanks, Meredith

  4. Yes, Meredith, I found out that clay and wattle construction was and still is used throughout the world. It is simple, relatively sturdy and quick to erect. I also found in my research that there are endless “children’s kits” showing kids how to make a clay-and-daub structure, and even communes where people erect such houses and call them “Earth Homes.” We’ve come full circle, it seems.

    Thanks for your interest. PS…I found that leaving comments on wordpress is a lot easier since I got a simple google account. Why? I don’t know! Slán, Erin

  5. Personally I’m glad we’ve moved on from peat fires though :) . I had trouble commenting because WordPress didn’t accept the address it automatically filled in! I’ve changed all that–hopefully will work. M. S.

  6. I think that there are some people in Ireland who still build peat fires, and for whom peat digging is a way of life. I’m reminded of the Séamus Heaney poem “Digging” (see my earlier post “Irish Poetry and Pictures”). Thanks for your visit. :-D

  7. I think about how people smelled like smoke from being around fires all the time and I think it might have smelled good. I think of camping and I like that wood smoke smell. Didn’t they smoke their meat and dry their herbs by hanging them from the high rafters? I think I read that in one of my research books. One thing I’ve learned is that the ancients knew how to efficiently use all their resources. Great post!

    • I agree, the ancients (like many “uncivilized”people of today) knew how to use the earth and the materials that the earth provided, rarely wasting anything. I just can’t help wondering how St. Patrick and other Europeans must have adapted to the conditions. He must have accepted the way of life and thrived on it, for the changes he and his peope effected were history-changing. Thanks for your observations–very astute. Slán, Erin

    • Dear Gerri, and I thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll make it a habit, because I love writing about the areas I’ve researched for the Dawn of Ireland trilogy. Erin O’Quinn

    • *Blush* I’m tickled that you liked it, Miriam. I love the research too. It can get a little complicated sometimes, and the difficult part is to put it in words that make sense to a wide audience. Bringing it to life is what I’ve dedicated myself to doing, and thank you.

      Slán… Erin O’Quinn

  8. Dear Rosemary,

    Thank you very kindly. When I began to research The Dawn of Ireland novels, I felt that I had stumbled into a treasure trove of fascinating information. Almost every aspect of life back then–the houses, the clothes, the flora/fauna, the weapons–was and is rich source of inspiration. I really appreciate your reading my post. Warmest, Erin

  9. Hi Erin! I’m doing some research for a novel and I’m so glad it led me to your blog. You have some great stuff here! This post really helped, so thanks!

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