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