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:



Metamorphosis of a villain

Sunday, May 20 on The Celtic Rose blogsite, Miriam Newman ran an interesting article from Erin O’Quinn on the nature of her villain Sweeney. What follows below is not a repeat but an extension of those comments.

The first time the reader hears about Owen Sweeney, it is a flashback, as Caylith remembers freeing her captive mother from the clutches of a dark, brooding man confined to an invalid’s cart. Not only does she free her mother, but her friends manage to capture all Sweeney’s cattle and tie the cripple into his own cart. From there he is delivered to the High King for judgment and punishment. His own family members accuse him of murdering his late wife and holding captive women for vile purposes.

In Storm Maker the reader learns that Sweeney, bound into his cart and thrown into the turbulent sea, has somehow escaped and has ordered the capture of Caylith’s beloved Liam. In  that book, Sweeney is even more vile than before, for he has hidden himself far from the haunts of men, in a tiny clay hut on the northern promontory. Here he has surrounded himself with crude lickspittles while he waits for Liam to be delivered to him for punishment, even as he was punished by Liam’s kingly father.

Caylith lies concealed in a tunnel under his hut, listening to the sounds that threaten to suffocate her with horror.

 I had come to him with the suspicion that he had enslaved my mother, and my conjecture had proved true. Before I could steal out of his locked brugh that night, I had been trapped with him, my back against the door of his murdered wife’s sleep chamber. That same feeling returned now—the realization that I was cornered by a ravening animal, and only guile and cunning would free me from his jaws.I put together the next sounds I heard into a picture of what was happening. Sweeney rolled his chair away from the table and over to his raised bed. He put his enormous arms on the sides of the bed and slowly dragged his body out of the cart and pulled his bulk onto the bed. I could even hear the way he grasped his lifeless legs and drew them onto the bed, the way they fell with a thud onto the hard, matted-down surface.The man had not bothered to wash, or take off his clothes, or even to instruct his lickspittles to change the reeds on his bed. He had sunk so low that he truly had become almost an animal. No wonder the stench of the room was so powerful. It was the fetid odor of uncleanness and of something else, almost inhuman.Not to give away the plot of Storm Maker, but Sweeney is finally delivered to Father Patrick; and in The Wakening Fire, he has once more begun to make himself heard, as Caylith hears the heart-stopping, grating sound of his cripple-cart’s wooden wheels against the wooden floor of the monk’s house where he’s being held. This time Caylith has gathered her deep fear into a controllable place where her curiosity can overcome her terror of the man.

From the time she finally allows him to speak, Caylith begins to realize that there are layers to this man she had loathed–this dark force who had captured and dishonored her mother, the one who had killed his own wife.

Here the author Erin O’Quinn admits that even she changed her mind about Sweeney. There must be compelling reasons why a highly-educated, wealthy man who had sired six children by a wife he loved–why such a man would come to be accused by his own family of unspeakable crimes.

And here is where O’Quinn steps aside and invites you to learn Sweeney’s secrets for yourself. The Wakening Fire is available at http://www.bookstrand.com/the-wakening-fire  (buy link)