Architecture without architects in Donegal

Rope-thatched farmhouse near Crolly in west Donegal with adjoining byre and accommodation above. The dresser set against the back wall of the kitchen is visible inside the front door. An ‘Upper Room’ with a Welsh-slate roof is visible behind the main hearth. This image taken by Robert John Welch in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century forms part of his collection housed in the Ulster Museum.

In Search of the Donegal Vernacular Cottage’ exhibition is just one of many events coming from this years Heritage Week, giving you an insight into the largest surviving concentrations of vernacular cottages in Ireland. This exhibition celebrates the traditional dwellings that helped shape the cultural landscape in Donegal, refine the sense of place and reinforce the sense of identity.

Photographs, illustrations and drawings from local and national collections will be displayed, showing the distinctive forms and features of the Donegal vernacular cottages. The free exhibition is being presented by County Donegal Heritage Office, Donegal County Museum, Donegal County Archives and Regional Cultural Centre, Donegal County Council in association with the Earagail Arts Festival and the Heritage Council.


Seamus Ó hEochaidh thatching the roof of a cottage in Rinnakill, Teelin in the late 1930s. The intricate network of ropes (or fishing nets in some coastal locations) that were used to secure the thatch were tied to projecting stones (bacán) at the eaves and on the gables. Image courtesy of Donegal County Archives, Donegal County Council.

“County Donegal is home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of vernacular cottages in Ireland” explained Joseph Gallagher, County Donegal Heritage Officer.
“As the exhibition demonstrates, vernacular architecture can be thought of as an ‘architecture without architects’ because these dwellings were not based on blueprints or measured drawings but on collective folk memory that was passed down from one generation to the next.

“The owners, occupiers, designers and builders of these houses were often one and the same. The traditional dwellings of County Donegal help to define our cultural landscape, refine our sense of place and reinforce our sense of identity. Through photographs, illustrations and drawings from local and national collections, this exhibition highlights the distinctive forms and features of the Donegal vernacular cottage. The intimate relationship between ‘form and function’ is reflected in the use of space and local materials that root these cottages in their physical and cultural landscape.”

Featured in the exhibition are images of traditional dwellings from places such as Teelin, Crolly, Derryconor, Magheraroarty, Gweedore, Gola, Roshine near Dunfanaghy, Ballyhoorisky, Portsalon, Letterkenny, Buncrana, Malin, Culdaff and Cloghan.

This rarely seen drawing of a traditional house from Cloghan in east Donegal in the 1930s by Swedish ethnologist Åke Campbell (1891-1957) conveys rich detail about the features of, and furniture in, the Donegal vernacular cottage. Image courtesy of National Museum of Ireland

Many features of the Donegal vernacular cottage are highlighted and explained such as direct-entry cottages, the combined byre-dwelling (where people and animals once shared the same dwelling), the bed out shot (a slight projection of the exterior wall to provide a little more space for a bed beside the hearth), the distinctive Donegal A-frame (that supported the thatched roof ), the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ rooms, rope thatching and the hearth.

The photographs and drawings in the exhibition are from sources such as national photographic and archival collections in the National Library, National Museum, Ulster Museum, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum as well as Patrick O’Neill’s fascinating 1940 study of crofter life in west Donegal.

The exhibition will run in the Donegal County Museum from June 7 to September 2, 2017.

Pictured at the launch of the ‘In Search of the Donegal Vernacular Cottage’ exhibition are architectural historian Dr. Barry O’Reilly, Joe Peoples (Director of Service, Donegal County Council), Yaima Gil (RESTURA historic preservation project in Havana, Cuba), Primrose Wilson CBE (President, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society) and Cllr. Michael Mc Bride (Chairperson, County Donegal Heritage Forum).



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