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A Walk & Talk through the Donegal Vernacular Cottage

Donegal Vernacular Cottage

Seamus Ó hEochaidh thatching the roof of a cottage in Rinnakill, Teelin in the late 1930s.  


A major exhibition on County Donegal’s traditional dwellings has opened in the County Museum, High Road, Letterkenny and runs until September 2.  The ‘In Search of the Donegal Vernacular Cottage’ exhibition was prepared by Donegal County Council’s Heritage, Museum, Archives Services and Regional Cultural Centre as part of the Earagail Arts Festival and the ‘Creative Ireland’ programme.  An illustrated walk and talk though the exhibition will take place in the County Museum on Tuesday, July 4 at 7:30 p.m. with Greg Stevenson, Under the Thatch Ltd. & Joseph Gallagher, County Donegal Heritage Office.   The event is free and light refreshments will be served.


“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.”


Donegal Vernacular Cottage 3 

 Rope-thatched farmhouse near Crolly in west Donegal with adjoining byre and accommodation above.  


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.  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 outshot (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, Estyn Evans’ 1959 study of folk ways, Aalen & Brody’s 1969 study of Gola Island and Gallagher & Stevenson’s 2012 study of traditional cottages in County Donegal.  The exhibition also contains archives, implements and materials associated with the construction of traditional dwellings as well as a display of key books on vernacular architecture.    


Donegal Vernacular Cottage 2

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 & Cllr. Michael Mc Bride, Chairperson County Donegal Heritage Forum.


Cllr. Michael McBride, Chairperson of the County Donegal Heritage Forum, pointed out that “The decline in our vernacular architecture is a serious cause of concern and issues such as the lack of craftsmen trained in traditional building skills, the difficulty in the availability of traditional building materials and the difficulty of homeowners to obtain thatch insurance or insurance for historic structures are issues that government and the building and insurance industries need to address as a matter of urgency.  Otherwise, many more of our traditional dwellings will be lost undermining our built heritage and cultural landscape as well as missed economic, employment and tourism opportunities.”  This message was reinforced by Cllr. Terence Slowey, outgoing Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, in his address to the ‘Conservation without Frontiers’ Summer School earlier this month when he noted that “Our heritage buildings underpin our tourism industry and it’s important that investment in our built heritage precedes its promotion by the tourism sector.  The Wild Atlantic Way is greatly enhanced by its built heritage and the stories it tells.  One of the challenges for the tourism and heritage sectors over the coming years will be to cooperate in order to best conserve and appropriately promote the built heritage of our county.”     


Dr. Greg Stevenson & Dr. Joseph Gallagher are co-authors of the ‘Traditional Cottages of County Donegal’ book.  Greg is the founder and owner of Under the Thatch, a social enterprise company that rescues and restores traditional buildings at risk.  He is the author of several publications including ‘The 1930s Home’, ‘Palaces for the People: prefabs in post-war Britain’, ‘Welsh Homes’ (with Gwenda Griffith) and ‘Introducing Houses of the Welsh Countryside’ (with Richard Sugget).  Greg is best known in Wales as the architectural historian on the television series ‘The Welsh House’ and ‘The Welsh Town’, and in England he was series consultant for BBC Restoration.  Joseph Gallagher is former Senior Lecturer in Geography and the Vernacular Built Environment at University College Chichester in England and is County Donegal Heritage Officer with Donegal County Council.  The ‘In Search of the Donegal Vernacular Cottage’ exhibition is funded by Donegal County Council, The Heritage Council & the ‘Creative Ireland’ programme as part of the implementation of the County Donegal Heritage Plan and runs until September 2 in the County Museum, High Road, Letterkenny.  

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