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Evolution of building in County Clare

Since the recession of the ice cap some 10,000 years ago, County Clare has been inhabited by various peoples, each of whom have left their marks on the landscape, through agricultural practices, religious shrines, habitations and funerary monuments.

The earliest and most famous structure is probably Poll na Brón, a portal tomb, near Ballyvaughan. Dating from c.5,500 years ago, it is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. The Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples also left us the numerous wedge tombs and cairns which covered the graves of their chiefs and are visible on the summits of hills and mountains throughout the county.

The Celts who invaded Ireland in the centuries before Christ constructed many stone and earthen forts of which almost 3,000 remain in County Clare. These were often built of large dry-stone blocks of rubble, fitted tightly together with the greatest of art and skill.

Construction of the first churches

Construction of the first churches commenced shortly after the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century. The first churches were constructed of timber, where available, and finished in wattle and daub. They were often roofed with shingles or rushes. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the use of stone developed. These early stone churches were built using dry stone techniques. These early stone churches also retained timber details, such as finials (like criss-crossed timbers) at the top of east and West gables. Lime mortar was introduced gradually sometime after the ninth century and enabled the stone masons to build stronger and taller structures.

Some of the best examples of the mason's skill are seen in the simple, undecorated churches and oratories of Tuamgraney, Ucht Mama and Teampal Crónaín in the Burren, where the building stones are so large that the style is often referred to as Cyclopean masonry.

The fashion of carving and highly illuminating such stone buildings came to a height in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the introduction of Romanesque architecture. The churches were lime rendered and lime washed white, internally and externally, with the architectural details painted in vivid colours. The windows were covered in stretched animal skins, like vellum paper, permitting a translucent light to enter. Some of the best examples of Romanesque Architecture can be seen in churches at Dysert O’Dea, Corofin and St. Flannan’s Killaloe. This style also spread to the highly decorated high stone crosses, which can be seen throughout the county.

The round tower is one of the unique aspects of Irish medieval ecclesiastical architecture. The Irish word for round tower is cloigtheach, or bell house, which describes its primary function. Older round towers were accessed from the ground level, but an entry at this point destabilised the circular structural forces and later round towers were accessed from the first-floor level. Small openings emitted light to the timber levels, which were accessed with wooden ladders. A handheld bell would be rung from the top level to mark prayer times. Six examples survive in County Clare, the finest probably being the round towers on the islands of Inis Cathaigh (Scattery island – also purported to be one of the oldest surviving round towers in the country) and Inis Cealtra near Mountshannon.

The late middle ages

The late middle ages brought a period of peace and prosperity to County Clare, which allowed wealthy landowners and clans to contribute to the building of numerous abbeys and convents. Orders such as the Franciscans, Augustinians and Cistercians were invited to build and serve local communities, through education, religious instruction and hospitality. Some of the finest monastic complexes in Ireland can be seen at Quin, Ennis and Corcomroe in the Burren.

The fashion of building tall, narrow tower houses also became popular, at this period, among the strong farmers of County Clare. The skills learned and employed building the abbeys were now used to build four storey, fortified farm houses, leaving over two hundred and thirty examples in the county, many of which are restored and once again inhabited.

The invasion of Ireland by the Normans in 1168 heralded a time of warfare and greater political instability in Ireland. Fortifications such as motte-and-bailey castles were initially constructed by the Normans, consisting of earthen rampart defences surrounding timber structures. These developed into tower houses which are predominantly four-storey, stone, square fortified houses. Tower houses were initially the seat of a ruling Norman lord, but the local Gaelic chieftains adopted the Norman construction techniques and built their own style of tower house, with variations. Tower houses are usually situated in defensively commanding positions, such as hill tops, by major roads, by river crossings or at prominent coastal locations. A number of tower houses were also accompanied by a defensive, stone bawn wall. With the advent of gunpowder, tower houses were ideal targets for cannon, and many were partially or completely destroyed during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. There are over 230 in County Clare alone, some of which have been restored and are once again used for habitation. They are a striking feature on the landscape and a reminder of the tumultuous past.

After the Williamite wars

After the Williamite Wars at the end of the 17th century, most of the Gaelic nobility were exiled to the continent, leaving the new landlords free to build unfortified, country houses, many of which survive to this day. These country houses were architecturally inspired by the Italian Renaissance and incorporated classical elements such as symmetry, proportion and ornament into their design. Their use of natural building materials such as stone, lime, slate and wood allow them to blend attractively into the landscape while internally, ornate plasterwork and decoration was used. These houses were also notable for their designed landscapes and planned gardens. These gardens are often features in their own right, with the Vandeleur Gardens in Kilrush being a fine example.

Most of Clare’s towns and villages also date from this period. The towns were centres of local commerce and often have a market square or wide street for the trading of goods. With the construction of the canals in the late 18th century and the railroads from the 1840s, towns also developed as transportation hubs, with the West Clare Railway for example, transporting kelp from Quilty and butter from Ennistymon to the far corners of the world. Through the adoption of many Architectural Conservation Areas in County Clare, it is hoped that the 18th and 19th century character and integrity of these settlements will be restored in the future. There are 30 Architectural Conservation Areas in County Clare, with the towns of Carrigaholt, Corofin, Ennis, Kilkee, Kilrush, Killaloe, Lisdoonvarna, Miltown Malbay, Quin, Scarrif, Sixmilebridge and Tulla among them, all with their own unique history and identity.

These centuries also saw the building of thousands of thatched vernacular, single and two storey cottages throughout the county. In areas where natural slate was easily available such buildings were covered with Killaloe, Broadford or Liscannor slate, materials which are now becoming increasingly rare and worthy of protection.

However, the modern era must also be permitted to leave its mark and it is hoped that new structures will also serve to enhance the landscape by the use of innovative design, sustainable materials and appropriate setting. Initiatives such as the Clare conservation and design awards and the County Clare house design guides should raise an awareness among the public of the value of good design and use of appropriate setting and materials.

It is important that the structures built in the present era, will be seen by future generations as having contributed to the amenity, integrity and enhancement of our urban and rural landscapes, in the same way as many of the buildings of the past.


Lime kilns

Image of lime kiln in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare

Lime Kiln in Tuamgraney located close to Reddan’s Quay.

Lime first became popular as a bedding mortar in the early Christian period for building stone churches and round towers. The process of burning limestone to produce lime was copied from the Romans who had developed it to such a degree that their hydraulic limes could be used underwater in the construction of bridges and harbours.

During the early mediaeval period limekilns were small and temporary, constructed only for the duration of a particular project e.g. a church or tower house. As the furnace was invariably built of stone it eventually collapsed due to the intense heat and reverted back into the landscape. For this reason few mediaeval kilns survive.

Lime kilns needed fuel such as coal, wood or peat and early examples are often found where both fuel and limestone were easily available, locally.

During the 18th century brick was used to construct the fire-boxes and flues and the increase in larger projects and public works programmes meant that much greater amounts of good quality lime were required for building and fertilizer. This led to the construction of large, permanent, brick-built limekilns establishing local industry throughout the county with many satellite industries, such as transportation, charcoal production, fuel provision and quarrying also benefitting.

However during the early 20th century, cheaper Portland cement, from England became popular as a building material leaving most of our industrial limekilns as interesting, overgrown curiosities, in the landscape. Agricultural limekilns continued in use up to the 1950s when burned lime was replaced by new fertilisers from the industrial chemical plants throughout Ireland and Britain.

Page last reviewed: 09/03/22

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Planning Department
Clare County Council
Áras Contae an Chláir
New Road
Co. Clare
V95 DXP2
(065) 684 6426
(065) 684 6407
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