[Extracts from conference proceedings published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1998.]
A paper by Caroline Maguire
Alan Gailey Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, the Queen's University of Belfast
The countryside is one of Northern Ireland's most valuable
assets. It is well known for its rich and varied regional and
local landscapes. The local landscape character and distinctive
'sense of place' evidenced in the dwellings and outbuildings together
with enclosures of stone walls, pillars and hedgerows denoting
field patterns have historically combined to give a visual coherence
to the countryside.
It is the purpose of this paper to show that this distinctive character of the local landscapes is systematically being stripped away through both past and present policies implemented by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Planning Service, VAT legislation and the Building and Environmental Health Regulations.
This study has sought to quantify the change and loss of these traditional buildings, and to investigate the underlying reasons for these changes within sample regions. It was carried out in the period from September 1996-August 1997 and it ran concurrently with the the Environment and Heritage Service's Townland Survey.
The selection of the five study areas was based on the professional consensus of the advisory team, all familiar with the geography, architecture and history of the landscape of Northern Ireland. The choices are a fair reflection of the great range, diversity and richness of the remaining rural vernacular architecture in Northern Ireland and its resilience or demise in an era of increased wealth, mobility and expectation. The areas chosen for scrutiny were:
1. The Shimna Valley in The Mournes, County Down, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (Mourne AONB), an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), and an Area of Special Scientific Interest (Eastern Mournes ASSI) within which a Candidate Special Area of Conservation (Candidate SAC) is located. The area has more recently been designated a Rural Priority Area (RPA No.57: Tollymore) by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive - i.e. an area designated as having a high level of rural unfitness. The area has had a Design Guide drawn up to guide future development.
2. An area in County Fermanagh near Fivemiletown , in a Rural Priority Area (RPA No.34: Brookeborough) designated by the NIHE.
3. The Glenelly Valley in The Sperrins in County Tyrone, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (Sperrin AONB); it is also in an Environmentally Sensitive Area ESA, and is in close proximity to the Owenkillew and Glenelly Woods ASSI. The glen above Cranagh is a designated ASSI.
4. Glenariff Glen in County Antrim, designated an AONB (Antrim Coast and Glens and Rathlin AONB) and an ESA. Garron plateau is designated a Candidate SAC, and the hazelwood scrubs in Glenariff have been designated an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). Glenariff waterfall is a Nature Reserve. The area has had a Design Guide drawn up to guide development and more recently has been designated a Rural Priority Area (RPA No.5: Glenariff) by the NIHE.
5. The Birches Area of County Armagh. The lowland fringe of Lough Neagh in The Birches area of County Armagh has been designated a Ramsar site (Lough Neagh and Lough Beg Ramsar site) under ASSI (1965 legislation) and is a Rural Priority Area (RPA No.17: The Birches) designated by the NIHE.
No less than seven landscape designations were encountered
in the five areas, each jealously guarded and enshrined in all
manner of international and national treaties, conventions and
directives, whilst the buildings that imbue these protected landscapes
with so much of their distinctive character are afforded no protection
Field work was undertaken comprising studies of thirty-one townlands, in which each building recorded on the Ordnance Survey map of 1908 was surveyed and any new houses were plotted on to show recent development. Many of the houses were now ruinous, unoccupied or used for agricultural purposes, but were recorded nonetheless.
Approximately 700 sites were located, visited, and systematically photographed. The built evidence was analysed and compared with the documentary evidence of the 1908 O.S. map which provided a base-line, to indicate where the landscape was being damaged or lost.
The result is a comparative study of the settlement patterns of five distinct regions which would at one time have displayed a homogeneity of buildings; and of their adaptation or not to increased pressures for development. However this ongoing demand for housing in some areas is matched in others by rural depopulation within the agricultural landscape due to consolidation of farm holdings and the attendant changes in farming practises.
The extent of occupation of dwellings in each of the townlands was determined through cross referencing the documentary evidence of the maps and fieldwork with the archival evidence of the valuation records to gauge the extent of continuity of adaptation of traditional buildings.
The methodology for quantifying loss consisted of analysing the buildings in each area against the current state of the traditional houses which were occupied in 1908 and the make-up of the occupied houses in 1996/97.
Each of the areas will be described individually, noting the innate vernacular architectural heritage found in each area with its subsequent adaptations and alterations. The new buildings in each locality are also examined in the context of current planning policy.
Since the study was carried out, a significant number of traditional dwellings have been lost and replaced, either through the Replacement Dwelling Grant scheme or upon approval of planning applications for replacement dwellings.
Four townlands were selected to give a cross-section of the
area forming part of the northward facing slopes of the Mourne
Mountains. The area chosen was approximately six miles from Newcastle
and four miles from Castlewellan. This region lying between the
villages of Bryansford and Kilcoo is typical of hill foot marginal
farming, with settlement patterns of scattered farms served by
a network of roads and lanes.
Farm houses in this region are direct-entry dwellings, many set gable-on to the road which runs level with the eaves while the house slopes downhill with the shelter belt of trees, field enclosures, stone walls and building working with the contours. Many others in the fertile valley floor face the road. The size of the house varies a good deal. There are some one-roomed houses, and at the other end of the scale several large two-storey houses.
Some of the larger dwellings are listed and greatly add to the visual appeal of the area. However little protection is afforded to the many other dwellings which are still occupied yet not grand enough or special enough to merit listing. Instead their owners availed of the 'improvement' grant schemes administered by the NIHE from the late 1970s. The facade has in many cases been pierced, giving rise to second doorways to the rear and to often inappropriate openings, where windows have been enlarged and the buildings re-fronted in a symmetrical manner. Such improvement grants served to alter the appearance of buildings fundamentally.
Later bungalows are in essence compromised two-storey houses masquerading as single-storey houses with fussy dormers, with vast areas of roof and wide plan forms, surrounded by shorn grass neatly fenced off from the wilderness beyond. They could just as easily be simple two-storey dwellings without the trimmings that would fit into the environment much less obtrusively.
However it is in the current scheme of replacing old dwellings that the most fundamental changes have been wrought. The beginnings of the replacement dwelling policy were beginning to become obvious in the latter part of 1997 when this area was designated a Rural Priority Area. In one instance a small new dwelling replaced a large two-storey house which sat on the edge of the road; in another case the new building replaced a dwelling which stepped down the slope of the site and the site was levelled to make way for the new building.
In an analysis of the change and loss of traditional buildings in this area in the period ending August 1997, 34% of the buildings which appeared on the 1908 map have disappeared or been lost without trace. A further 37% are unoccupied or lying derelict leaving 29% of the traditional buildings which are now occupied; many remodelled beyond recognition. Of the currently occupied buildings, traditional dwellings form 61%, 23% are replaced traditional dwellings, and new build/new site dwellings form 16% of the total currently occupied building stock. One third of the traditional occupied dwellings are holiday homes.
The ten townlands chosen were near Fivemiletown in a lowland area with a high standard of farming. The area has come under increased pressure for development, particularly along the main Belfast to Enniskillen road.
Co. Fermanagh has always been characterised by its diversity of vernacular house styles, it geographically being the area of divergence of the two traditions of hearth lobby and direct entry house types. This area shares with Cavan what Gailey describes as "The 19th century hearth-lobby form, still being constructed in the first half of the twentieth century with central door, flanked by sidelights above which a dormer window lighted a central unit loft in a three unit house, the end loft being lighted by gable windows."
The unifying motif of dormer window above principal entrance permeates the dwellings of the area. The standard of construction is typically very high with a number of quarries in close proximity to the area. The stonework is generally of a very high quality.
Again buildings have suffered from inappropriate piercing and window enlargements and with the replacement of the traditional lime render with hard impervious cement-based render.
New dwellings diverge sharply from their traditional neighbours in their relationship with the landscape, sitting proud of it, generally approached by sweeping driveways and bounded by bands of Castlewellan golds. New buildings introduce a palette of foreign materials into the landscape, with large brick and cement-tiled roofs being the norm, while their older neighbours are being systematically plundered for their slates. Replacement dwellings are again in evidence. In one case, the owner was unable to reconcile the loss of his traditional dwelling as is required before issue of final payment for the new dwelling, and the replacement is windowless.
In the farmlands of Co. Fermanagh 29% of dwellings have been lost since 1908. A further 41% of the dwellings on that map are now unoccupied, due largely to their location on 'outfarms.' Derelict farmhouses predominate and indeed one entire townland was unoccupied. However there remain 30% of dwellings which have been in continuous occupation. Counting the new build/new site dwellings with those continuously occupied since 1908, we find that new build constitutes 35% of the total occupied building stock and 7.5% are replaced traditional dwellings.
Co. Tyrone: Glenelly Valley
Glenelly is the chief among the glens in the Sperrins; a 20 mile long gash in the eastern edge of the mountains running westwards. The area studied bordered the small town of Plumbridge, and eight townlands representative of all farming conditions from the fertile valley floor up to the blanket bog-covered hills of Bradkeel were surveyed.
The bed outshot is a peculiar development in the traditional plan form normally associated with the direct-entry plan form. It is a small projection which accommodates a sleeping niche.
Another peculiar feature of the district is the projected entrance detailing around the front door, typically roofed in the same material as the main body of the roof. It is found also in two- storey vernacular houses, of which there are a large number of derelict and decaying examples in the area. Traditional houses further up the valleys tended to step down the slope - views out were irrelevant. Protection from prevailing winds and rain were the prerequisite to successful housing design.
In the survey area, numerous examples of the widening of the outshot, sometimes for the length of the entire bay, were found, and had often been further modified by piercing with windows to let in extra light and increase the living area. The partial upper storey is also common in the area. More recent adaptations leave the house in stark contrast with the surroundings, exacerbated by the removal of the field boundaries, hedges and stands of trees. Windows have often been enlarged to accommodate dark mahogany picture windows, and the doors now have porches of brick or crazy paving, with large areas of glass.
Replacement planning permissions were much in evidence, and the new farmhouses are more often than not placed at respectable distances from the farm buildings. Unusually, they are often much smaller than the traditional dwellings which lie abandoned in the countryside; however they differ markedly in plan form, with shallow pitched roofs over a larger ground floor area than their traditional ancestors.
In an analysis of the change and loss of traditional buildings in the area, in the eight townlands surveyed in Co. Tyrone, 37% of the building stock which appeared on the 1908 map has now disappeared without trace. A further 43% of these dwellings are unoccupied or derelict, leaving 20% of the building stock in continuous occupation, most of which have been modified unsympathetically. Of the currently occupied stock, traditional dwellings constitute 58% of occupied dwellings. The remainder are replaced dwellings on traditional sites. There were no holiday homes recorded here.
Co. Antrim: Glenariff
The valley of Glenariff is high up in the Glens of Antrim, situated 16 miles from Ballymena, 7 miles from Carnlough. At its foot in the northern extreme is the village of Glenariff. The valley itself is about three and a half miles long. Settlement here is mainly confined to the coastal villages and towns; however in Glenariff settlement has extended up the sides of the glens, creating the ladder patterns of fields along the valley sides. The seven townlands surveyed were situated in the upper portion of the glen. A design guide for development was published in 1989. Its effectiveness will be discussed later.
Traditional dwellings were carefully located to provide shelter from prevailing winds. The houses are typically direct entry types which have been enlarged through the addition of the extra storey typically tucked into the slope of the hill. The offset in the front door betrays its vernacular origins. Many intact examples of the traditional architecture of the Glens exist in high and remote parts of the glen.
Improvement dwelling grants are much in evidence in the Glens, which have fuelled the removal of traditional features - the windows, render, traditional roof covering - and their subsequent replacement with low-cost, low-maintenance varieties.
However it is the new dwellings which have the greatest impact on the landscape. In recent years, demand for housing has increased in Glenariff due to its proximity to the town of Ballymena and its popularity as a location for weekend, holiday or retirement homes. This has resulted in a proliferation of new houses, particularly straddling the northern extremity of the valley on the roads which connect Ballymena to Glenariff. The southern side has suffered from the inappropriate siting of modern farm houses, again diverging sharply from the long established patterns of siting, scale and design.
Whilst a design guide exists, it is clearly not enforced. In the AONB Antrim Coast and Glens design guide one is advised that "The dwellings must adapt to the existing contours or ground slopes. This can be achieved by stepping the building down the slope. Cutting deeply into a hillside to create a plateau-like shelf is to be avoided"; and again, "Careful consideration should be given to the overall shape and form of the house, its silhouette and how it will look when viewed against the natural characteristics of the site and immediate environment. Sensitive orientation of the house on its site can also help minimise its visual impact."
Replacement dwellings in this area, now designated a Rural Priority area, were also apparent. There were many other instances of old buildings being sacrificed to facilitate a replacement planning permission.
In an analysis of change and loss of traditional dwellings in Glenariff from the period 1908 to August 1997, 14% of the building stock had disappeared without trace. A significant 34% of the remaining traditional dwellings were unoccupied or derelict, leaving 52% of sites occupied, the majority of which had been altered or extended. Occupied traditional dwellings constituted 53% of currently occupied dwellings, while 33% were new-build new site dwellings. Replaced dwellings were 14% of the total occupied stock in the period from 1996-1997.
Co. Armagh: The Birches
This area is known as 'The Birches' from the luxuriant growth of the tree in the general vicinity. The motorway bisects the area studied and curiously isolates it from its hinterland to the south.
The area displays a remarkable homogeneity of house types, being largely mud-walled, lobby entry houses which were strung out along the flat landscape on rampart roads which traversed the surrounding bog. Historically, it was a very densely populated rural area. The houses are built on the road margins, originally with thatched roofs, many now with corrugated metal roofs, always extended linearly. Another feature of the Armagh houses is their proximity to each other. The dispersed pattern found elsewhere is reversed here, with extended families occupying adjacent dwellings. The only inhabited thatched house encountered in any of the five areas was here in the Birches, now listed and rethatched four years ago.
During the immediate post-war years the rendering of facades in this area with 'Ballycastle dash,' a mixture of pebble dash and coloured stone, was popular around windows and doors, and the painting of sun motifs on gable ends. However, more recent adaptations of old houses have included the lopping off of chimneys as they became redundant, regularising of windows, insertions of new doors and most detrimentally, the changing of the external render to an impervious cement based render, which causes the mud walls to shrink and fail.
The pressures of development in this area derive from its proximity to Belfast and Dungannon, particularly in lands adjacent to the motorway and the slip roads. The new build/new site variety, with the introduction of a new language of gables to front, hips, windows, chimneys not in ridges of the roof line, and new materials, has led to dramatic changes in appearance. Replacement dwellings were again much in evidence, with 'The Birches' being a designated Rural Priority area.
In North Armagh, 48% of dwellings extant in 1908 have now disappeared. This may in large part be attributed to the walling material which slips rapidly back into the earth from whence it was modelled. A further 19% are unoccupied or are derelict; however 33% remain in continuous occupation. Occupied traditional dwellings constitute some 61% of currently occupied dwellings, new buildings account for some 25%, and replaced dwellings accounted for some 14% of the total. No holiday homes are located in this area.
The results from the fieldwork have borne out our worst suspicions: the loss of both the quality and quantity of traditional housing has been enormous. However these figures represent a fragment of the total loss, for many more are being lost through neglect and effectively lost through insensitive conversion and change. Of the traditional houses which remain occupied, many are in the hands of an ageing population.
The numbers of occupied houses in each area show a steady decline from the 1860s, and when only traditional houses are taken into account the decline is still more marked. In the following table, totals for traditional houses only are given in brackets:
|Shimna Valley, Co Down||190||168||93 (57)|
|Fivemiletown, Co Fermanagh||125||80||40 (23)|
|Glenelly Valley, Co Tyrone||100||75||26 (15)|
|Glenariff Glen, Co Antrim||73||58||57 (30)|
|The Birches, Co Armagh||258||229||104 (63)|
|% Occupied Traditional||% Unoccupied Traditional||% Lost without trace or replaced|
|Shimna Valley, Co Down||34||37||29|
|Fivemiletown, Co Fermanagh||30||41||29|
|Glenelly Valley, Co Tyrone||20||43||37|
|Glenariff Glen, Co Antrim||52||34||14|
|The Birches, Co Armagh||33||19||48|
|% Occupied Traditional||% New Build / New Site||% Replaced|
|Shimna Valley, Co Down||61||16||23|
|Fivemiletown, Co Fermanagh||57.5||35||7.5|
|Glenelly Valley, Co Tyrone||58||0||42|
|Glenariff Glen, Co Antrim||53||33||14|
|The Birches, Co Armagh||61||25||14|
On return visits to the areas surveyed at the beginning of
this study the rate of attrition due to the collective impact
of the policies identified above was very obvious:
The recent loss of traditional houses was most marked in Glenariff and in the Mournes. Where there had been a substantial two-storey dwelling, was now pile of stones, with a caravan, hymac, and a new shiny dwelling on the hill behind with concrete roof tiles, PVC windows, cement render and mean proportions. In the Mournes, a two-year old dwelling was getting a grant-aided stone wall built out of the rubble of the old two-storey dwelling. In another instance the owners spoke of the insistence of the planners that they build in a hollow and have vertical windows to the front, so they complied but filled up the hollow and put large windows in the back elevation.
What were once complex, highly functionally-defined groupings of buildings, have now become a series of objects in an open field. Rather than building on the existing very vibrant regional language of building, the fear is that we may have become locked into ubiquitous parodies of vernacular buildings. As Northern Ireland attempts to catch up on its housing standards, it runs the risk of destroying its heritage.
Country-dwellers are aware of the problem, with isolated and increasingly marginalised farmers speaking of the 'drift from the land' and the changing nature of the countryside. These custodians of our rural heritage are important in maintaining continuity in a necessarily changing landscape. They speak of the polarisation of public monies, fed into local community groups to fund largely town-based schemes.
In an effort to gauge attitudes towards traditional housing and the widespread changes in the countryside in general, a questionnaire was compiled. The practical realities of cost of building maintenance; convenience to the road; size; adaptability for modern conveniences; importance of fitting in with the landscape etc., were explored. More pertinent issues such as the change in the appearance of the countryside, the effects of commuter homes, holiday homes, rural dereliction, etc were tabulated. The effect of restoring the old buildings on the environment, local communities, local employment, farm and land values and tourism were also explored. Approximately 2200 questionnaires were circulated within these five areas and through the local press.
On the issue of whether sufficient grant allocation is given to owners of old buildings to encourage them to maintain them properly, the resounding conclusion was a hearty no. Subjective views, such as the importance of maintaining links with the past, and the wider effects which building restoration can have on a small community, were examined; and it was generally agreed that it would improve the appearance of the area, renew local interest in the landscape and benefit the overall environment.
There is an increasing awareness among the members of the farming community of the more insidious effects of the clearance schemes, where the traditional craft base is undermined and in some instances, rendered redundant. Practical and realistic solutions must be found for those buildings which have lost their function, yet remain very much part of our landscape.
All is not lost, and within each of these five areas were large numbers of unoccupied traditional buildings, many spared the improvement grants of the 1980s. I felt it necessary to devise a classification system whereby the state of dereliction of these unoccupied properties in each of the areas could be more clearly ascertained. This was deemed important to distinguish properties which would be capable of rescue from those which clearly are beyond repair. These range in extent of dereliction from the completely ruinous roofless ruin (classified 1) to the structurally intact, rain-proof envelope (classified 5). It is interesting that the majority of buildings in all areas fall within categories 4 and 5.
It remains to be seen if these words from the Fermanagh Area Plan describing the proposed Caveland and Lakeland AONB are implemented through positive schemes which may save the remaining buildings from further deterioration: "The reuse, renovation and sympathetic extension of vacant dwellings will normally be encouraged..."
In conclusion it can be noted that there has been a continuum of extending and adapting traditional buildings until relatively recently. This 'timeless' way of building, of extending and adapting traditional buildings when translated on the ground into the dwellings, outbuildings, together with enclosures of stone walls, pillars and hedgerows, resulted in a rich, visually coherent cultural landscape which despite regional varieties conformed to a pattern peculiar to Ireland. The loss of this rich composition is evident throughout each of the areas studied.
If we continue to pursue the present policies of clearance, condemnation and closure, we risk defacing the physical fabric of the countryside, and, with it, the collective sensibilities of the many generations who contributed to it. Ruining the achievements of past generations is inexcusable. The opportunity must be given to partake in the built continuum, and the reuse of these buildings presents a benign and green alternative to the schemes of wholesale replacement.
Replacement planning permissions are issued with disturbing ease, and it seems likely that the Housing Executive's Replacement Dwelling Grant Scheme will continue until at least 1999, by which time many of the inhabited vernacular dwellings will have been replaced. The future of the remainder will lie in changes in legislation.
The harshness of existence in many of these vernacular houses in the 19th century, as recorded in the Griffiths Valuation Records and the Ordnance Survey Memoirs, cannot be forgotten, and this report does not advocate a return to the past when living conditions were so cramped and comfortless. Many of the buildings are however capable of sympathetic renovation that will retain their character while greatly improving their amenity.
What is required is a more holistic view of the countryside to incorporate a change in current planning policy, a revised housing policy, more positive intervention from the Department of Agriculture and the promotion of positive schemes for the practical reuse of these buildings which remain very much part of the landscape.
Otherwise we will be left with a totally reconstructed, culturally empty landscape. To quote Paul Walshe of the Countryside Commission: 'a farmed landscape without old farm buildings would be like a man without a memory.'
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