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Housing in Ancient Ireland

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The earliest remains of housing in Ireland were found at Mount Sandel in Co. Derry, which is located on a height about 30 metres overlooking the river Bann, a few miles from the sea.  The site was excavated between 1973 and 1977 by Peter Woodman.  He got radio-carbon dates of c.7010 bc to c. 6490 bc.  In levels of excavation dating 500 years he found the remains of a number of round houses roughly 6 metres in diameter, which are the oldest Mesolithic houses to be found in Ireland and they predate anything found in Britain.

The remains that could be seen were in the form of post-holes - rounded stains left over from wood that had decayed.  The post holes were about 20 cm deep were at an angle going inwards.  This suggests that the houses were in a dome shape, made of saplings bent inwards and joining  towards the centre, there was no central support pole.  A hearth of roughly a metre in diameter would have been located in the centre of the house.  The outer posts of wood would probably have had lighter saplings weaved around them forming a shelter, possibly covered over with more mud and sticks (wattle and daub) or sods of earth.

 The location of Mount Sandel would have been ideal for Mesolithic Man, as they were close to the sea, and fresh-water streams for fishing and could find game in the woods nearby.  This may be why there are traces of such long habitation in this area.  Also there was a source of flint along the Antrim Coast which provided the settlers with raw material for their tools and weapons.  In general Mesolithic Man was a hunter-gatherer and would probably have been nomadic living in temporary shelters, which is why there is not much evidence of housing from this time period.

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In Ballynagilly, near Cookstown, Co. Tyrone the remains of a wooden house were found dating to the Neolithic Times c 3215 bc.  It was situated on the top of a hill about 200 metres high.  The house measured 6.5 metres by 6 metres, it was orientated from east to west.  To help the construction of the long walls, a trench 30 - 40cm wide and 20 - 30 cm deep was dug, and planks of radially split oakwood were placed upward to form the house wall.  At some later stage the house got burnt which helped the excavators to date the site from a retrieved piece of charcoal. 

About three years after the discovery of the house in Ballynagilly a similar type was found by Seán Ó Nualláin at Ballyglass, Co. Mayo which can be seen in reconstruction at the Ulster History Park in Omagh, Co Tyrone.  This house was about 15 metres long by 6 metres wide and was orientated southeast - northwest.  The walls had trenches dug out for them, but here there were holes for upright posts which were joined by planks, traces of which were found at the site.

 The Neolithic people were more settled and practised farming and the keeping of domesticated animals.  They therefore constructed sturdier and more permanent dwellings than the early Mesolithic peoples.  Both round and rectangular houses have been dated to the Neolithic.  Reconstructions of Neolithic houses can be seen at the Ulster History Park in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and also at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick.

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Aerial view Lough Gur

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The discovered settlement sites of the Bronze Age are rare, although many artefacts dating from this time have been found and there is a wide distribution of burial sites, especially in the north and east of the country.  Land use today makes it difficult for archaeologists to have access to excavate a site.  A later Bronze Age site at Curraghatoor, County Tipperary, provides evidence for houses of the curvilinear type.  Excavation at Curraghatoor has revealed the remains of at least twelve structures, including huts and fence structures.  Evidence for cereal growing was found which points to a settled farming community.  

Examples of Bronze Age housing are known from sites at Lough Gur and Aughinish Island, Co. Limerick, Downpatrick Co. Down, and Cullyhanna, County Armagh, occasionally the remains of a roasting spit has been found in the interior.  Most Bronze Age houses seemed to have been curvilinear using the wattle and daub building method, however an oval shaped stone built house was found at Carrigillihy, Co. Cork dating to c.1100 B.C.  This house was surrounded by a yard and enclosed by a stone wall and two similar sites were found at Aughinish Island.

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Several lakeside settlements have been excavated from the later Bronze Age, at Ballinderry 2, Co. Offaly a rectangular house made from parallel oak planks was situated at the side of a lake, evidence showed that sheep, pigs and goats were kept by the occupants.  Areas close to a water supply were favoured sites.  In later Bronze Age times prominent hilltop locations were chosen as dwelling places.  There is evidence from Navan Fort, County Armagh, that a round house of Bronze Age date was built next to a circular stockade.  Navan Fort known as Emain Macha in the sagas continued in use as a settlement and an important ritual centre, into Iron Age times.

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Rathgall in County Wicklow was also an important Bronze Age settlement site, the excavation uncovered the remains of a large house which was situated at the top of a hill and surrounded by an enclosure, the house was roughly 15m in diameter.  The large number of moulds for characteristic later Bronze Age artefacts at Rathgall, is evidence that metal-working was on a commercial scale there.

 

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Sources: Peter Harbison - Pre-Christian Ireland, Thames and Hudson, 1988.

(ed.) Michael Ryan - Irish Archaeology Illustrated, Country House, Dublin, 1991.

O'Kelly, Michael J - Early Ireland, An introduction to Irish pre-history, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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