He Doesn’t Drink, Smoke, Laugh; Takes Herbal Baths, In The Country

County DonegalExplore the countryside in Ireland and, everywhere, you’ll find the ruins of cottages. Many date to the time of the Famine of the 1840s, when death and emigration resulted in a loss of over 20% of the population. (30% or more in some areas). Mainly as a result of continuing emigration, the island’s population has never recovered to the peak levels, today being about the same as it was before 1800.

The ruins mark out the pre-1800 population pattern, and show the distinctive distribution which is very different from that of our neighbours in England, Scotland and Wales. Villages and hamlets are rare in Ireland. Typically, small farming communities built their houses dispersed across the farmland, rather than around any nucleus. The Irish word “baile”, today translated into English as “townland” was used to refer to any kind of populated area, large or small.

At the time of the Famine, the rural family home was a thatched cottage. It would have been a tiny, single-roomed one for those at the bottom of the social scale. Slightly wealthier people might have a larger house with one end reserved for animals, and the relatively prosperous farmer could perhaps have a second storey.

I lived in a thatched cottage for about 18 months. The earlier part dated to the late 1600s,and consisted of one room on the ground floor, with a bedroom above, under the thatch. In about the mid-1800s, it had been doubled in size with the addition of a fine, Victorian parlour. The space above that was another bedroom, and also included (from some time later) an indoor bathroom!

I had rented the cottage after selling my own house, and while my current one was being designed and built. You see, I had bought a plot of land in the countryside, with planning permission to build.

That’s by way of declaring an interest. Yes, I am one of those people who defaced our beautiful countryside with a building. Or, at least, that’s one way of looking at it. It seems to be the popular notion: house — bad; no house — good. Rural housing is a “problem”, an eyesore. But, actually, that’s just an opinion; a value judgement.

For starters, there is no such thing as a natural landscape, not in our country anyway. Originally, thick forest covered almost everything, but it was felled over the centuries to make way for agriculture. When you look across the countryside, everything you see is man-made. And, as I’ve mentioned, go back two hundred years and there were more houses scattered across the landscape than there are today.

Sometimes, modern houses are ugly. It can’t be denied. I particularly dislike the “hacienda” style of bungalow that was built in the 1970s and 1980s. Good planning regulation could have saved us from those. But since that dark time, in my opinion the majority of newly-built rural houses have been tasteful, many traditional-looking, because that’s what people want to live in.

There’s a new standard for planning control in rural Northern Ireland, PPS 21. (It replaced the more restrictive PPS 14, which was determined to be unconstitutional, since it had been developed and promulgated by civil servants. Civil servants aren’t allowed to make Law.) For the first time, PPS 21 recognises the concept of “Dispersed Rural Communities”, which follow the traditional pattern, and allows new building under certain circumstances.

So development can be allowed, but the impact on the environment is still something to consider. Those thatched cottages that used to be scattered across the landscape were made from natural materials, they were only as large as necessary, and they didn’t need any kind of mains infrastructure. It would be wise to keep those criteria in mind.

For myself, I don’t mind the look of a rural landscape that has houses in it. What I think is really ugly and depressing is the sprawl of “suburban” housing estates which has been appended to our villages and small towns. Houses crammed into the available space without regard to any sense of organic town structure. Built without the focal points — churches, shops, village halls — that real communities have. For me, they’re the real blights on the landscape.

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