Housing in the nineteenth century was reflective of class and social order. Large estates and houses were built by landlords while one roomed cabins and small houses were built by the poorest members of society. It is the latter which characterise most upland settlements, including those in the Blackstairs Mountains. Use of local resources, together with the absence of will to make architectural statements meant that the majority of these buildings blended into the surrounding landscape just as any natural feature. Similar cases across the country prompted the folklorist Ake Campbell to comment;
“Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs. Wherever the old building traditions are maintained its features are of a fine simplicity” (1937, 223).
Such resources included stone for walls, clay for floors, straw, reeds and grass for roofs (Aalen et al. 1997, 82).
Agriculture was central to the life in these upland homes, for which there is ample archaeological evidence. Cereal and vegetable cultivation is evident on many slopes where potatoes, turnips, crops and vegetables were grown for local consumption and to supplement the family income. Potatoes in particular were favoured as they could grow on the thinnest and poorest of soils. Field systems, enclosures and placenames indicate the presence of animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Less obvious in the landscape however, is the evidence for fowl keeping.
Alongside larger livestock, poultry made up an important component of many upland farms. Analysis of the census records from the 1901 Census gives some indication of the frequency of dedicated structures built for the housing of poultry. For example, twenty seven records can be firmly identified on this census as relating to houses in the Blackstairs uplands (above 200m). Of these 16 recorded having a fowl house, making them the fourth most common outhouse type (after stables, cow houses and pig houses). A possible hen house was identified during survey work on Knockroe Mountain in the Blackstairs Mountains. While the stone structure was in a ruinous state, a low lintel suggests an east facing entrance in a small structure which may have been used by hens.
Folklore collected from the 1930’s gives greater insight into the management practices associated with fowl-keeping. For a start, chickens were the dominant species. Reared and tended to by the woman of the house, any monies raised from the sale of eggs or meat was either kept as her own income or used to cloth the children or fund their education. Other households kept them simply for general income. Upland fowl were sold at markets such as Borris and New Ross with people travelling from all across Carlow, Wexford and Kilkenny. Saint Martin’s Day was celebrated on the 11th of November in the Blackstairs region with the killing of a cockerel and the smearing of its blood on the lintel of the house for protection. Recordings made by Michael Fortune in the area around Ballymurphy, County Carlow on the western side of the range confirm the presence of this practice in the region into the 20th century. Other folklore also records the term “fortnales”; small eggs that were collected and placed in the thatch of the house for luck.
Apart from dedicated outhouses, archaeological evidence for fowl keeping in the Blackstairs uplands was identified during field survey on some surviving farm sites. Small grottoes were constructed in the walls of houses and outhouses in which poultry could nest and lay eggs. Their proximity to the house made it easier for the family to observe the bird and take eggs when they were laid. The styles of these varied across the range. For example, a grotto on Clorogue More consists of a triangular shaped hole made in the farmyard wall of the house, lintelled on all three sides by slabs. A second example in the townland of Crannagh on the opposite side of the range has two square holes built into the gable walls of an outhouse facing the house. Such features may have been more commonly found on house sites and cabins than is evident today as the current states of preservation of surviving structures has rendered them invisible.
Aalen, F. H. A., Whelan, K. & Stout, M. 1997 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape.
Cork; Cork University Press.
Campbell, A. 1937 “Notes on the Irish House”. Folk-Liv 1, 207-234.
National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 577, p. 373. Information collected by Máire Ní Dhonncha from Mrs. Maddock (77), Drummond, Carlow in 1938.
National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1063, p. 10. Information collected by P.T. O Riain from John Long (70) and his wife, Rossard in June 1940.
National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1829, p. 36. Information collected by John Moriarty from Patrick Hendrick, Ballycrinnigan, Carlow in January 1967.
National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1829, p. 54. Information collected by Edward Whinger, Graigunemanagh in January 1967.