Irish Mud Cottages or Cabins

“On the Improvement of the Habitations of the Poor in Ireland” from the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 40, March 30, 1833

There is nothing in Ireland that strikes the eye of a non-native traveller, so much as the misery—the squalid misery of the habitation of our people. The tottering, crumbling, mud walls—the ragged, furrowed, and half rotten thatch—the miserable basket-shaped orifice that answers as a chimney—the window, with its broken panes stuffed with a wisp of straw, or some rags, filthy and nasty—the dunghill before the un-fitting door, which the pig has broken; altogether the erection is one which no unaccustomed eye can repose on without disgust and pity; and hard is the heart, and worthless the man, who would not desire to give any fellow-creature a better home and sojourn in this vale of sorrow and trial, more consonant to a thinking and immortal being.

Some how or other, the squalidness of our Irish dwelling-places is peculiarly distressing and unseemly, for there is no people on earth that require more comfortable homes—the singular wetness of our climate, its constant rains and fogs, require that our shelter should be good; and if the poor labourer who has been working all the day long under an incessant fall of rain, is obliged to come home with his clothing soaked through, to find a wet floor on which to sit—wet turf with which to back his fire—wet coming down through the roof on the damp bed on which he is to sleep—why, here is the very perfection of discomfort; and you are induced to philosophize and admire the astonishing power of adaptation in the human frame, that can fit it for the vicissitudes of all climates, and the variations of countless hardships.

At the same time it should be the aim of every one to increase the comforts of his fellow-creatures, and especially his countrymen; it is no satisfaction to the kind in heart, that man can bear and suffer a great deal and yet live—No, he knows that the inmate of a hovel is not in his right position in sight of God or man, and as far as in him lies, he will endeavour to help him to a sense of comfort, as the sure means of making him less of a brute and more of a man. I really, while impressed with these views, cannot understand of what stuff the Landlords of Ireland were made, who allured their tenantry to dwell in such filthy dens as they have hitherto done; and I almost think it would be a duty of the Government of a well constituted State, to make landed proprietors penally responsible for the decent dwelling of all those who were attached to their properties.

Well-built walls of stone, cemented with mortar, or clay slowly and firmly compressed—slated roofs—chimnies strongly and safely built—fire-places so constructed, as to ensure the greatest warmth with the least waste of fuel—windows that would admit air and light—apartments that would supply clean and separate sleeping accommodations; these I deem essential to the comfort, the health, the safety, and the morals of the poor. How they are afflicted with the rheumatism, indigestion, palsy, and chronic diseases, arising from bad food and bad lodging—need I remind them of the watchfull sleepless misery that attends the fear of having the thatch of their house set fire to, by the wanton or vengeful incendiary—need I allude to the indecent revolting practice of three or four adults sleeping, and that quite naked, in one bed—surely all these are evils affecting the temporal and eternal interests of our poor countrymen; and it should be the wish of every patriotic man, as soon as possible to remove them.

Indeed, I have often entertained the scheme of instituting a society for the improvement of the dwellings of the poor, and of forming a fund for aiding the deserving, the peaceful, and industrious, in building the walls, and slating the roofs of their dwellings. There is no part of the world where good materials for building, are so abundant as in Ireland; stones we have every where, lime and sand in the greatest plenty; and where they are not to be had, there is good clay in profusion—and, moreover, slates are to be got in most places, on reasonable terms; all along the eastern sea coast, slates from Wales can be procured—and in the interior, both north and south, valuable quarries are accessible. All along the line of the Shannon, and the channels connected with it, the Killaloe slates are procurable —and, perhaps, not even Wales itself can produce a more lasting, or manageable slate than the Killaloe quarries can produce.

Mr. PENNY JOURNAL, I have been led to the above consideration by reading a little tract, published in Dublin within the last year or two, which announces (to be sure, rather ridiculously) as an important discovery—an improvement in the construction of mud edifices, which consists in inserting in the coins or corners of the mud building, a crooked or angular stick, course after course, so as to form binders, and thus hinder the walls to give, as mud walls mostly do at the corners. Now this discovery, although not exactly so important as that of the steam engine, is both cheap and useful, and if practised together with the mode used in the South of France, of building the mud walls in moveable frames and ramming with a tool something like a paviour's mallet, a building can be made up two or more stories high, as strong, as durable, and perhaps drier and warmer than any of stone.

Mr. EDITOR, allow me to recommend the IMPORTANT DISCOVERY to all landed proprietors, who would build comfortable houses for their tenantry, and also allow me to implore all those who have a love for their own properties, and for the comfort, the health, and safety of their tenantry, to commence the slating of their houses, and making them as comfortable, as warm, and as airy as they can be. Underneath I give from the little work I have just alluded to, namely, the Important Discovery, (published by Curry & Co. Dublin) the plan for strengthening and securing clay-built walls.

“I begin then, with the simplest, or least costly, as best suited to the means of the humble, but not less deserving, labourer or peasant. In all cases then, when a cabin is to be built, the first thing you are to observe is, to choose your situation, and upon a rising ground, if possible, that the rain cannot by any possibility loiter or remain about your foundation; than which, nothing can be more prejudicial to its permanence, as well as, invariably keeping the floor of your cabin damp, and therefore highly dangerous to the health of its inhabitants. And I have frequently observed, that in cabins built in low, and of course, swampy situations, after any, almost the slightest shower of rain, the floor became so damp, as to require to be scraped; and by constantly treading upon a damp floor, and breathing or inhaling a damp atmosphere, subjects its inhabitants to many fatal disorders, and is particularly unwholesome to children. Indeed I have heard medical men remark, that the almost general cause of delicacy and complaints incident to the children of the labouring class, was chiefly to be attributed to that source.

“Having then determined upon the site on which to build, lay out your plan, and dig your foundation, about 1 foot in depth, and about 2 feet broad, which is the usual breadth for houses constructed of clay; and by all means procure as much stones as will raise your foundation, if possible, 1 foot above the level of the surrounding earth, the larger stones being laid outside, and well filled in with smaller ones, and the finest kind of clay or striven, (as mortar,) to fill up the vacancies in every part.

“That course being finished, and allowed to settle a little, (as you know it ought,) then proceed to work upon it—that is, to put on your striven in small portions at a time, and firmly stuck on, to the height of 2 ½ feet. Having then brought the entire of your walls to a level, being previously prepared with a few strong branches of trees, no great matter of what kind (but the closer the grain the better, so that they are sound, and if possible rather straight, than crooked, but curved will answer, if straight cannot be had)—let their scantling or thickness be not less, if possibly convenient, than from 2 to 3 inches, and cut in lengths with a saw. These I call the ties or braces; (a mason would call them quoins) and to render them more solid in their bed, let their circular sides at top and bottom be chipped off with a billhook, and they will lie firmer on the work. Their length must be in proportion to the thickness of the walls, as you see in the plan below:

But previous to placing them on the wall, borrow an inch augur, and bore a hole at each end, as you see described. Through these holes, drive two pins, a foot long each, (at least) of some sound piece of a branch, driven tight through the hole, and equally divided in length at bottom and top.

“Having then placed your four ties or braces, so pinned, on the four angles, as represented in the plate, proceed to build up your wall, as before, to the height of 4 ½ feet, bracing the angles at that height, just in the same manner as in the first course. When you have built your walls to 6, or to 6 ½ feet high, in proportion to the height you intend them to be—have other four braces, prepared as before, and lay them on in the same way, always observing, as you lay on each brace, to strike it with a stone (if a mallet is not at hand) before you put on fresh mortar, that it may lie solid on the work, as you have seen masons do, when they lay stones on the mortar, they strike them, so as to make them bed firm in the work. This third course of braces, (12 in all) being placed as directed, proceed to build your wall to the height you wish, which is generally from 7 to 8, or 8 ½ feet high, and the work of bracing is completed.