Sweeney Architects

The history of Irish architecture

Over the next few weeks we are going to look at the history of architecture and in particular Irish vernacular architecture. When people first began to build, they built for themselves, without the aid of specialist builders. What they built was, in the precise meaning of the term, ‘vernacular’, that is native or of the country (in French ‘du pays’) and the system by which the people of a particular place built was developed empirically over many generations; interlocked with land use and seasonal patterns.

Irish vernacular from the 18th Century to present day often features simple facades in stone, brick or render while relying on the styling of the windows as the main aesthetic feature. When the original design of the windows are removed or altered the building and wider street or landscape is deprived of their character.

Up until the early eighteenth century the most common type of window in Ireland was the side hung casement windows with the size of glass restricted to latticed or square patterned lead glass. The sliding sash evolved in France, England and Holland in the mid seventeenth century throughout Europe and the colonies and remaining the dominant window type for almost three hundred years.

Developments in glass from small panes of handmade crown or cylinder sheet glass to modern float glass is especially evident in Dublin and Limericks’ Georgian terraces where replacement windows even of the Victorian period may not have been the intent of the designer.

The horns or extension to the bottom of the top sash often provides a clue to the region and date of design of a particular window. They were introduced as a strengthening device when the fashion of lightening the glazing bars became popular and are not evident in windows in the 18th Century. To find the original detail of a window often look to the rear of a building as those windows have often survived replacement. There are some examples of horizontal sliding windows in county Cork.

Generally historic wood window can and should be repaired especially if the windows were manufactured before 1940. Prior to this time windows were constructed of individual parts each of which can be repaired or replaced. The wood itself is denser and of higher quality than what is grown today and is more rot and warp resistant. Replacement of part sections, particularly common of lower corners is called scarfing.

Wet rot can cause the timbers to go soft and lose their strength. Glazing putty will eventually dry out and is meant to be periodically replaced not painted over which is a common source of water ingress. Sills and bottom rails are also vulnerable. Sealing can be done by either weather strips or internal secondary glazing.

If your windows retain paint that was applied prior to 1978 chances are lead based paint was used. This does not mean that you cannot strip the paint-however there are guidelines available to minimise risk. We will continue discussing this topic next week, in the meantime, if you have any queries or comments please do not hesitate to contact me at nick@sweeneyarchitects.ie or 086 8355266.