The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 1

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning

Henry Glassie is a professor of folklore at Indiana University in the United States. He has published extensively on the topic of material culture, and in the 2000 he published a book that was simply titled Vernacular Architecture. Glassie’s publication drew on his three decades of observations of vernacular architecture from around the world, and showed that common buildings, and the meanings and associations attached to them, contributed to a more democratic telling of history. Glassie viewed buildings like poems and rituals, in that they realise culture and reflect in a material way, the thoughts, beliefs and experiences of the people that design, build and use them. Of course, this is true about all architecture, not just the vernacular traditions. But what do we mean when we talk about vernacular architecture, and are school houses vernacular structures, or imposing institutional buildings?

Vernacular architecture exists everywhere there are human populations around the world. It can’t be defined as a particular architectural style that you might recognise like Baroque or Neo-Classical, but rather a building paradigm where the arrangement of the structure is the simplest form of addressing human needs. It is a pure reaction to an individual person’s or society’s building needs, and has allowed everyday people, even before the architect, to construct shelter according to their circumstance. Some are the exotic products of indigenous people in places unknown to us. But others are familiar, maybe too familiar, and so are overlooked and unappreciated. This is the case with many of the school houses featured here.

Hollygrove National School, Hollygrove townland, Co. Galway (dated 1899). This plain two-room school house is a fine example of one of the most simplistic ‘factory school’ designs supplied by the OPW at the turn of the 20th century. Despite their pivotal role in education in rural Ireland at the time, many of these buildings are not recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage

Vernacular buildings are composed of local materials. The meanings that lie in the selection of materials are social and economic as well as environmental, and the buildings very much reflect the local area and its people. They can tell us a lot about the people that constructed them. As Glassie states; ‘culture gathers into an inner resource of association and gathers order aesthetically, by which he means that the landscape and how people view and experience the world is reflected in what they build and create. With the act of physical alteration that calls time into space implying a past and a future, and with the walls that divide space, at once including and excluding, architecture has happened’ (ibid.). Architecture gives physical form to names and claims, to memories and hopes. As a conceptual activity, architecture is a matter of forming ideas into plans, plans into things that other people can see. Architecture shapes relations between people. It is a kind of a communication (ibid.).

North Yard National School, Co. Roscommon – Original Architectural Drawings Dated 1869 (National Archives OPW5HC4730)

But what do old school buildings say to us, and how do they tell their stories and fill the landscape with narrative? And what do the ruinous school houses in rural Ireland have to say about the past? Are they examples of overbearing institutional buildings, or vernacular structures intrinsic and particular to a local community? We don’t hear of these old school houses being referred to as vernacular buildings but perhaps that has something to do with how we look at them and our own perspective. If we look closely we can see that they are both institutional and vernacular. They are each similar in form to each other, and usually built to a set plan supplied by a central source, the OPW. But they are constructed from local materials that are particular to each location, and on a larger scale their designs, features and details are functional and served the basic functions required in order to provide a suitable venue for education in the rural Irish countryside.

The architect’s drawings supplied by the OPW for Daurus National School, Dawros townland in Co. Kerry in 1877 (National Archives OPW5HC4874)

The term vernacular marks the transition from the unknown to the known: we call buildings vernacular because they embody values alien to those cherished in the architectural academy. But the physical remains of the standard ‘to-plan’ school buildings that lie rotting in rural Ireland are often not cherished, they are neglected. Buildings are neglected for different reasons, and pondering why some buildings get studied and others do not, we are likely to conclude that some buildings are important and others are not. Then pondering the emptiness of that answer, we find that important buildings can be interpreted as displays of the values we value – grandeur, perhaps, or originality – while unimportant buildings display values that we have not yet learned to appreciate (ibid.).  Neglect is a perhaps sign of ignorance in some way; a lack of appreciation for the important but overly familiar.

An Scoil Náisunta Eiscir (Esker More National School) built in Co. Offaly 1963 and now empty. This is an example of the typical, modest educational buildings constructed throughout Ireland through the 1950s and 1960s.

Old buildings are reminders of culture and complexity. By seeing historic buildings, whether or not related to something famous or recognisably dramatic, you are able to witness the aesthetic and cultural history of an area, and thus gain a sense of permanency and heritage. This heritage comprises both the physical remains of the past, but also the associated stories and narratives. It can be said that no place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in such human memory: family stories, traditions and commemorations.
History and the material culture is preserved in, and nurtures personal identity, and enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation. They learn the stories of the many individuals and groups that have come before them and shaped the world in which they live. Buildings are an integral part of our material culture. Often it is only those buildings that are of historical importance or of architectural interest that are preserved and treasured, but all buildings have a story to tell.

Gurtovehy National School, Gortaveha townland near Lough Greaney in Co. Clare. This school house was built in 1920 to replace an earlier school building. It now lies empty by the roadside on the edge of the Slieve Aughty Mountains.


You can read The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning Part 2 here and The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning Part 3 here


Glassie, H. (2000) Vernacular Architecture Indiana University Press

3 thoughts on “The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 1”

  1. I applaud your observations . I am writing an historical journal based on features in the Irish countryside such as watch towers in Donegal . The attractive settings of National schools has always fascinated me especially in coastal areas . Thank you


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