Layers of meaning: the complex case of a Wexford farmstead Bairbre Ni Fhloinn I feel that I should say a few words of introduction before beginning to read my paper, as I think that I might be the only person at this Conference who comes from a background of folkloristics and ethnology, and I believe that these disciplines probably have a unique perspective to offer on the theme of this Symposium. I teach Irish Folklore in University College Dublin, where it is possible to take the subject as a full undergraduate programme in its own right, and at postgraduate level all the way up to PhD. The University also houses the National Folklore Collection of Ireland, which is, quite simply, one of the largest archives of oral tradition anywhere in the
documentation on all aspects of the traditional popular culture of Ireland. At this point, I want to say a brief word about definitions and terminology, as the word ‘folklore’ is, I believe, an unfortunate term in many respects, in that it does not really reflect what the subject is about, and what the study of the subject encompasses. The Irish term, béaloideas, which translates literally as oral education, is a much more preferable term. A good definition of the subject as an area of research is as follows: the study of folklore, oral tradition and ethnology consists of the study of the historical relationship between people and their environment, whether that environment be physical, economic, social
understanding of what the study of folklore comprises is illustrated very well in a book which has often been described as the vade mecum of Irish folkore studies, the Handbook of Irish Folklore, published originally in
1942, just seven years after the establishment of the Irish Folklore Commission. There are 14 chapters in the 700 pages of this volume, encompassing all aspects of tangible and intangible popular tradition, including, for example, field systems, settlement patterns, vernacular buildings, work practices, trade, travel and transport, social life, calendar observance, belief systems, oral narrative, oral history, folk medicine, and also, of course, music, song and dance, a category which includes the playing of the iconic Irish instrument, the uileann pipes, which would be seen by many as a particularly valuable example of intangible culture in an Irish context. In other words, for the folklorist, the idea of the interconnectedness of the intangible and tangible aspects of cultural heritage is something which we simply take for granted. How could it possibly be otherwise? In this paper, I want to focus on this interconnectedness with specific reference to examples of the built vernacular in Ireland, and to the handling and management of those aspects in conservation terms. What I have to say is largely based on my own experience of working with such buildings, and on a lifetime of interest in the subject. I chose the title, â€˜Layers of Meaningâ€™, for my talk because I feel that it encapsulates the notion of cultural heritage as a multi-stratified phenomenon, existing on many different levels, involving not just bricks and mortar but also the hopes, fears, memories and dreams of the individuals and communities to whom the heritage belongs. The title was also partly inspired by one of the places I want to talk about Âżtoday, a farmhouse situated at Mayglass, in Co. Wexford, which was the focus of a major conservation project embarked upon by the Heritage Council of Ireland in the late 1990s. The house and associated outbuildings might be described as consisting of layer upon layer of accretions of all kinds, in both the physical and metaphysical sense. For a start, Mayglass is built primarily of earth, which means that the very walls of the house and outhouses consist of tempered clay and mud
brick, built layer upon layer. The thatched roofs which cover the buildings likewise consisted originally of many layers of various types of straw, the newer ones built upon – and acting as protection to – the older. Inside the house also, the walls of the parlour and other parts of the house are covered in layer upon layer of wallpaper, representing generations of domestic pride and attention to appearance and concern for social standing. In addition to these physical layers, however, Mayglass also comprises layers of a more intangible nature, as we will see. As a remarkable representation of several aspects of the built vernacular heritage, Mayglass has long been recognised. The earthen walls, the underfloor draft-control system, the mud-brick chimney canopy, the brick-lined wall-oven – all of these elements and many others were duly conserved and cared for by experts in various specialised fields, as part of the Heritage Council’s project. The conservation of physical elements such as these might be seen as the easy part of the exercise in some respects, in that experiments can be carried out on tangible substances, and materials can be tested, in a relatively straightforward, scientific way. The handling and treatment of the more abstract aspects of heritage presents us with a greater challenge, however. Here we are dealing with much more ethereal and elusive categories of culture, which do not lend themselves to easily quantifiable analysis. If we look up the word ‘intangible’ in one of the popular online dictionaries, we find ‘invisible’ as one of the given synonyms. So how do we preserve that which we cannot see? As an apposite example of just such an intangible aspect of heritage, and before I start talking about Mayglass, I would like to mention an experience I had some years ago when working with vernacular buildings in the opposite corner of the country to Co. Wexford. On this occasion, I was involved in a pilot survey of traditional houses in the north-west of Ireland, in north County Sligo and County
Leitrim, to be precise. This project was funded by the Office of Public Works, a State body, and particular mention should be made here of architect Paul McMahon, a long-standing member of ICOMOS, and to heritage consultan – and folklorist, let it be said – Jack Harrison, without whose vision (in both cases) the project would not have happened. Among the buildings surveyed, there was a fine example of a stone-built dwelling-house, located on the lower slopes of the Dartry range of mountains of which Ben Bulben forms a part – that peak which figures so prominently in Irish myth and legend and in the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Interestingly, although not at all untypically, the house had been built with stone from the face of the mountain slope behind it, thus representing an artefact which had emanated not only from the culture of the local community, but from the natural environment of the locality as well. The house was typical of vernacular dwellings in the
accommodation located on either side of a central living area, or kitchen, as it would always be termed in Ireland. The house had recessed furniture and a bed-outshot, both also typical of vernacular houses in that region. The only thing that really distinguished the house from many of those around it was the particularly high level of craftsmanship evidenced in the stonework. This was a very solid, wellbuilt house, of the usual modest size and proportions, but clearly fit for purpose and combining functionalism with an aesthetic sensibility in the way that vernacular buildings so often do. As part of the survey, my co-worker and I measured the house, took photographs, did rough sketch-plans etc., as would be normal in basic documentation of this type. We also enquired from local people about the history of the house and the people who had lived there before it was abandoned, and discovered that the former occupants were quite successful market gardeners, albeit on a small scale. On looking at the house with two local men, one of them commented, in
a very matter-of-fact way, that there was something out-of-theordinary about a very ordinary looking passageway which ran between the external gable wall of the house at one end, and a small stone-built outhouse which had originally been used to keep pigs. The passageway was very narrow, only a couple of feet in width, but Séamus Moore, my local informant, and a man with a profound understanding of the importance of the intangible, indicated that the passageway always had to be kept clear and unimpeded, for reasons that were left ominously unspecified. It transpired on further enquiry that this humble passageway was, in popular belief, associated with the otherworld in local tradition, and with preternatural activity of some kind. For this reason, it had to be treated with all due care and respect, not to mention a certain degree of caution. Both of the men who commented on this feature were themselves born and raised quite near to the house in question. Nobody from officialdom had ever bothered with the house before as a structure of interest, and Séamus Moore, in particular, was extremely pleased that the building was at last, and at least, being documented in some form. So how does one represent this most interesting and most intangible of features on an architectural drawing or plan? Is there a conventional
conservationists use in order to indicate a fairy pathway? And how should one go about the conservation or preservation of this item of tradition? And let’s try to be precise here. What is it exactly that we are trying to keep? Are we trying to ensure that local people continue to believe that this little passageway has, or at least had, an otherworld connection? And if so, do we believe that ourselves? And if we don’t, why should we ask or expect or encourage other people to do so? The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day – and thankfully – we cannot dictate or demand what people believe or do not believe. That is obviously a matter for themselves. What we can do,
however, as conservationists, is to ensure that the belief about this little passageway is documented as an intrinsic part of the history of the house, just as surely as the stone-work, the bed outshot, the magnificent hearth and the structure of the roof timbers. But how should this documentation be done, given that there is a definite intimacy attaching to this tradition? The idea of erecting a sign over the passageway with the words ‘Supernatural Pathway’ would be ludicrous and totally alien to the way in which the belief was communicated to me, and the way in which it had undoubtedly been transmitted by word of mouth probably for generations before that. Such a sign would be tacky and trite. It would trivialize and seriously misrepresent the belief and the nuances it contains, and would stand at the furthest remove from the subtlety of the little item of intangibe tradition which it would herald so brashly. And in any case, who would the sign be for? The site is in ruins and the house abandoned. It stands at the side of a laneway which is used by only a handful of people on a regular basis. So what purpose would it serve? And how would the local people feel about this publicizing of an aspect of their collective history which might be described as belonging to the private domain of the immediate community? They might be happy with the notion, but then again, they might not, and who are we, ‘from Dublin’, to make that decision for them? So here we have the dilemma of the conservationist as representative of the official domain of policy and procedure, trying to make decisions with regard to an aspect of culture which is essentially and intrinsically outside of the official world of the State and its dictates. This in turn brings us to a fundamental problem of ideology and approach: by interfering in however small a way with the natural process and evolution of popular culture and tradition, whether in the field of vernacular buildings or in other areas of collective tradition, we immediately and irrevocably alter the nature of that tradition and make it into something different. It becomes part of
the official cannon of documentation and loses the intimacy which gave it meaning and function as part of the fabric of local custom and belief. I understand that we can all too easily become over-anxious about questions such as this, and that too much agonizing on matters of this nature might even act as a force for paralysis in our efforts to get things right. But here we are dealing with very real questions of ethics and attitudes, and with a certain dichotomy which might be seen to exist between the official and the unofficial, the hegemonic and what folklorists would call the subaltern. Here we are touching on an important aspect of what might be called the philosophy of conservation with regard to the intangible aspects of cultural heritage in the context of the vernacular. We can see, in other words, that the little passageway beside our house in north Co. Sligo presents a whole raft of questions and challenges with regard to our treatment of such issues, and raises questions which have echoes far beyond the range of the Dartry mountains in Co. Sligo and possibly even in the mountain ranges of Veracruz and Mexico. Indeed, it seems particularly appropriate to talk of such matters in Mexico, given that the Charter on the Built Vernacular Heritage was drawn up here in 1999 and subsequently adopted by ICOMOS internationally. This Charter clearly enunciates the importance of vernacular buildings in heritage terms, describing such buildings as ‘the fundamental expression of the culture of a community, of its relationships with its territories and, at the same time, the expression of the world’s cultural diversities’. The Charter also touches on another distinguishing feature of the built vernacular heritage, which is particularly relevant to the Mayglass farmstead of which I’m going to speak. That is, the fact that they pertain to the present or to the very recent past. As the Mexico Charter proclaims (and I am paraphrasing very slightly here): ‘Vernacular buildings are both a record of the history
of society . . . and a focus of contemporary life’. In other words, they’re not dead. Or at least not pertaining essentially to the past in the way that many archaeological monuments and other historic structures and sites are. At the risk of sounding unduly negative, we have at this stage identified two dimensions relating to vernacular buildings which make them different to other monuments and sites of a type with which ICOMOS and other conservationists are concerned. First of all, and as I just mentioned, they are not dead, or not dead enough to mean that we can do with them as we might wish, without reference to contemporary concerns and issues. Secondly, they have, by definition, a populist and a collective dimension attaching to them which immediately demands that any decision which might be taken by conservationists must be done in consultation with the community which produced the buildings. It should go without saying that experts in the field should not be expected to make plans as to how the architectural expressions of communities should be preserved and represented without due reference to the communities themselves. As expressed so well by Marilyn Truscott in her speech in India last year: ‘We need to find bridges to facilitate joint approaches at official levels that enhance community cohesive approaches’. The call for papers for the present conference also emphasizes the importance of community involvement in conservation issues, stating the necessity for ‘the rights of the relevant community to be acknowledged, and their right to decide the use of their living heritage’ (in reference to intellectual copyright, but the principal is, presumably, applicable to other aspects of conservation also). In saying this, of course, we must also be aware of the fact that in some cases, at least, the communities in question might well behave with complete indifference to their vernacular heritage, or even reject it outright - a scenario which must prompt its own agenda of difficult questions and ethical issues for the
conservationist. Vernacular buildings, in fact, for all their simplicity in architectural terms in many cases, often present us with a set of challenges of far greater complexity than do their more architecturally distinguished cousins, not least when it comes to the area of intangible culture. This is all by way of preamble and introduction to the buildings at Mayglass which I want to focus on here this morning. The Mayglass farmstead is of particular importance in terms of the relationship between Irish vernacular buildings and the State because Mayglass represents the first attempt on the part of a Government organisation to comprehensively conserve a structure specifically because of its importance as an example of the built vernacular heritage. In the period before the work on Mayglass began, there were a small number of vernacular houses around the country which were maintained and protected by the State, but this had been done because of the association of these places with historical personages of note, and not because of their significance as examples of vernacular building. The Mayglass project, therefore, represented an important new departure in terms of State recognition of the importance of the vernacular as part of the historic national building stock. This recognition took the form of a major conservation project organized by the Heritage Council, the body charged with promoting and protecting the heritage of the country, including its architectural monuments. The work carried out in Mayglass is, we are told, one of the most significant conservation projects ever to have been carried out by the Council, and the Council are entitled to the highest praise for the dedication and commitment which they showed towards the entire project, and for the excellence of their work. Mary Hanna, the principal architect in charge of the work, is entitled to special mention in this regard. Details of the work are available on a dedicated website at http://www.mayglass-2000.ie/index.html, and the project also gave
rise to a book-length publication in 2003. From the beginning, the Council placed emphasis on the operation at Mayglass as a learning resource, with a view to developing skills and experience which could be drawn on in subsequent conservation projects. Work on the conservation of the farmstead commenced in the spring of 1998, after a legal agreement was entered into between the Heritage Council and the owners of the house and farm, Leo and Eileen Casey. The house had been bequeathed to the Caseys by its previous owner, SĂŠamus Kirwan, who lived all of his long life there, from 1909 until 1996, and who had a particularly close relationship with Leo and Eileen and their family, who lived nearby. Small wonder, then, that he chose to leave his property to his neighbours when he died. The agreement between the Caseys and the State provided a legal basis for the Heritage Council to carry out major reconstruction and conservation work on the site, inolving the use of funding from a panEuropean Community heritage scheme which ran from 1997 to 2000. This was the Raphael Programme, designed to encourage cooperation for the protection, conservation and enhancement of Europeâ€™s cultural heritage. After a ten-year period, the house and outbuildings were to revert in full to private ownership. The Casey family benefited from this arrangement by having the house repaired at no cost to themselves, although it should be emphasized that the house, per se, was and is of little use to the family in practical terms, and certainly not in any financial sense. The Caseysâ€™ wish to have the house conserved, and their goodwill towards the entire project, has always been motivated solely by an appreciation of the history and tradition which the house represents. To describe the house itself, let me quote from a report which I wrote on the house back in 1989, in an attempt to arouse the interest of the authorities at the time:
Mayglass represents an astonishing survival of traditional architecture in that it has remained relatively unchanged over the last hundred years, not only in its structure, but also in the detail of its furniture and fittings. The house and outbuildings contain many rare and interesting features of the Irish built vernacular tradition … While one such feature would be of significance, the presence of so many at the Mayglass farm makes it a national treasure.1 The farmhouse is an example of a lobby-entry dwelling, to use a term now established in the study of Irish vernacular houses. This houseform is typical of the south-east of Ireland. It involves the alignment of front door and kitchen hearth, with a partition wall between hearth and door which serves to create and define a lobby area inside the door, thus establishing a barrier area between the internal, domestic space of the house, and the public space outside. The house is a storey and a half in height, with a hipped roof and a single loft window under the roof eaves in one of its gables. In the 1989 report, I went on to describe some of the features of the house as follows:
The walls are built of earth, a technique which is commonly found in the traditional architecture of the east of Ireland.
The kitchen has a clay floor, a feature once found in dwellings throughout the country, but which has now virtually disappeared.
There is a splendid example of a brick-lined oven in the hearth area of the kitchen; this was used primarily for baking bread.
There is an unusual draft-control system for the kitchen hearth in the form of underfloor channels opened and closed by means of wooden shutters. The hearth area also contains a wheel-bellows.
Ní Fhloinn quoted in Reeners, pp.13, 23.
The large hearth canopy is composed entirely of unfired mud bricks, supported by a large wooden lintel which was originally claimed as wreckage from the sea some miles away.
The house is thatched in a style indigenous to the locality; it is secured to the roof timbers by means of straw ropes.
The house has survived, not in isolation, but as part of a complete
traditional economy practised by its inhabitants.
As a means of portraying traditional life, the value of the house is greatly enhanced by the fact that it can be seen in the context of the outhouses, haggard and overall farm complex of which it forms a part.2
Mayglass is more than the sum of its physical parts, however. As well as the structural features just described, the house had also retained the furniture and fittings of previous eras to an extraordinary degree,
atmosphere in a way which could never be realized by even the most thoroughly researched reconstruction. This state of affairs arose partly because the house had never been connected to a supply of running water or electricity, resulting in the continued use of traditional means of cooking, cleaning, lighting and heating and their associated utensils and equipment. The kitchen dresser, the hearth furniture, the seating arrangements, the stone ‘stillion’ or receptacle for buckets of water, the blanket box carefully kept on an upstairs landing containing linen handcloths and tablecloths, and a baby’s christening robe - all these features were still in place and in use as part of the day-to-day life of the house. Personal effects and items of social, religious and aesthetic significance were to be found in every room. There were prayer-books and other devotional literature, items relating to local sporting teams 2
Ní Fhloinn quoted in Reeners, pp.22-23.
and heroes and to agricultural events, framed pictures of nineteenthcentury Irish statesmen hanging beside calendars from local hostelries and shops, as well as a plethora of religious iconography and images of many kinds, from medals and scapulars and a framed house blessing, to pictures of popes and saints, the Sacred Heart, St Therese of Lisieux and - somewhat interestingly in the present context - Our Lady of LujĂĄn, among many more. Placed to one side of the dresser was a small, homemade wooden shelf, acting as an altar, of a kind not uncommon in Irish houses, with a holy picture above it. In one photograph taken in 1990, the altar is decorated with pink roses in honour of the Feast of the Ascension. In another case, silver wrappers from Oxo cubes (stock cubes) were carefully kept and used to decorate a calendar displaying a picture of St Joseph and the Christ Child.3 With material of this kind, we are obviously dealing with much more than merely a collection of articles. The significance of such items lies to a large extent in the intangible domain of the beliefs and aspirations, the lives and deaths, the imagination and creativity of the people who lived in the house, raising questions for the conservationist which are far more demanding than those which have to do with the merely physical. When dealing with material of this nature, is it permissible or advisable for the conservationist to dismantle it all with a view to restoring it to the house after appropriate cleaning and treatment? Is it disrespectful to the beliefs and religious sensibilities of the owners of Mayglass over the years to treat such objects with the kind of clinical objectivity which such work demands? Or are there any realistic options to conventional conservation procedures of this kind as they have become established over the years? There are also the layers of wallpaper already referred to, probably representing, among other things, the celebration of Mass in 3
the house as part of the traditional Station rounds which are still part and parcel of life in many parishes throughout the country. This involves the saying of Mass by the local priest in each house in a given area every few years, all of which is organized in strict rotation, with the community then coming together both for the religious ceremony and as a social occasion. The Stations, as they are called, always involve a major spring-clean and re-decoration of those parts of the house which the neighbours will see, at least. So we’re not just looking at a work of paper conservation in these layers of wallpaper: instead, all human life is there, or at least a good slice of it, from personal pride to family status to the eagle-eyed inspection of the community. And how might a paper conservator be expected to convey all of that? And what of the snippet of oral history which links the house at Mayglass with the calamitous events of 1798 in that part of Ireland, when a popular uprising against English colonial rule was mercilessly crushed, involving huge loss of life on the part of the Irish and great cruelty on both sides. The nearby village of Mayglass had its own connections with the rebellion, as home to one of its heroes, Bagenal Harvey, who lies buried in the nearby churchyard following his execution. Oral tradition recorded from Séamus Kirwan is corroborated by archaeological investigation carred out at the site in its claim that the farmstead was in existence at the time of the rebellion, and had its own small role to play in local memories of the event. As Séamus Kirwas related: When the yeomen [English soldiers] were coming through Mayglass, they burned the chapel at Mayglass, and they fired into the thatch [of Séamus’s house]. And they said that the devil was in it! It wouldn’t burn! That’s what I always heard. That’s the old people saying that!4 Here we have a fragile link between the house and historical events of great significance, bringing those events to life with an 4
Ní Fhloinn 2003, p.61.
immediacy and an intimacy which the official record could never convey. More than that, this brief account might even be read by some as a metaphor representing Mayglass as the uncrushable spirit of the people, which the enemy could not destroy. And so this fragment of tradition represents yet another layer of the most intangible kind in the story of Mayglass, as part of the identity and personality of the place. On yet another level, but presenting their own unique challenges in conservation terms, there are what Séamus Kirwan described as the ‘calves’ bits’. On my first visit to Mayglass in 1989, I had the pleasure of meeting Séamus, who was then still living in the house, and I took the opportunity to interview him about his house and its background. The date of our meeting was in January, and I remember the day as being particularly cold. The interview was conducted, for the most part, in the warmth of the kitchen with the two of us sitting beside the fire. As the interview progressed, and as Séamus described the various features of the house, I noticed that there were a number of items tied to the rooftimbers of the house, which were clearly visible from the fireplace as the kitchen area had no ceiling. The items looked like little parcels tied to the rafters with string, and I presumed initially that they were religious scapulars, although I had never seen them employed in this way before. On asking Séamus about them, he replied with his usual openness and told me they were, as he called them, ‘calves’ bits’. Further enquiries revealed that they were, in fact, the afterbirths of calves which had been born on the farm over the years. As Séamus put it: The bit, they called it . . . That is, I believe, what the calf lived on before it was born, sucking that. That’s what I always heard. And they said if you found one, ‘twas lucky, ‘twas lucky for to have one. Them is ones I found, and I put them there in the pieces of cloth and tied them up there. They’re there for years. I suppose they’re gone into dust. Let them stop there.5 5
Ní Fhloinn 2003, p.69.
Dr Anne O’Dowd, curator with the National Museum of Ireland, describes these items as follows in an article she wrote following a visit to the house in later years: The moment I spotted the calves’ bits and counted them, I was aware that they were, and remain for me, the most powerful of all the artefacts in the house.6 In the same article, Anne O’Dowd goes on to describe the dilemmas which she and the conservators faced in dealing with these objects, of which there were twelve in total. Should they be removed and subjected to scientific examination and conservation? Was there not an element of the sacred about them which carried the notion that they should be left untouched and undefiled? Was Séámus Kirwan unconsciously offering advice, or even making a plea, in his comments: ‘I put them there in the pieces of cloth and tied them up there. They’re there for years … Let them stop there’. To cut a long story short, the calves’ bits did not end up stopping there, rightly or wrongly. Eventually, and not without a great deal of deliberation, they were removed from the rafters of the house, in order to enable conservation work to be carried out on the roof-timbers. As an initial step, the outer wrappings of the parcels, some consisting of paper and some of textile, were treated by the conservators. A decision was then taken to open a small number of the packages and to subject them to scientific analysis. The results of the analysis were somewhat inconclusive in most cases, but the contents of one of the five packages which were analysed did produce evidence of bovine tissue, thus confirming Séamus Kirwan’s account. Anne O’Dowd, in her article on the subject, has written of the documentation of analogous practices from other parts of Ireland, which act as further corroboration for, and contextualisaion of, Séamus’s account.
O’Dowd p. 105.
The challenges attaching to the conservation of Mayglass do not end there, however. I mentioned already my experience of the warmth and comfort of the house on a cold January day with a large fire blazing in the open hearth. As with all traditional Irish houses, the main hearth of the house, in the kitchen, was always the heart of the house, as described by Kevin Danaher, Irelandâ€™s best known writer on vernacular buildings. The kitchen hearth acted as the focus of social and family life as well as all kinds of domestic activity, from cooking, baking and storage, to heating water. Traditionally, the fire was always kept lighting, covered over with ashes at night when the family was retiring, often to the accompaniment of a traditional prayer, continuing to heat the house throughout the night and re-kindled in the morning as the day began. A traditional house without a fire was almost unthinkable -
a cold and gloomy place, without life. And yet
this is just what happened to the house in Mayglass as the conservation work progressed. In conservation terms, the idea of lighting a fire in a thatched house was heresy of the highest order, perceived of as constituting a serious fire-hazard. For this reason the house was left without a fire for many years, a sad anomaly, and one to which there was no easy answer, but obviously presenting an irony of the same magnitude as the fire-hazard of the open hearth. In conserving the house at Mayglass, the â€˜expertsâ€™, including myself, had in fact succeeded in extinguishing the very heart of the house, so that its essential ambience and atmosphere, its spirit and warmth, were utterly changed. Mayglass was no longer a living part of an ongoing continuum of tradition, but a dead museum piece, to be examined and poked at, dissected and analysed. And yet what were the options?
Without the intervention of the Heritage Council, there is
every probability that the house would now be no more, that natural processes and the ravages of the weather would have taken their toll to return the house to the dust from whence it came. And would that
really be preferable to the present situation, far from ideal as it is? I would have to say no. And what of the future of Mayglass? The house has now reverted to private ownership, as was originally agreed, and Leo and Eileen Casey are left to shoulder the not inconsiderable responsibility of managing and maintaining the property. The buildings are protected under Irish legislation as historical structures of significance, but the State and local authorities appear unable to offer the Caseys any very significant practical help towards the upkeep of the farmstead, at present, at least. The Caseys are not wealthy people, and they have shown a very genuine concern for the house at Mayglass ever since it was bequeathed to them. The house has been open to interested members of the public on a limited basis, by prior arrangement, since the Heritage Council completed its work there a number of years ago. Today, the Caseys continue to welcome visitors to the house, and to show them around the buildings as best they can. The Caseys are not insured for public liability, however, and parts of the house, such as the staircase, would most definitely not comply with health and safety requirements of the present day. Opening the house to the public on a paying basis would not generate a signicificant income in any case, so the future of the farmstead remains uncertain as we speak. These then are some of the many layers of Mayglass: the tangible and the intangible, the spiritual and the physical, the aesthetic and the practical, the individual, the private and the collective, all of them contributing in their own way to that elusive and most intangible of qualities which we speak of as ‘a sense of place’? The Charter on the Built Vernacular Heritage talks of the qualities inherent in vernacular buildings and of the necessity to conserve ‘those traditional harmonies which consititute the core of man’s own existence’. The Mayglass complex and others like it challenge us to preserve this vital cultural expression in a way which neither patronises
nor romanticizes, which neither dictates nor imposes, but manages instead to reflect the ‘complex reality’ of our cultural heritage. The inseparability of the tangible and intangible aspects of our culture is central to that challenge. FIN
Ni Fhloinn, B. and G. Dennison, Traditional Architecture in Ireland and its Role in Rural Development and Tourism, Dublin 1994. Ni Fhloinn, B., ‘Mayglass: some evidence from the oral record. Séamus Kirwan talks about his house and its history’, in R. Reeners, 2003, pp. 5676. O’Dowd, A., ‘Séamus Kirwan’s Home: its furniture and furnishings and a contribution to the tradition of the greim gamhna’, in R. Reeners, 2003, pp. 93-120. Reeners, R., A Wexford Farmstead. The Conservation of an 18th-Century Farmstead in County Wexford, Kilkenny 2003.