Another Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork 2)

The hand-forged wrought iron farm gate, featured in last week’s post, was once ubiquitous around West Cork, mostly made by local blacksmiths. Perhaps enterprising blacksmiths also mass-produced gates, which were then sold by local shops. In Ballydehob, for example, around 1890, Wolfe’s shop was selling this gate, captured by the photographer Robert French and now part of the Lawrence Collection at the National Library of Ireland (used with their permission).

To understand the technology and skill that went into making and repairing these gates, take a look at this video, the follow-on to last week’s, from Shem Caulfield in Kilkenny. (If you haven’t already seen Part 1, check back on it now for diagrams of what I will be talking about.)

Forge-welding, as illustrated in the video, can be seen in this gate (below), located on the Twelve Arch Bridge in Ballydehob, separating the bridge from what was once the railway station.

The hooped strengthening bars are a very common element in West Cork vernacular gates, but in this case, you can clearly see that the loops have been added by forge-welding. The other thing about this gate is the perfection and uniformity of the twists – a very skilful job indeed. And not a rivet in sight – each joint appears to be forge-welded.

A more common, and perhaps more traditional approach was to make these looped strengthening bars by bending one continuous length of iron and attaching them to the cross bars with rivets. This beautiful gate (above), still in situ in Ballybane, near Ballydehob, illustrates this.

In this photograph you can see that the cross bars are joined to the slapping stile with a mortice and tenon joint. In the forge the stile is heated until a hole can be punched through it. The end of the bar is inserted into this hole and then hammered flat to fix it in place.

Using the same mortice and tenon technique, a heel is affixed to the top (and sometimes the bottom bar) to further strengthen and hang the gate and prevent sagging. Across the road from this gate is an identical one (below) where only half the original gate remains – how wonderful that it is still kept in place!

Entrance gates performed a different function than a farm or field gate. The height of a field gate accommodated the head of a horse or a cow to look over it. Entrance gates, understandably, were often made to deter anyone from going over them. They were taller and certainly less inviting to a climber. I spotted this lovely red set in Rossmore – you can see all the traits of the hand-forged gate in them.

But entrance gates were also designed to make a more prestigious statement about the people going through them or the house behind them. This beautiful set of gates (below) is on the road up to Brow Head and is definitely made to impress. My favourite part is that there is a discrete pedestrian gate built in to them.

Finally, a couple of garden gates – perfect for leaning across for the chat with the neighbours. This one is next door to me, rescued and re-purposed by my friend Hildegard. I love the way the stiles have been split – such a simple way to create a decorative element.

And how about this one, spotted at Coolkelure? A few simple twists and a couple of scrolls and you’ve got a pretty little gate that will last forever.

Over the course of the twentieth century hand-forged entrance gates gave way to cast-iron gates made in foundries and eventually to mass-produced and imported varieties, bought from a catalogue. Meanwhile, farmers bought the tubular steel gates that are everywhere around us. When you see those gates, remember that they have probably replaced a hand-forged example of the blacksmith’s skill, such as the ones in Brian Lalor’s engraving below, which conjures up for me such a feeling for a lost tradition.

© Brian Lalor, used with permission

A Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork)

If you look closely, all around the Irish countryside are still scattered old wrought iron gates made by local blacksmiths. These gates, according to Shem Caulfied, “are particular to Ireland. . .  and their design often illustrates a distinctive local style. This local or vernacular style is an important element of our rural heritage.” Shem has produced lovely videos for the Kilkenny Co Council on forged gates – see the first one here as a good introduction to these gates.

I’ve been looking out for farm gates to see if I can identify a local style. So far I haven’t found any of the hooped braces which are the dominant kind in some parts. This illustration (and the others in this post) is from an article in a 1974 Ireland of the Welcomes by Gerald Tyler, designer and architectural historian, who worked with the Kilkenny Design Workshop. The article has given me the vocabulary and some of the knowledge I need to look at these gates. By the way, the gate was assembled ‘out of square’ so that as it naturally sagged it would come into square.

Local blacksmiths around this part of West Cork kept the design straightforward and sturdy. Some gates had no bracing at all. The one below is the simplest of all types – three upright stiles and five bars. The stile on the left is the hanging stile and the one on the right, where the latch is, is the ‘slapping’ stile.

But most gates had diagonal braces of one kind or another. Here are a few local examples.

Above is the only example I have seen with parallel diagonal braces.

This gate has an X brace, but an additional half stile was also inserted at some point.

A favourite way to brace was a pair of up-pointing diagonals. This gate is barely hanging in. The spikes on top may have been to deter cattle or horses from leaning over the top bar, or maybe small boys from climbing.

The diagonals could be down-pointing, as in the example above, which is actually a double gate. This gate is made of band iron which was often used (or straightened and re-used from old wheels). In cross section, it’s flat on one side and curved on the other, making it easily recognisable. The curved side was the one in contact with the road when it was used on wheels. Many of our local gates are band iron, or a combination of straight iron and band iron.

Gates often had to be widened to allow for modern machinery.  The gate above and the one in the illustration have been widened by the insertion of extra lengths of iron in the horizontal bars. Often this is so skilfully done that it’s imperceptible.

This gate has been widened by the addition of a new section on the slapping side.

This double gate, which has no cross-bracing, only vertical stiles, has been widened by adding a section in the middle, attached to the left hand side. Did the farmer regret having no easy way to just hop over the gate and take the opportunity to put in a set of steps?

The gate in my lead photograph features mainly half stiles, but was once a lot fancier than it is now. The gate above has both full-height stiles and a diagonal brace and has been paired with a newer steel gate – you see this a lot around here.

Some gates had extra horizontal bars at the bottom to prevent small animals (calves or sheep) from squirming through the openings. Above is a lovely example from a local farmyard.

I have been amazed, and cheered, to see how many wrought iron gates are still to be found around here, although sometimes you have to poke around a bit to find them, as in the example above. . However, they are disappearing, and the vast majority have been replaced by the ubiquitous tubular steel gates. I am planning a further post to explore some of the skills of the blacksmiths to be seen in the details of our local gates. Meanwhile, take a look at how Pat O’Driscoll still works in the time-honoured way in his forge, now located in Durrus.

A Lick of Paint

blue long distance

What does it mean to say that a house is “set well into the landcape?” On the West Coast of Canada, where I used to live, it usually meant that a house was invisible, often made of wood and blending into the trees. But here in rural West Cork, buildings are more assertive – we ARE the landscape, they seem to say, or at least an important part of it. Therefore we should stand out and be seen. Part of being seen, for many houses in the countryside, is choosing a bright colour. Ah sure, they say, all it needs is a lick of paint.

Crookhaven

Crookhaven


I’ve written before about the colourful towns and villages dotted all over Ireland. Coming around a bend in the road and catching sight of a village is a cheering experience: flashes of colour spread in a line across a backdrop of green fields or rugged mountains. But colour isn’t confined to towns – farmhouses in the deep countryside can suddenly demand attention – pops of colour in a predominantly green terrain. 

Blue seems to be a favourite – and we are not talking here about a pale blue or grey blue. No – duck egg or cobalt blues predominate. The blue is weathering and fading a bit in the house below but it still packs a punch in its isolated setting.

Sometimes blue is used on one side of the house only, or on selective aspects – a gate post or a shutter.

One of my favourites is this house, the colour of a ripe apricot. It is visible from a long way off and always seems to be incandescent on its hillside, as if permanently lit by a setting sun. Close up, I found it has jade green trim, making it even more handsome than it appears from a distance.

apricot distant

That colour is also one of the most recognisable in West Cork because it’s the colour of Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. When the castle was being rendered, Irons used a lime mortar in order to waterproof the masonry: the mortar has a distinctive peach tone. Although controversial at the time, it is fair to say that West Cork folk have come to enjoy the sight of this wonderful restored 13th Century castle permanently glowing on its tiny island.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle

Pinks range from soft and pastel to the colour of fuchsia.

I particularly like the pink-on-pink trim of the farmhouse below left, and the candy-coloured house with its blue trim.

Yellow shows up well against a green hill. The first house below belongs to our friends the Camiers, who run the marvellous Gortnagrough Folk Museum. The second one is on the Sheep’s Head (photo by Amanda Clarke).

There are shades of salmon and coral that seem to suit old houses very well. Left, below, is the old school house in Rossbrin, now a private residence, and right is the Ballydehob Rectory, particularly attractive with its green trim.

I’ve found red to be reserved mostly for doors, trim and spot colour, but my friend Amanda Clarke found this old farmhouse on the Sheep’s Head. Take a look at her site, Sheep’s Head Places for examples of vernacular farm buildings. 

Old farmhouse, Sheep's Head

Old farmhouse, Sheep’s Head*

Renovations never stop – I did wonder what colour this one would end up. Now I know!

Going through the spectrum

Going through the spectrum

But this one, unless miracles happen, will see no more paint. Then again, it’s right beside a holy well, so maybe…

Generations of colour

Generations of colour

 *Many thanks to Amanda Clarke for the use of the asterisked photographs