Time to mend our old farm buildings


Until next Friday, finance is still available for Reps 4, a scheme that helps farmers to preserve old buildings on their land so this heritage can be passed on to future generations

WHEN FOCUSING on Ireland’s built rural heritage, there is often a tendency not to look beyond the farmhouse or thatched cottage, as the only dwelling of architectural merit worth investing in and protecting.

While protected status extends to these dwellings and their value to heritage and culture of an area is acknowledged, farm buildings standing adjacent, some of which may be hundreds of years old, can be knocked down on a whim. As farming practices and techniques have changed and adopted in the past half century, farmers have found that older outhouses and structures, particularly those pre-1960, are often unsuited to modern farming. Old barns are too low to enable large tractors enter and retrieve animal feed, while health and safety regulation means that old calving or pig sheds are now outdated and unviable. Many of these farm buildings, from milking parlours to poultry sheds, coach houses to hay lofts, are fast disappearing from our agricultural built heritage.

Those that remain stand as testaments to Irish craftsmanship, and materials that were used were often quarried or sourced locally. With money too tight to mention now in farming circles, there seems to be little incentive to maintained and repair these buildings, with little use for them other than for basic storage.

THE REPS 4 scheme, which closes next Friday, is giving farmers an opportunity to maintain the built heritage on their farm and support the structural culture and heritage of the Irish countryside. The scheme exists to provide assistance to farmers who want to preserve their traditional farm buildings, ie those which pre-date 1960 and are used for agriculture. Many of the buildings contain stone, timber, slate or thatch, and grants are available to carry out conservation work to the exterior of such buildings. The grant will cover up to 73 per cent of the cost, and awards vary between €5,000 and €25,000.

Outlining the case for applying for the scheme, Isabel Smyth, from the Heritage Council, says, “Unfortunately many our traditional farm buildings have been lost through neglect. Their timely repair prevents dilapidation and the onset of serious structural problems, which may lead to expensive restoration in the future.’’

But will anyone be able to afford to participate in the scheme? And what use can be made of these buildings once they are restored? Dick Cronin, conservation officer for Co Clare, outlines the importance of these buildings and gives one reason why they may be protected and restored by individual farmers, despite the economic climate. “One example of their importance is in the roofs of many of these buildings. In west Clare, numerous quarries produced local slate, such as Liscannor, Doolin, and Kilrush. It might have started in the 15th century and continued until the early 20th. That’s a long local tradition. Obviously there is no huge urge to restore these structures, and it is hard to get finance in the current climate. So financially there isn’t a huge amount of incentive, except perhaps the fact that the farmer’s grandfather, or great grandfather might have put the building there. That is often a strong reason to maintain them,” he says.

AS WITH TRADITIONAL farmhouses and cottages, these structure and their uses are linked to a different time, when needs were simpler, hence their rapid decline in the past three decades. “I suppose the main problem is that they were too small. Even the old farmhouse or cottage is about 400-550 sq ft. Nowadays people seem to need 2000 sq ft to live. But like the outbuildings, the cottages are in decline also. We’re talking about thousands of buildings in Clare alone in decline. And these were very well built in their time,” says Cronin.

One farmer who is restoring his farm’s outbuildings is Co Laois native Pat Tierney who, along with architect Laura Bowen, is midway through restoration work on an old barn. “We’re aiming to keep the character of the building, which is about 150-200 years old. I can’t put an age on it exactly or a name as to who built it. That has been lost with time. My uncle Richard, who is 98 years old, came out to see it the other day, and he was thrilled to see it being restored using traditional materials and methods. It’s all too easy to knock down and forget about these buildings. But they are important for the generation that is to follow.”

Pat says he will most likely use the barn for storage once it has been restored. “I think these old buildings have great potential for re-use such as storing animal feed or equipment. The original building was an old barn, with one side for a horse and the other side for carts. Upstairs there was a small loft for feeds and that. It would be very easy to knock this all down with a JCB and turn it into a cement yard and it would be gone forever. These buildings feature in our landscape and are a link with the past. They are also a reminder of how ancestors worked and farmed and lived.”

Also in Co Laois, near Stradbally, farmer Pat Farrell and his brother Tom have successfully restored a building on their farm, which dated back to the late 19th century. “There was a date of 1871 on the building. We decided to re-roof it and applied for a grant and finished the job last year. I think we did it because I just couldn’t bear to get up some morning to find the roof had fallen in. It was a lovely old stone building.”

While the building may please aesthetically, in terms of function, its use has now altered significantly. “I remember my father talking about having horses in here, with a loft, and other parts used for storing cattle. It wouldn’t be used for cattle production now. Apart from the regulations, it just wouldn’t be feasible. It would be very labour-intensive.”

Where possible, Pat stuck to old-style building methods in the restoration. Almost half the slates on the roof had to be replaced, and he sourced replacement slates in Portlaoise.

A TRADITIONALlime-mortar mix was used on the exterior and Pat and his brother Tom carried out any stonework that needed to be done. But would they have been able to afford the job in today’s financial climate?

“Today, I think we probably would still do it, given that the grant covers half the costs. Having said that, it would be harder now. I could still do it if I got the finance. When you think of it, borrowing say €20,000 over 20 years for a building like that is not a fortune. Of course, there are a lot of pressures on farm incomes at the moment. Really though, it comes down to the fact that you’d hate to see something falling into decay in your lifetime. I always think it’s better to pass things on in better condition that you got them.”

The Heritage Council says it has been inundated with applications for the Reps 4 scheme. Part of the success of the scheme is that if certain traditional building skills are not readily available, funds are also provided for upskilling of property owners. Some of the buildings that have been repaired under the scheme may have been up to 500 years old. Anna Meehan, project manager of the Reps scheme, says these buildings are part of the vernacular of the Irish countryside and should be persevered. Last year the scheme supported upwards of 50 projects, with more than 200 grant applications. “Some farmers tell us they have an emotional attachment to these buildings,” says Meehan.

“The holding may have been in the family for 150 years and generations of the family have been maintaining the structures. We’re just happy to play our part in facilitating that process.”

For more information, see heritagecouncil.ie