Rural Settlement and Field Systems

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Rural Settlement and Field Systems

Rural settlement and field systems refer to the arrangements of farmsteads and their associated landholdings. Although the geographical and economic contexts of rural landscapes in Ireland have been substantially modified in the decades since World War II, earlier cultural and historical processes have been fundamental in shaping the template of rural settlement.

Rural settlement in Ireland at present is predominantly one of dispersal of houses across the face of the countryside. There are also limited examples of a variety of nucleated settlements in parts of the country. In restricted coastal districts of the west of Ireland and in isolated parts of mountainous regions elsewhere (in Tyrone, Louth, and Wicklow), there are remnants of house clusters of late origin; some localities in south Leinster have farm clusters of a different origin. Throughout rural Ireland there are also chapel villages, which are informal nucleations of school, shop, public house, and post office around Catholic churches. Finally, there are small, more formally planned villages that are often legacies of a local landed estate.

This legacy of rural settlement has been modified in the twentieth century by the Irish planning system, which has an important function in conserving or expanding the inherited settlement pattern. In many ways the dispersed pattern of settlement has resulted in local demand for further building in the countryside, and many pressured countrysides, especially around towns and cities, are characterized by ribbon development along the road network.

Through all these changes, however, the texture and scale of the rural settlement pattern reflect its evolution over time. Although the single isolated farm was a characteristic form of settlement in early historic Ireland, where the rath or ringfort predominated, modern settlement patterns largely originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when distances were short and communities were largely self-sufficient. Houses were sited in the midst of their farmland. Settlement growth was usually organic, reflecting the processes of farm fragmentation. The operation of the estate system locally may have been important in influencing the nature of settlement dispersal. The clustering of laborers' houses on some estates frequently accompanied dispersed large farmsteads, and although huge sections of the landless population emigrated in the nineteenth century, county-council cottage schemes in the east mirror these settlements in the early twenty-first century. In large parts of the west and many more marginal areas, where the controlling hand of the estates was largely absent (like the landlord himself), local clustered settlements grew up haphazardly in response to adverse environmental conditions. Many of these clusters (or clachans) grew out of one or two original houses, with land being fragmented and subdivided among offspring, until clusters of thirty or forty cabins resulted, with a few surnames predominating. Most of these experienced attrition in the postfamine years, and only in places like Achill (in Mayo) or Gweedore (in Donegal), can residual features of this historical pattern be seen. In some regions of Norman colonization, especially in south Leinster and east Munster, older farm villages developed from manorial times, many of which were abandoned in the later medieval period or were dispersed during eighteenth-century improvements.

Rural settlement was closely connected with various methods of managing the farm holdings that were associated with the settlement. The basic ingredient of patchwork and hedged fields in the modern Irish countryside is largely a product of local tenant initiative as well as of landlord commitment to the modernization of agriculture from the eighteenth century. Enclosure of the land with farmhouses located centrally in their fields became the hallmark of improvement. Field size, ranging from miniscule plots of stone wall–enclosed gardens in Connemara to extensive enclosures of twenty or thirty acres with drainage ditches in parts of Leinster, reflects the historical impact of the local agricultural economy and estate management, as well as the consequences of local demographic expansion or contraction. Commercial tillage, dairying, and cattle grazing all required varying arrangements of fields and farmhouses. Areas of rapid population expansion in the prefamine period also resulted in fragmentation of farms and fields, and periods of continuous emigration subsequently resulted in consolidation or abandonment of settlement landscapes.

This essentially modern individualized field system succeeded earlier systems that accompanied premodern settlement structures. As in much of Europe, open-field systems were most prevalent before the eighteenth century, when the land lay largely unenclosed, with each farmer's portion held in scattered intermingled plots, usually separated by low baulks. In the richer eastern portions of the island, where the manorial system flourished, the open fields resembled those of Europe, with the strips of land belonging to the village farmers lying in two or more extensive "fields," each cultivated with the same crop on an agreed cycle. Subsequently, piecemeal enclosure of these open fields occurred, so that in some parts of the Pale the long, narrow medieval strips were fossilized as modern hedged enclosures. In general however, from the eighteenth century wholesale land reform saw the obliteration of the open fields and their nucleated villages.

The other form of open field in Ireland was associated with the nineteenth-century farm clusters on more marginal landscapes—clusters that developed as late responses to population growth in these poorer places. These small peasant communities worked their surrounding open fields on a simple "infield" and "outfield" system, called the rundale system. The most productive land close to the village was the infield, in which scattered small plots of the farmers were worked communally. The outfield farther out was cultivated occasionally but more frequently as population expanded. Plots consisted of ridges termed lazy beds (because of the simple way in which they were made) separated by small boundary markers. Both areas were symbiotically linked with extensive commonage, frequently surrounding moorland or mountain, which was often used for summer pasturing of animals in a transhumance system known in parts of the country as booleying (from for cow). A farm cluster at Rathlackan in County Mayo in the early twentieth century had fiftysix families whose land was scattered in 1,500 small fragments. These rundale field systems were generally remodeled in the postfamine decades either by landlords who wished to reform their estates on more efficient lines or by the state's Congested Districts Board. In all cases the small, scattered plots of land were consolidated into modern fields enclosed by a hedge or stone wall to make up contiguous fields, which were then allocated to individual farmers relocated in houses strung out along new roads. This process frequently accompanied the granting of outright ownership of the farms to the farmers under the Land Acts and represented a revolution in the Irish rural landscape.

SEE ALSO Bogs and Drainage; Clachans; Estates and Demesnes; Landscape and Settlement; Raths


Aalen, Frederick H. A., and Kevin Whelan. "Fields." In Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, edited by Frederick H. A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Mathew Stout. 1997.

Duffy, Patrick J. "Trends in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Settlement." In A History of Settlement in Ireland, edited by Terry Barry. 2000.

Evans, Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. 1957.

Whelan, Kevin. "Towns and Villages." In Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, edited by Frederick H. A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan, and Mathew Stout. 1997.

Patrick J. Duffy