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Archaeologists in County Clare believe they have discovered Ireland’s earliest surviving example of a timber framed house. Dendrochronological analysis is expected to conclude that the timber structure at Chapel Lane, Parnell Street, Ennis, dates back to the late 16th century.
Ms. Irene Clune’s house, known as McParland’s is long understood to have been the oldest inhabited house in the Clare County capital. The building’s triple diamond stone Jacobean chimney has been an icon of medieval Ennis for centuries.
The house was first inspected in 2008 by Clare County Council’s Conservation Officer, who recommended that the property undergo structural repair work. Following detailed technical analyses by the National Monuments Service, officials from Ennis Town Council and Consulting Conservation Engineers, it was concluded that the structure was unstable and represented a danger to the general public.
Ennis Town Council, using its statutory powers to deal with dangerous buildings, commenced a €170,000 project to make the building safe and to protect and restore the historic fabric of the structure. A grant of €85,000 was procured under the “Structures at Risk Scheme” from the Department of the Environment towards the restoration project.
During October 2011, the gable and chimney were carefully recorded, taken down and stored. The Conservation Contractor, Tom Howard, claims it was “the most dangerous and precarious job I have ever undertaken as a builder but thankfully everything went to plan.” At present the historic gable is being re-built using the original stones bedded in an authentic hydraulic-lime mortar, the floor of the house having been archaeologically excavated prior to this.
In recent weeks, archaeologists have discovered an oak frame structure which they have described as “potentially one of the most exciting urban archaeological discoveries in Ireland in recent years”.
Frank Coyne, Consultant Archaeologist from Aegis Archaeology Ltd. explained that the limited archaeological excavation has revealed a wealth of information. “The existence of a foundation cut in the interior of the house, indicates an earlier structure on the site, which is also borne out by the presence of large oak beams in the walls of the house. It is hugely significant that these beams are oak, which will enable us to use tree ring dating. If these prove to be of medieval date, which we believe is the case, then this means that this house is the only structure of its type in the country”, explained Mr. Coyne.
Commenting on the restoration project, Mayor of Ennis Councillor Michael Guilfoyle stated: “The works to McParland’s, when completed, will yield invaluable information on the traditional skills and construction techniques of Late Medieval Ennis. This work makes the building safe and protects a major piece of the history and character of Ennis. I have no doubt that the building will continue to be of tremendous interest to all those who have an appreciation of the importance of our heritage and the very fine examples of medieval architecture in the town.”
According to David Humphreys of ACP Consultant Conservation Engineers: “Although built originally using crude rubble stone and weak mortar, the fact that this building has stayed intact up to the present is a tribute to the skills of the medieval masons, who possessed a great knowledge of their materials and confidence in their designs”.
Conservation Officer Dick Cronin noted that the present discoveries at McParland’s further enhance Ennis’ status as the most intact medieval town in Ireland. He explained, “Evidence appears to come to light regularly showing that the whole town centre from The Abbey, to the Old Ground, to Lower Parnell Street contains a large amount of Late Medieval masonry, most of which is hidden behind Georgian and Victorian facades.”
“This has been a very important project and is a tribute to the foresight and pride of place, of the officials and members of Ennis Town Council, who were prepared to invest in the past to ensure the future of this historic town”, Mr. Cronin concluded.
The house was inspected in 2008 by the Conservation Officer who was greatly concerned by its poor structural condition. The old chimney was leaning more than 600 mm off perpendicular. Grants were acquired to repair and consolidate the gable but when some plaster was removed in 2010 new information came to light which proved a matter of grave concern. It appears that a large portion of the late medieval chimney breast on the ground floor, had been removed in the past, to provide more shop space, and a large oak beam inserted to support the chimney. The oak beam had since rotted causing the whole gable to lean at a precarious angle.
Restoration work at McParland’s, Parnell Street, Ennis, Co Clare, is scheduled for completion in February 2012.