House Speculations

Why do so many Irish houses — at least houses in County Donegal where I have been for the past 10 days — not have yards and lawns?  Why are they surrounded by what are, for all practical purposes, parking lots?

I figure there must be a reason.  Houses — and we’re talking ordinary people’s houses, not grand estates or historic specimens — vary widely from culture to culture, geographic region to geographic region. Homes in Spain are made of stone or brick, depending on the size and age of the home.  Roofs are almost uniformly terra cotta tile.  Wood is in short supply; and the hard surfaces of stone and tile keep cooler in the hot summers.

The cottage I’ve been staying at, on the shores of Lough Salt.

Homes in Florida have no basements: the water table is too high.  Bavarian and Austrian homes have steeply pitched roofs and deep eaves, designed to help heavy snow slide off them and away from the house.  And when driving through France recently, just north of the Pyrenees, I noticed that nearly all the homes dotting the countryside had hipped roofs, a design that is particularly good at handling rain and snow drainage and especially strong to withstand high winds.

Rural Donegal homes are most likely to be single storied, frequently  with a second story tucked under the eaves.  They are stone (or these days, concrete block)  with a  cement or lime rendering. With the amount of stone there is all over this country, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would seek out another building material. The presence of chimneys bespeaks the ready availability of peat to burn, both for the heat and the charm of the fragrant fires. Most homes are painted white or tan; a few are peach, blue, lilac or other pastel.  Old or new, they  often have a IMG-1024distinctive contrasting trim on the corners A sprinkling of older homes still have thatched roofs — about an equal number of them in disrepair and all but abandoned or  clean, tidy and very picturesque cottages.

But nearly all newer home and many older ones lack what we Americans would see as an essential home component: A front lawn or garden. Where Americans in most parts of the U.S. would plant grass, and spend their weekends mowing, trimming, fertilizing and otherwise coaxing it to a uniform, velvety texture, the Irish have gravel or asphalt. New homeowners in the U.S. flock to garden centers and nurseries, buying shrubs and trees and perennials to tastefully landscape around a newly built house. To us, greenery snuggled up to the walls of a home is essential to making it look warm and welcoming. Even in the arid climate  of the Southwest or in water-starved California, where xeriscaping is becoming popular, yards are still carefully planted, though with cactus and and other less-thirsty vegetation.

Not in Donegal. Nearly every ordinary home IMG_1012that hasn’t passed the century mark, is fronted, if not surrounded, by a flat expanse of nothing. Lord knows it can’t be lack of rainfall that makes homeowners here shun greenery close by their homes.  Donegal gets an average of nearly 50 inches of rain a year. The chances of an entirely sunny day range from a low of 3% in May and August to a high of just 13% in November. And the odds of a at least some rain falling on any given day dip below 20% in only one month of the year: September. In eight of the 12 months of the year, chances of a day being a rainy one are at least 40%.
So why do they pave the areas around their homes? Could it be an echo of an old farmhouse and yard design, when animals and carts or perhaps tractors and other farm machinery were all corralled close to the home?  Is it for drainage purposes? Maybe the notoriously wet weather actually discourages greenery in close proximity to buildings. Could the damp climate necessitate a border of dry pavement to keep homes dry and clean?

The Irish version of a McMansion. Note the contrast trim on the corners and the grand driveway that all but encircles the house.

Some larger newly built homes have established a patch of green in front, but they still have a wide swath of driveway that directly abuts the front of the house –a sort-of poorer man’s version of the grand alleys and courtyards in front of stately homes, like the fictional Downton Abbey. But in these cases, there are no grand entranceways nearby and no horse-drawn carriages ever approach them. It’ll be Granny, coming to babysit the kids, who  parks her Volkswagen Golf three feet from the front door, not the Dowager Duchess arriving for tea.

Perhaps, though, it’s just that in a country that is bursting with vegetation — lush green pastures, huge rhododendIrons, hydrangeas and flowering trees, wildflowers painting the fields and roadside ditches — few folks feel the need to plant and tend a lawn and garden.