Joe Gallagher: Capturing the charm of Donegal cottages

Eamonn McFadden


Eamonn McFadden

Donegal County Heritage Officer, Joseph Gallagher, is co-author of a new publication entitled Traditional Cottages of County Donegal. Here, he explains how the idea came about.

Donegal County Heritage Officer, Joseph Gallagher, is co-author of a new publication entitled Traditional Cottages of County Donegal. Here, he explains how the idea came about.

A keen passion for local history is not only a day job for one Dungloe man - it has also led to a major new work on the history of the iconic traditional cottages of Donegal.

Dr Joseph Gallagher hails from Meenmore, Dunlgloe and his studies and interests have taken him far from home. But after many years abroad he returned to take up the post as the county’s first Heritage Officer.

Son of James and Mary B Gallagher, Joe completed his early education locally in Dungloe National school and the Rosses Community School before heading to Galway to take up a place as an undergraduate at “University College Galway” as still likes to call it.

“We all still think of it as UCG,” he laughs.

It was there he studied geography and graduated with a Bachelor of the Arts. He also completed a higher diploma in education before his studies took him across the Atlantic, when he completed a Master Degree in Illinois in the United States

“I did my Masters there on Cultural and Historical Geography and then worked there for a year and a half. Then I came back to Ireland before getting a job in England. I worked as senior lecturer in Geography at University College Chichester in the south of England. While I was there I did my Ph.D. part-time in University College London and it was around geography as well.

He spent ten years with University’s Department of Geography.

Looking back at his international studies, he says it was a great experience as he learned much from the various education systems.

“When I was at University College Chichester, I was a senior lecturer and people used to ask me ‘where do you see yourself going in the future?’ I always said Ireland if the right job came up there. I said it so many times and it became my normal reaction. I used to keep an eye out in the papers for jobs and I saw the post of Heritage Officer advertised. I had seen it advertised a couple of times and I hadn’t really seen that post before. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a new post in Ireland and was a collaboration between the Heritage Council and the local authorities in Ireland. So, anyway, it came up for Donegal, I applied and was offered the job.”

“My background in geography was good preparation for my role as Heritage Officer because geography is fairly broad. It also looks at various aspects of geography, cultural life and social life and that helped looking at the heritage as well because you deal with the natural, the built and the cultural heritage in my role.”

He started in 2003, liaises with other Heritage officers around the country and says he enjoys the diversity of the work involved.

Joseph has always had a keen interest in local history, and while the role of Heritage Officer keeps him busy during the day, outside of his job with Donegal County Council, in his spare time over the last number of years he has been researching for a new book on traditional Donegal Cottages.

Along with fellow academic and historian, Dr Greg Stevenson, they have co-authored a beautiful new coffee- table style publication called “Traditional Cottages of County Donegal”.

Released just before Christmas, it features many iconic traditional buildings from all corners of the county and many less known, yet equally fascinating examples of the county’s built heritage.

Their work not only captures many stunning images, but also features detailed explanations for the various elements that make up traditional Donegal cottages.

“The book came out of a personal interest and a long standing one at that. I co-authored it with Greg Stevenson and I suppose I was always interested in vernacular architecture in the county going back to my undergraduate days in Galway. I did my dissertation on traditional buildings in the parish of Templecrone, our local parish, so it is a long seeded interest in that sense. Then I met up with Greg Stevenson and I suppose we shared a common interest. He is from Wales and runs a company called ‘Under the Thatch’ which rescues and restores traditional buildings.”

Five years ago they started photographing examples they wished to include in their work and over the last year have been putting the finishing touches to the book.

“We had wondered why people had not written about these buildings, and at least tell part of the story of them because they are very often overlooked and ignored. We couldn’t quite understand that. Nobody seemed to be doing that so we thought we could take a stab at it ourselves.”

Their book not only documents the houses and outbuildings themselves, it also shines a light into the social fabric of many rural parts of Donegal from times gone by.

“Lots of people look at these buildings and think they are very simple buildings, that they have no secrets and there is no story to be told about them. But in actual fact they tell a lot about the social history of the time. They can tell a lot about how families expanded. They tell a lot about the local technology, which was remarkable, and the way the materials were secured for the building of these houses. The technology, whether it was putting on the thatches on the roofs or herring the stone slate, these were no easy skills to learn. And I suppose that fact now there is such a lack of traditionally skilled craftsmen in the county is a reflection of how rich that technology was.”

He is proud to say that all facets of the books production, from its content, to the attractive layout and full-colour print was all done within the county and was self-published by the authors with the assistance of the Heritage Council of Ireland to help off-set the cost of production.

He says one of the main messages people can take from the book is that these old buildings can be preserved and are important from many perspectives, including the tourism sector.

“These buildings can be adapted to meet modern demands. We are in a better position now than we ever were to try maintaining these buildings, and not just as relics on the landscape. That’s not what it is really about, it’s about bringing them back into use and also show they are important. I think there is still tremendous affection for these buildings and people might think ‘this building is important to my family but maybe not to anybody else’ but they are important. I think they are very important to visitors and to people living abroad who come to Ireland who want to see them and want to hear the story of them - why they were important and what they reflect in the history of the county.”

Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is now available in all local bookshops.