Inspiration can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s from the depth of our imaginations but more often it is from what we see and experience every day. Similarly, things that are regularly taken for granted are often the most valuable and can be the source of critical things such as shelter, security, natural resources and visual beauty
Set in Stone
Inspiration can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s from the depth of our imaginations but more often it is from what we see and experience every day. Similarly, things that are regularly taken for granted are often the most valuable and can be the source of critical things such as shelter, security, natural resources and visual beauty.
So it is with stone – literally the bedrock on which we all live but also the material which has been used for millennia to construct buildings for human habitation and protection. Also, it is a material which artists, artisans and craftspeople have repeatedly turned to as the preferred medium to create all sorts of strong, beautiful or functional objects. What other natural material is a strong and durable yet delicate and totally open to being permanently reshaped by creative workmanship ? While stone is a generic term, it also takes many forms, colours, shapes and textures, making it is perhaps the most deeply “local” of all things in the known world.
All of this got us thinking about the depth of our own relationship with the stone which surrounds us and our use of local stone in Breac.House - prompted also by our latest collaboration with Donegal stone sculptor and artist Redmond Herrity.
Shaping our Environment
Located on Horn Head, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the iconic Muckish and Errigal mountains, we are literally surrounded by stone. The local stone in this area is quartzite, schist or sometimes speckled seams of granite. The giant plateau of Muckish mountain, which takes its name from the Irish meaning pigs back (muc-ais), is a visually dominant daily force in our lives, the first thing we see each morning. Together with Errigal and the other members of the Seven Sisters of The Derryveagh Mountains, it also impacts the local weather patterns and the distribution of light to the surrounding landscape. The mountain was also home to a once-bustling stone quarry – but now provides walkers with the spectacular Miners Trail route up to the top. With stone steps expertly cut into the mountainside, what is now a challenging but popular local activity was once an arduous daily task for the miners who were only paid from the time they got to the quarry near the top. Stone can be harsh and unforgiving.
The other dominant aspect of life on Horn Head is the sea cliffs. Rising to 600ft , they provide the perfect place for humans and animals alike to take refuge. Today, they play host to an array of sea-birds and is one of the most important European breeding grounds for a number of protected species. For millennia, people have come and settled here – the once island status of Horn Head providing additional proptection. Stone monuments litter the landcape here, providing a veritable historical map from neolithic times up to date – the stone burial tomb, the quartzite stone built Napoleonic tower and the concrete World War II lookout tower all bear testament to a rolling succession of different civilisations and the events which took place here. Everything else has changed but the stone remains, bearing silent historical witness - if the stones could talk they would have lots to tell us.
Provider of Shelter
It’s no coincidence that the only access to Horn Head is via an impressive twelve arch stone bridge – the current version of the bridge was completed in 1760 but there is no doubt that a previous version would have existed at this location, also made from the abundant local stone. While the sea no longer flows from both sides, making the bridge seem excessive, it is an important cultural landmark and common access point for all who cross her everyday – including the local population coming to and from the seaside town of Dunfanaghy, as well as the many visitors who come to explore the natural beauty of the area.
Donegal is not unique in having traditional cottages made from stone – they are located all over Ireland and indeed all over the world in different forms. However, the traditional stone cottage always still seems very close to the heart of the people who live here. While more modern buildings now proliferate, many traditional stone cottages remain – either in ruins awaiting rebirth or renovated recently renovated to provide a modern home to a new generation. The manner in which the Donegal cottage differs from other counties in Ireland largely reflects the weather - the thick, gently curved thatch wrapping itself around the low slung stone cottage ensures maximum protection from the wind and rain. In fact, around Horn Head and Dunfanaghy, unlike elsewhere in Donegal, the traditional stone cottage roofs were covered with local Roisin state - a very strong but beautiful grey / blue slate which was once quarried local. Some remain intact but many have been lost.
There is a long tradition of vernacular architecture here which was conceived to provide shelter from the elements. The traditional longhouse has successfully defied the elements since the Middle Ages and is a common thread linking the settlement traditions of the coastal communities of Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia. Solid and built from local stone, covered with grass, reeds or rough slate depending on the local resources available, the longhouse is an architectural concept that has sheltered many generations of families from the climatic moods of the Atlantic Ocean: sleek, single-storey elongated buildings, with rounded corners and small, irregular windows, with thick walls and paved with the driftwood that the grass cutters recovered from the nearby marshes. The houses adapted so perfectly to the outlines of the hills that the storms swept over without not even noticing them.
All of these aspects influenced the design of Breac.House. Working with MacGabhann Architects and a team of amazing local builders, joiners and craftsman, our ambition was to manage the balancing act between ancient concepts and modern shape and function. Today, we hope that Breac.House appears as a harmonious liaison of contemporary design and traditional building wisdom. Dark larch wood covers the elongated vernacular style building and makes it blend into the Horn Head landscape - with a blue / black slate roof which refers back to the traditional Roisin slate which would have roofed houses here for generations. The sleek silhouette of the roof mirrors Muckish Mountain - both in colour and in form - helping to ensure that Breac.House sits lightly into the surrounding landscape.
The Making of a Home
Breac.House takes it’s name from the townland of Lurgabrack on Horn Head, NW Donegal where we are located. “Breac” means speckled, “Lurg” meaning shin - the combination of words graphically describing our physical location at the narrow end of the Horn Head peninsula. The “speckling” refers to the various coloured rocks which protrude from the ground and are most visible from cross the bay. “Breac” also means trout in Irish, given it’s beautiful speckled skin.
The deep sense of texture which the word “breac” conveys has been one of our guiding lights in terms of the design of Breac.House both as our home but also as a retreat for our guests. Our desire is for our guests to feel connected to the rich texture of the landscape which surrounds us. While the general palate of the house interior is light and spacious, using only pure white walls and oak floors, a richer texture is created through usage of materials such as stone, wood and tweed / wool. All are natural elements which come from the surrounding landscape – brought inside they transform into tactile surfaces and objects which connect guests visually and sensorily with the exterior – designed to create a physical and emotional empathy with the location.
The stone surrounding Breac.House is predominantly quartzite, with some rich seams of granite found in the neighbouring peninsulas, particularly Fanad Penninsula. When selecting flooring for our kitchen and outdoor terraces, the only choice was Donegal quartzite – keeping alive the centuries old tradition of using local field or quarry stone to create flagstone floors in vernacular kitchens. We were also very lucky to have been able to use some pieces of Fanad granite, a classic light grey granite with black and white speckling, together with a few glints of gold. Its strength, smoothness and functionality made it perfect for our kitchen countertops – perfect as workspaces for making bread. We also managed to collaborate with Simon O’Driscoll to integrate a piece of Fanad granite into his beautifully designed oak tables. Any remaining pieces were also fashioned into a unique granite surround for our fireplace and log-box.
Showering is a very sensory experience but in the modern world is too often delivered through cheap manmade materials, such as hard plastics, and in stark articifially lit cubicles. The experience we wanted for our guests was to feel like you were standing in a dark stone cave with fresh flowing water pouring from above – hence the creation of our terrazzo stone shower enclosures and bathroom. The process of creating terrazzo is ardous and hugely skillfull – we are indebted to the mastery of Terry Fegan & his team for what they created here – it is one of the most commented on aspects of Breac.House experience.
Sauna : Our little wood fired sauna in the garden is inspired by the ancient Irish ‘sweat houses which were once common in this region. It is entirely off-grid and uses only stone, wood, fire and water in its construction and use – as with the original sweathouses would have been. The stone floor and coals are hugely energy efficient and retain the heat from the stove for hours – gradually releasing heat into tired bodies.
Objects : Stone can also be a medium for high creativity and the creation of objects of beauty and reflection. Redmond Herrity from Ramelton, Co. Donegal is an innovative contemporary sculptor doing just that. He has travelled extensively - during his time in India in the late 1990s he was inspired by street sculptors and in a later trip to Australia worked with stone for the first time. He graduated from Leitrim Sculpture Centre in Ireland in 2001 and later worked in Carrara, Italy, where he began mastering the ancient techniques of marble portraiture. From classical portraits to modern sculpture, Redmond’s work spans centuries.
Recycled Stone, Redmond’s most recent project, represents a conversation between past, present and future. Using stone, the most immutable of media, Redmond has fashioned a conversation among some of society’s most disposable items – the tins and plastics that we use and recycle – while recalling the ancient stories passed on to us across the millennia using the same medium. The ancients carved their gods, left as a story for the future. In this new project, at once playful and provocative, Redmond asks what we are leaving for the generations to come. Is disposable consumerism our god now? But while plastic rubbish takes away from the beauty of our natural surroundings, Redmond’s work in marble and limestone uses that organic and timeless material as a stark contrast to the damaging disposables it is used to represent.
His work is a very delicate balance of classical strength, beauty, storytelling and fun – which really marks him out from the crowd. We are very pleased to have one of Redmond’s recent pieces, Knotty but Nice. This very complex sculpture is carved from a single block of limestone, made up of fossils dating back some 350,000 years. The limestone, which is sometimes called Irish black marble, starts out as a grey / blue but when polished it takes on a lustrous dark black colour. Its sheer strength allows the sculptor to create such a piece, held together by nature and history. The design is based on a continuous Celtic marriage knot and signifies the permanence of the bond between two people – as well as their inter-twinedness as they go through life together. This beautifully executed piece has quickly become a talking point with guests and visitors curious about its origins, meaning and creator.
We are surrounded by stone – it is the literal bedrock on which we all exist, the provider of materials for our built environment, the medium for sculptors and creative designers. At Breac.House, we are truely Set in Stone.