Wednesday 16 October 2019

Mark Keenan: It's almost 50 years since the first edition of Bungalow Bliss - the book that transformed rural Ireland

The big view on Ireland's property market

By spending a punt in 1971, a rural dweller was acquiring the key to a modern new home and a practical boots-up release from thatch, tin roofs, damp and outdoor privies.
By spending a punt in 1971, a rural dweller was acquiring the key to a modern new home and a practical boots-up release from thatch, tin roofs, damp and outdoor privies.
Blissful Days: Jack Fitzsimons and his wife Anne (c1973) who encouraged him to put his drawings into a book, not knowing that it would change Ireland
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

In America it's moonshine and guns. Here it's drink driving and Bungalow Bliss. Few matters cleave country folk asunder from city folk so directly. As contentious bones go, Big Tom, rhododendrons, and Michael Lowry just don't match up.

It's almost 50 years since the first edition (1971) of Bungalow Bliss by Kells-born architect/engineer/author Jack Fitzsimons. The self published, self sold booklet of 20 basic bungalow plans was a guide on how to build your own bungalow, with the text typed up by his wife Anne on a typewriter. The book and every one of the eleven subsequent editions became the No1 best selling book in Ireland. In all it sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Why?

By spending a punt in 1971, a rural dweller was acquiring the key to a modern new home and a practical boots-up release from thatch, tin roofs, damp and outdoor privies. And they built Jack Fitzsimons' blissful bungalows in their tens of thousands through the 70s, 80s and 90s - on out-of-town plots bought from farmers. They built them for £1,500. And the towns, they were drained of people.

It can truly be said that Jack Fitzsimons absolutely transformed rural Ireland, albeit completely by accident as he says posthumously (he passed in 2014) in his new book Bungalow Bliss Bias, edited by his son Kennas. In Bias he says Bliss was born as a response to ordinary people asking him (then a county engineer with access to blueprints) for help with building homes of a type that qualified for grants. So his wife Anne suggested putting the drawings he was endlessly handing out to people into book form; as a more practical aid to help. The rest is history.

But environmentally aware city types alternately hear: "Bungalow Blitz," the retweaked riposte deployed by long time Irish Times Environment Correspondent Frank McDonald. It headlined his famous three-part series of articles showing how random rural development of bungalows was causing irreparable environmental and planning damage. McDonald labelled it Ireland's "spreading fungus".

Determinedly non fungicidal rural Ireland went into uproar. 'Dublin 4' wasn't going to tell anyone what they could and couldn't do with their sites and fields. And that war has raged ever since.

Bias is Fitzsimons' elegant twilight return to the furore in 150 pages, just nine more than the 1971 Bliss. While a considered, albeit stung answer to the blitzers; more than anything, it is his and its story - how the book that changed Ireland came into being and why. Most vitally Fitzsimons' 'why' gives us both a poignant and terrifying snapshot of extreme rural poverty of a type that even country dwellers have by now forgotten; or have chosen to forget in the age of the Mac Mansion with its six bedrooms and seven bathrooms.

Jack Fitzsimons was raised near Kells in a tiny thatched mud cottage with a split gap in the gable that let the rats in. Bias puts the need for Bliss into the context of its time - when most rural people were moving to the city or abroad; just after rural electrification, in a time when free secondary schooling had just landed and before Ireland joined the EEC. Poorer rural dwellers lived in leaky, damp, thatched or tin hatted homes which, much like the Dublin slums of old, could and did kill. And while 'real Dubs' like to wear their family's slum cred on their half sleeves, rural dwellers by nature generally tend to shy from impoverished family histories, perhaps why Fitzsimons himself (almost apologetic) left this deeply personal but brief exploration of his origins until the remains of his day to be published after.

A quiet artistic giant of a man with shaggy hair and brown eyes, he was born in 1930. "My father was a farm labourer and my mother had worked as a servant, one of four, in the local big house." He describes the societal status of a farm labourer then as "a nobody" and "farming fodder" whose dispersed excuses for housing were looked upon as a necessary nuisance by farm owners.

When his baby sister died he recalls his mother being comforted by a neighbour who said it was "God's will". But he was angry because he knew she had died of housing related poverty. No priest visited the house, because his father was a labourer. His sister was buried in a wooden cigarette carton box with the brand logo showing. When young Jack was also sick and in bed hungry, his mother told him to stop crying because there was nothing in the house. So he did. His stoic grandmother went around picking sheep fluff off barbed wire to take home and spin into yarn. To help. Both of his parents worked excruciatingly hard. It was a trait that the big man also inherited.

Bias is certainly not poverty porn; the segment is required to show that the Ireland Fitzsimons and thousands of others came from never saw a doctor, never mind an architect. Indeed, he believed that architecture as a profession let rural Ireland down. "In my young days there was a custom of attempting to solve problems without consulting experts. The sure cure for whooping cough was to walk three times around a pigsty wearing a donkey's winkers on the head and reciting a supplication each time to the muca." Real Do-It-Yourself was all that was, and hopefully with some help from your neighbours.

He learned building and became an engineer for the council. Trodding boreens to connect houses under electrification showed him that bad housing was widespread. Bliss was his help leaflet with drawings, to help one person to build a better house, then another. No more than that. He never intended a revolution that divided.

Teaching someone to build a house is noble. The poverty vacuum and poor planning created the Blitz. Not big Fitz, the man with the plans and the mits, who wanted to help with housing.

Bungalow Bliss Bias, Kells Publishing

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