Thursday 27 June 2019

Take a look inside this quirky Howth home inspired by the 'Somali Village' people

Stilts spotted at 'biggest show in town' provided answers to building on sloping hills of Howth

An aerial view of the house on Ryehill
An aerial view of the house on Ryehill
The bathroom
The bay as seen from the house
The dining room leading into the kitchen
A telescope provides closer views of the bay
The sitting room
The kitchen/breakfast room
A postcard depicting the Somali village
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fake 'native' villages - often African but also sometimes Far Eastern - were hugely popular attractions throughout Europe and America at great exhibitions or fairs.

According to academic, Stephanie Rains, of the Centre for Media Studies at NUI Maynooth, writing in History Ireland, "these typically took the form of village buildings complete with live 'villagers' who lived on the site, and metropolitan audiences could wander around watching the 'villagers' go about their daily routines and producing traditional crafts.

"At the height of the age of empire, these displays provided a virtual travel experience to the furthest-flung corners of the world. They always presented the people and cultures of the villages as 'primitive', thereby assuring imperial audiences of their own cultural superiority and, by extension, providing popular justification for the imperial projects themselves".

The Herbert Park Exhibition of 1907 attracted almost three million visitors during its six-month run.

The dining room leading into the kitchen
The dining room leading into the kitchen

In his book, The Great White Fair, Brian Siggins writes that the land on which the exhibition was held was then an unimpressive piece of scrubland between the two prosperous south Dublin villages of Ballsbridge and Donnybrook.

The Irish International Exhibition, however, was an ambitious enterprise designed to show off the best of Irish industry and crafts, and to attract visitors from overseas to sample its myriad entertainments.

Enormous buildings rose to the sky and a wonderful array of exhibits and attractions went on display. It was, according to Siggins, an extraordinary feat of organisation, and of entrepreneurship.

The social history blog recounts that the legendary Dublin prankster, The Bird Flanagan, was active in Herbert Park during the exhibition, and it was said that he stole a child from one of the exhibits.

Flann O'Brien later wrote that "The Bird stole the baby of the wild man of Borneo from the latter's straw house or tent and smuggled it into the snug of a pub in Ballsbridge", while Ulick O'Connor claimed he "returned it to the French pavilion, as a gesture against the decline in the French birth-rate".

In fact, the village in question was Somalian. (Whether or not the baby-stealing incident actually happened remains unclear.) In his book The Biggest Show in Town: Record Of The International Exhibition, Dublin 1907, Ken Finlay quotes a contemporaneous report that described the village as follows: "A party of Somalis has been imported from British Somaliland, which is situated in the north-east of Africa. This village has been erected to represent the huts in which the natives live in their country. A schoolroom has also been built in which Somali children will be taught their lessons. Somalis are a nomadic race, and live chiefly by the rearing of herds and goats and sheep. They are Mohammedans by religion."

The sitting room
The sitting room

The Somali village was a huge hit with visitors to the exhibition, and became the most profitable stand, earning £9,601 in sales of its pottery and other 'native' goods. There were, however, persistent rumours that some of the Somalis suffered from ill health, perhaps due to the cold weather in Ireland. The allegations were rudely rebutted in an Irish Times article of the day, denying rumours that Somalis had died of cold but adding that "common colds" and an injured arm were the sum of the sufferings.

Among the visitors to the exhibition was a builder in possession of a tract of development land beside the old village of Sutton, at the southern end of the Howth Peninsula, backing on to what is now Howth Golf Club. The land sloped steeply and presented him with engineering and structural challenges, which he overcame by placing the houses effectively on stilts, with the pedestrian access and garages at road level - and inspired by the stilted houses in the Somali village.

The stretch of Edwardian houses that he built is known to this day referred to locally as the Somali Village.

Ryehill sits in the middle of the 'village', with extraordinary views south across the fields that lie between Carrickbrack Road and the sea, and out over Dublin Bay. On a bright January afternoon, with winter sunlight flooding into the front of the house, one can see horses grazing in the fields, which are protected from future development, and, on the water's edge though hidden behind trees, Ceanchor House.

Built by William Bellingham as a 'seaside cottage' in the 1830s, the regency villa was once home to John and Jennifer Guinness, and it was from here that Jennifer was kidnapped in 1986.

Ryehill was extended approximately 25 years ago and the house currently has 2454 sq ft of living space, comprising three reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room with walk-in pantry, six bedrooms and three bathrooms.

The layout is quirky, with plenty of nooks and crannies, and level changes, and, although the house is liveable as it stands, new owners will undoubtedly want to upgrade, modernise and reconfigure. There is the potential for the rear extension to become an own-door, self-contained, two-bedroom apartment.

Several neighbouring properties appear to have been significantly extended, with their owners taking advantage of the steeply sloping sites to create large terraces for outdoor eating.

Ryehill stands on a site of approximately one-third of an acre, with a lawn above the garage, a deck immediately to the front of the house and terraced gardens planted with mature hedging and shrubbery.

The village of Howth has shops and an abundance of restaurants, many specialising in seafood. Crabby Joe's is one of the best.

At this end of the market on the Howth peninsula, most buyers tend to be based overseas, with some having a local connection to the area.

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