Emigrate or inherit: how Bungalow Bliss revolutionised rural Ireland’s housing options
One morning, in mid-July of 1971, a man called Jack Fitzsimons left his house in Kells, Co Meath. The boot of his car was filled with self-published books. He drove along trunk roads to large towns in the midlands, south and west, selling copies to newsagents, petrol stations and building providers.
On the front cover were printed the words: Bungalow Bliss. These publications contained 20 designs that could be used to build a house affordably. They were ordered from Fitzsimons either over the phone or by post. The drawings were sent for a small fee, put through the planning process, and built.
Before this book appeared, the options for housing in rural Ireland were inheritance, getting on the housing list or emigrating.
Bungalow Bliss became an instant bestseller. Edition two appeared within 12 months and, soon after, edition three and then edition four. The book was expanded and republished often throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, until a 12th edition was released in 1998, and reprinted until 2001. Over these three decades, a quarter-of-a-million copies were sold, which amounts to about one for every second household in the countryside. By the late 1970s, more than 10,000 of these one-off bungalows were being built each year in rural Ireland.
The cost of land was low, so too the cost of construction, and the plan area of each design in the book fell under the 116sq m that qualified a homeowner for State aid of just over £300 (about 10pc of the cost of the build at the time).
My father was a consulting engineer from the 1980s to early 2000s. Out of his office (a converted garage at the end of our house), he produced countless planning permissions for clients near our midlands home. Recently, he told me he was going to “bequeath me” his filing cabinet of house plans. This contains not speculative designs, not sketches, not proposals — each tracing-paper layout is a drawing-for-construction and each one points to a building that exists or once existed on the land. Many are of bungalows and follow what had become the vernacular in Irish rural housing: that is, they were built in the manner of the designs Jack Fitzsimons produced in Bungalow Bliss. This will be the case in engineering and drafting consultancies throughout rural Ireland.
Growing up, I took these drawings for granted. Then in 2009, having turned 30 and left my career as a structural engineer to pursue one in writing and visual art, I began to study the catalogues afresh and looked more closely at the landscape I grew up on. After a year or so of this research, I contacted Jack Fitzsimons to see what he might have to say.
I ended up visiting Jack and his wife, Anne, a few times at their home in the summers of 2010-12. Jack died in 2014. When I met him, he was in his early 80s, and, though at times he seemed frail, he was always happy to talk to me. Our chats were often punctuated by phone calls from clients seeking advice on planning.
In the early 1950s, Jack began work as an electrical fitter for the Rural Electrification Scheme. He threaded wires and fitted electrical inputs and outputs in countless types of housing, learning as he went. He rose to the position of senior engineering draughtsman for the Office of Public Works in Dublin. Then, tiring of the capital, he became clerk of works for Meath County Council where, in the late 1960s, he was inundated with requests from people asking him to draw up one-off houses. In response, Bungalow Bliss seemed like the most natural thing to do. He believed that living conditions in rural Ireland should be improved.
Jack made it clear to me that this housing project did not come from an entrepreneurial urge. Bungalow Bliss filled a gap in the domestic housing market at a time when designers, he felt, had abandoned rural areas. It was not just that architects were uninterested in one-off dwellings for country clients, or that their fees were too high, but there just wasn’t a culture in rural Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s of employing an architect to design a house.
Most architects in Ireland then were middle- or upper-middle-class aesthetes, and they would talk and think differently to many people in rural Ireland, who were looking to make a straightforward, functional home. These architects were city-based modernists, who considered the countryside a creative dead zone and the people living there unsuitable for their ideas. Coupled with this, I believe, a vast majority of rural people saw ‘architecture’ as an unnecessary, immaterial extravagance.
So, Bungalow Bliss created an accessible, practical and soon-to-be fashionable bridge for the potential rural homeowner to pass over a series of crucial questions. Should we employ an architect to design our house? Will that architect give us what we want? Can we afford it? And furthermore: what do we want?
The Bungalow Bliss houses are one of the most important building achievements in the modern Irish State, yet no architect has seriously engaged with the topic. What I’ve tried to do over the last decade while writing my book on the subject, Little Republics, is to sketch out the shifts in society that brought about such a boom in domestic construction.
One thing I’ve realised is that if Jack brought the designs and the rationalising governments of the ’60s brought the overarching if gap-filled rules, then the people, the rural citizens, brought the interpretations and materials. The bungalows then suddenly became, to me at least, a precise and fascinating prism through which to view the late-20th-century networks of rural administration, dwelling and living.
‘Little Republics’ by Adrian Duncan is out now from Lilliput Press