The Girna - Maltese plural - giren
The ‘girna’ is a sort of hut found in the Maltese countryside. The interior of these huts is inevitably domeshaped, but the exterior takes on a variety of forms - circular, oval, square, rectangular. There are 'double' giren, and giren surrounded by a buttressing wall. Others have a second storey built on top. Some are even incorporated into rubble walls, though these are small and only suitable for sheltering one or two persons.
Square or rectangular giren serve more practical purposes, particularly for the sheltering or raising of livestock, but circular giren are more common because building them is more straightforward. There is less difficulty in incline towards the ceiling. The narrow roof opening is then covered over with a stone slab. The wall is double, and the space in between is filled with rubble and gravel. The roof is covered over with fragments of stone, sand, lime, or ground pottery mixtures. One known example was roofed over with cane and seaweed, covered with a mixture of hard debris, bringing the dome to a close. The roofs are flattish, allowing for the drying of tomatoes, figs, and carobs. Some giren have steps leading up to the roof. The height may have been used as a vantage point for the surveying of crops, to check against theft.
There are generally no windows, and just one door which faces east to gain maximum advantage from the sunlight. The stones used are those found in the vicinity: loose coralline limestone rocks which lie on the surface, and which make field clearance so difficult. Giren are built on a rocky outcrop, because of the absence of foundations, but the solidity is really dependent on the skilful laying of the stones.
The interior is as spartan as the exterior. Perhaps there will be a few stones for sitting on, some small openings to allow for the circulation of air, a manger, a recess for a lamp, and a small in-built shelf. Those giren which were used for the raising of animals had none of these meagre attributes, but they did have an enclosure which served as a pen.
Most of the larger giren were used for this purpose, but they have also been used for human habitation despite the total lack of sanitary facilities, or of even a chimney for cooking. Cooking was carried out in a separate hovel, or a portable stove was moved outside, taking its fumes with it.
A man called Salvu Deguara, nicknamed il-Banker, lived from his early youth to the time he was persuaded into a hospital for the elderly and infirm - where he died in the 1960s - in a girna near Mellieħa. He slept on a stack of hay, and cooked on a portable stone stove outside his 'front door', which was covered with a hanging of old sacks. He refused to change this way of life, even when he was offered a home more in keeping with the times.
The last person known to have lived in a girna, this time near Dingli, died in 1989. They are not nowadays used for habitation purposes, because even the most nostalgic of peasant farmers has become accustomed to his creature comforts, but some of them will contain a bed or a rug, or some primitive cooking facilities. This is because they are used for one or two days at a time, when work in the fields is particularly intensive. An 18th century Maltese dictionary gives the meaning of girna as 'hovel', giving some indication that they may have served quite commonly as dwellings.
There are almost no giren in Gozo, which is a strange fact given the similar farming imperatives and topography. They are numerous in the fertile regions of the north, west and east of Malta, though there are only the odd few in the south. Giren are not typical of Malta. A German scholar, Gerard Rohlfs , researched this building-method for thirty years, name of Primitive Kuppelbauten in Europa. He noted corbelled stone huts in Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Sardinia, Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, and the Hebrides. Only those of Italy and of Malta are flat-roofed. The rest have conical roofs.
The Maltese giren have been laboriously studied and listed by a Dominican priest, Fr Lawrence Fsadni, who spent many long months traipsing through fields and valleys in his distinctive white robes, reaching many outof-the-way locations with the aid of the route bus system and helpful souls who gave him a ride in their cars. The result is a published work, The Girna - 'the Maltese Corbelled Stone Hut, which records these buildings for posterity, should their existence suffer a final and fatal series of blows.