Thatching in Ireland
A Grand Tour, ending in c1960
n the past, as in many other parts of the world; the craft of thatching in Ireland was an un-regarded craft with few records. Fortunately a few individuals took the trouble to note, in words and images, what they saw... Allowing these pages to be constructed.
Methods... Above, the Trusting/ Stobbing method is shown in use in at Cloonnagmaum in County Clare**, taken by Albert Eskeröd c1935. Of note is the ‘layered’ appearance to the coatwork and the use of few Scallops/Spars. The thatcher is lifting an existing layer, ready to push into place a new piece of thatch...
The photo opposite was taken by Caoimhín Ó Danachair , in 1940. Apart from noting the various thatching methods in use, Caoimhín also captured a lot of what he saw on film... Much more of his work follows. The thatcher was one J. Herbert, working at Clash North, County Limerick**. He is completing the roof here with a standard coat of long straw, fixed with Scollops/ Spars. All looking very neat, as most work at this time was ridged and dressed, as it progressed.
The lower image explains itself; with some roping down being carried out, after a layer of thatch has been applied; at Achill Island, County Mayo** . This 1941 photo was taken by Séamus Ó Duilearga. As other images will show, any vertical ropes would have been fixed to pegs, in the wall tops with the horizontal ropes shown, being fixed in a similar fashion to the gables.
** see note below
Materials... The above adverts show at least three materials in use hereabouts, others have loads of Oat straw for sale... the left, for rye straw dates from 1918; the centre for flax and the wheat required by the laundry, were placed in 1945...
An article proposes creating a sound thatch, consisting of a thin liner of combed reed, with an undercoat of heath; finished with a top coat of combed wheat reed.
Thatching Houses— ....If you are, after this, disposed for thatch, we can say that the most beautiful thatching done in England, that have seen, at least, is done with reeds, which it may not be easy for you to get; but we would recommend you getting what is called, in the South of Ireland, reed-straw—the straw of wheat that has been scutched out, without the straw having been what is called ‘’heads and points." When your roof is well prepared for thatching, have some of this ‘’reed” laid closely on the timber lengthwise, up and down, observing to have the straw secured to each other by light packthread, on the same principle as that used by the country people in making, by the sea-coast, what they call “Bent Hats.” When this external coating is laid on, get some fresh but dry heath, and lay a coat of on, sewing it with strong packthread; and when the heath coat is put on, lay on another of well-prepared wheat straw, which, when well sewed, and bound with ‘’sprays and scollops,” if not too much sheltered, nor allowed to be injured by rats or sparrows, will last a long time
Of interest are the 1840’s thatching terms... With combing out referred to as ‘scutched out’ and ’heads and points" describing long straw thatch. ’Bent Hats’ seems to refer to the roped down roofs, found in coastal districts. With ‘spays’ and ‘scallops’ being the wooden spars, used to help fix the top coat of material...
oincidences... Readers of other pages on this site, will hopefully realise that the thatching carried out in Ireland, shares/shared working methods with the craft in the islands of Britain.
The shared use of Standard thatching techniques can be dismissed, as this method; of covering the fixing of the previous course of thatch with a new layer, then covering the final topmost layer with a ridge; is carried out worldwide.
What was found, on both sides of the Irish Sea, was the widespread use of the Stobbing/ Thrusting method of coating Link and the creation of Ropetop/ Bobbin ridges. Link Along with identical roping of thatch, on the northern and western seaboards of both Ireland and Britain. Link (Click links to see the technical aspect of these methods.)
Briefly, I would suggest thatching hereabouts shares a great deal with Wales and the Isles' of Man & Scilly; and areas of Scotland; which geographically seems very logical...
Neighbourly thatch... Above an Edwardian Ropetop/Bobbin ridge, in Denbighshire; with similar at Ballyfarrell, Co. Offaly** in 1945, taken by Caoimhín Ó Danachair ...
Below, tightly roped roofs on the Isles of Scilly, in c 1900; akin to those on the Irish Atlantic seaboard.
o the modern eye, a few of the dwellings, in images shown on the following pages; look rather poorly maintained and thatched. However what is illustrated, is the result of the clever use of local thatching and building materials. Employed by people with limited resources; more than likely living on some unforgiving land. Nevertheless creating stout & weatherproof homes….
Thatching a Cottage... The title of a 1903 postcard. In many cases the small buildings shown opposite were referred to as ‘Cabins’, a rather derogatory name, for a small home usually rented, with the maintenance the responsibility of the tenant; who often thatched the roof themselves. This thatcher is depicted covering the roof with a decent coat of material.
Some images on these pages also reflect the times after the dreadful famine years, of the late 1840’s; dating to later in the same century; a period of mass migration. Leading to many abandoned and derelict homes. And, as will be seen, the activities shown below didn’t end in 1848...
Bad Times... Above;‘Irish tenants are evicted and their homes torn down under the supervision of troops’... from Illustrated London News, 16th December 1848. Empty spaces... Opposite, Cape Clear Island, County Cork. In 1810, 1400 inhabitants mainly lived under thatch, roped and weighted with stones. Today's population is but one tenth...
have mainly written in the past tense throughout these pages; but happily the craft is still going strong... Some two and half thousand roofs are in existence; with many more it seems under corrugated tin. Numerous images of well thatched, modern roofs can be found on the net. Hopefully, what these pages show is the craft from a black and white world; which is beyond living memory...
Competition... Similar adverts to the one opposite, from the Dublin Daily Express placed in 1883, had appeared for some years before. What the corrugated iron now covers often represents a valuable historic resource. Recording the type of thatching and the materials once used.
efore we start, a note of thanks...
**All the images, marked thus, in this and the remaining pages on Ireland are © National Folklore Collection, UCD. Who have generously allowed their archive to appear under a Creative Commons licence. *Images marked so are © of National Library of Ireland, who have kindly permitted their material to be used under the same conditions. Many thanks to both institutions... And mention must be made of the photographers, who captured the scenes. Especially Albert Eskeröd, the Swedish folklorist, who travelled extensively in Ireland in 1935; leaving much behind. And of course Caoimhín Ó Danachair, whose name, as mentioned, will appear many many times on this tour!
Caoimhín Ó Danachair 1913-2002
Although the areas of use, noted by Caoimhín run in bands from north to south, I have broken Ireland up into its four historic provinces; each having a page; as there seems too much information and far too many images, to fit on just one...
They are best read in the following order.
Click Here for; Thatching in Ulster.
Covering the historic counties of Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry/ Derry, Monaghan & Tyrone.
Covering the historic counties of Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon & Sligo
Covering the historic counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois (formally Kings), Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly (formally Queens), Westmeath, Wexford & Wicklow