Thatching is the craft of building a roof with dry vegetation such as straw, water reed, sedge, rushes and heather, layering the vegetation so as to shed water away from the inner roof. It is a very old roofing method and has been used in both tropical and temperate climates. Thatch is still employed by builders in developing countries, usually with low-cost, local vegetation. By contrast in some developed countries it is now the choice of affluent people who desire a rustic look for their home or who have purchased an originally thatched abode.
In old times the thatched house were very popular, they provided homes of character, comfort and beauty which varied from one region to another in response to local climates, conditions and contacts. The use of local building materials meant that they fitted into landscapes of which they were literally a part of. Their clay or stone walls gathered from the earth on the spot where they were built, their timbers dug from the bogs, their thatch harvested from the fields.
The tradition of thatching has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, and numerous descriptions of the materials and methods used in Ireland and England over the past three centuries survive in archives and early publications. Thatch has probably been used to cover roofs in Europe since at least the Neolithic period, when people first began to grow cereals. Wild vegetation, especially water reed, was probably used before this but no records or archaeological evidence for this have survived.
In most of Europe and Ireland, thatch remained the only roofing material available to the bulk of the population in the countryside, and in many towns and villages, until the late 1800s. The commercial production of Welsh slate had begun in 1820 and the mobility which the canals and then the railways made possible meant that other materials became readily available. Gradually, thatch became a mark of poverty and the number of thatched properties gradually declined, as did the number of professional thatchers.
Thatch has become much more popular in Ireland and the UK over the past 30 years, and is now a symbol of wealth rather than poverty. There are now approximately a few hundred full time thatchers at work in the UK, and thatching is becoming popular again because of the renewed interest in preserving historic buildings and using more sustainable building materials.
There are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom and Ireland than in any other European country. Good quality thatching straw can last for more than 40-45 years when applied by a skilled thatcher. Traditionally, a new layer of straw was simply applied over the weathered surface, and this 'spar coating' tradition has created accumulations of thatch over 7' (2.1m) thick on very old buildings.
Thatch roofs do not catch fire any more frequently than roofs covered with 'hard' materials, but thatch fires are difficult to extinguish once they take hold. Old buildings often have poor quality chimneys, and most fires occur in the winter when hot gases ignite the thatch surrounding the chimney. Insurance premiums are higher than average because when a fire does occur, the damage is more severe and the thatch is more expensive to replace than with a standard tiled/slate roof. Workmen should never be allowed to use an open flame near thatch, and nothing should be burnt that could fly up the chimney and ignite the surface of the thatch.
Thatch has some natural properties that are advantageous to its performance. It is naturally weather-resistant,and when properly maintained does not absorb a lot of water. There should not be a significant increase to roof weight due to water retention. A roof pitch of at least 50 degrees allows precipitation to travel quickly down slope so that it runs off the roof before it can penetrate the structure.
Thatch is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather. A thatched roof will ensure that a building will be cool in summer and warm in winter.
There are still plenty of thatched Irish cottages to be seen in rural Ireland but you need to be on the lookout for them. Coastal areas seem to be the places to find them. Many of these have been built in modern times as holiday homes and we should be thankful that some people have taken the time and made the investment to preserve an Irish tradition that is under threat.
As with all Irish Cottages of the period, the fireplace would have been the centre of the home -figuratively speaking. While others claim "There's no place like home", the old Irish proverb is more specific...Níl aon tintean mar do thintean féin. "There's no fireplace like your own fireplace." Whether the house had mud or stone walls, or the roof was of thatch or corrugated iron sheeting or slate, the fireplace was always built of stone. In most cottages the fireplace was in one gable end wall but in houses of a larger design the fireplace was in the middle wall of the house and the centre of the home in the literal sense.
Floors in Irish Cottages were usually of compacted dried mud. Yellow clay is found in many areas beneath the subsoil and this was the preferred 'mud' for floors. Cinders were used beneath the clay floor as an effective insulation. Limestone slabs were available to those with money enough to procure them. These were ideal for the dances that often accompanied the local musicians who frequented the houses.
In the 1940s nearly all Irish farmhouses were a simple rectangle in ground plan, anything from ten to twenty feet in width and of varying length according to the number of rooms they comprise, each room being the full width of the house. The normal developed house has three rooms, consisting of a central kitchen with a bedroom at the bottom end and another the best room called simply 'the room'- behind the chimney, which helped to warm it. Sadly today the art of thatching is dying out.
Amongst the most popular in Ireland: