A Glimpse of Ireland Past


Romantic Ireland is dead and gone.  
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

This was Yeats’ lament in the Ireland of 1914 and it was often repeated during the Celtic Tiger years. In our frantic quest for materialistic modernity, Ireland and its people were said to have forsaken the traditions of the past.

But how true was this assertion? Did those age-old traditions really die away?

I’ve spoken to individuals who are living proof this is not so. These people have kept alive some of the most interesting and unique aspects of life in old, romantic Ireland.

When asked to imagine Ireland, people often picture green countryside dotted with whitewashed cottages and thatched roofs.  What they don’t realize is how close the skill of thatching came to being lost.

For centuries, thatch – made from reeds, straw or whatever material grew abundantly in the local area – was the roofing material of choice in Irish homes. It was freely available and provided excellent insulation throughout the tempestuous Irish year.

What’s more, there were skilled thatchers. They could be called upon to repair or replace the thatch as needed.  These men trained their sons in the craft and so the skills were passed down the generations.

As Irish society began to change, the young no longer automatically followed in their fathers’ footsteps. This meant thatchers were no longer replaced and the craft appeared to be dying.

Brian Simpson met his first thatcher in the early 1990s.  He had just moved to Skerries in Dublin and the encounter was to change his life.

“This man was a fourth-generation thatcher and the last surviving thatcher in the area,” says Brian. “He taught me many traditional skills.”

Inspired by this man, Brian set up his own thatching business in 1998. Since then, he has worked all over the east coast, mostly using the native slice or sketch style of thatching to restore old thatched cottages and build new ones.

In 2004, he was asked to join a committee charged with training a new generation of thatchers. “There was a skills shortage,” explains Brian. “People weren’t passing on the old traditions so we were asked to devise a training course.”

This year-long course was held for the first time in 2006. Twelve trainees enrolled and one of these was Eoin Murphy from County Louth.  

Initially, he wasn’t that enthusiastic about thatching. “I was 20 and out of work,” he remembers. “I saw an ad for a thatcher’s apprentice and I liked the idea of working outdoors so I went for it.”

Five years later, he is as passionate as Brian. “There are all sorts of different ways of thatching and materials to work with,” says Eoin. “It makes it very enjoyable. In my area, we work with long wheaten straw and use it in old houses and new homes.”

There has been a decrease in demand for thatchers since the recession started.  However, both Brian and Eoin believe the craft will live on.  

“Thatching is a sustainable roofing material that looks great,” believes Brian.  “People will always be interested in it.”  

“And now there are plenty of young thatchers trained in the skill, there’s no chance of it dying out,” adds Eoin.

Eighteen-year-old Raymond Ryan from Bandon, Co. Cork isn’t as optimistic about road bowling, a sport he loves.

“There aren’t many people my age who play as much as I do,” says the current Under-18 Irish Road Bowling Champion. “There will be very few left in a few years’ time.”

So, what is road bowling? Bowlers (pronounced to rhyme with howl) throw an 800g (28oz) ball, made from iron and steel and the size of a tennis ball, along a narrow country road. The aim is to finish the course/road with the fewest throws.

This sport can be traced back to the seventeenth century and was once played all over Ireland. Today, it can only be found in Counties Cork and Armagh where road bowling events attract large crowds and result in road closures.  

“What happens is that people bet on you to win,” says Raymond. “Then follow you along the road, giving you advice on the best way to throw the ball.”

They aren’t the only ones helping him either. The bowler works with a partner who stands ahead with his feet apart to indicate the best target for the throw.

Raymond started at age 14. “I’d seen people playing in the Bandon area and started practicing on my own,” he recalls. “I got help from a few players in their 20s and 40s and got good.”

The skill of the game is what first attracted Raymond. “It’s all about your stride, speed and straightness,” he says.  “You can improve these all the time.”

He also likes the competitive side of the game. “I usually play every weekend,” he says. “I go all over the country. If they phone me to ask me, I’ll go.”