With a dwindling number of thatched cottages left on the whole island of Ireland, these dwellings are more precious than ever.
As durable as they are environmentally friendly, Irish thatched cottages are the products of centuries of history and tradition. While they currently make up a minuscule percent of the total housing stock in Ireland, in the 1800s, as much as half of the population slept under thatched roofs.
The materials used in construction varied across the years, from region to region, and depending upon the wealth of the family. For the walls, lime mortar was the most desirable – but also the most expensive – material. Mud tempered with strengthening agents such as straw, reeds, or animal matter was a popular alternative.
For the iconic roofs, overlapping layers of sod were placed on the timbers. On top of this went the straw thatch, derived from a variety of materials such as wheat and flax, carefully cut and threaded by a thatcher in either the slice or sketch style. It would often take as many as 5,000 handfuls of straw to complete a roof.
The trade of thatching was passed down through the generations, from father to son. The work was fairly steady since thatching must be replaced anywhere from every five to twenty years depending on the material and its condition.
Today, with the general decline in popularity of thatched cottages, thatching has become rare as a family trade, but a number of groups and individuals dedicated to the craftwork throughout Ireland to restore existing cottages and build new ones.
As closely associated as thatching is with Ireland, it was also widely practiced in a range of other countries. Examples of thatched roofs can be found In Japan, Peru, Germany, Bali, and Denmark, to name just a few.
Still, there’s nothing quite as picturesque or evocative as a quaint one-story thatched cottage nestled between stone walls and fields of green.
Here, read Seamus Heaney’s ode to the art, “Thatcher.”
Bespoke for weeks, he turned up some morning
Unexpectedly, his bicycle slung
With a light ladder and a bag of knives.
He eyed the old rigging, poked at the eaves,
Opened and handled sheaves of lashed wheat straw.
Next, the bundled rods: hazel and willow
Were flicked for weight, twisted in case they'd snap.
It seemed he spent the morning warming up,
Then fixed the ladder, laid out well honed blades
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods
That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple
For pinning down his world, handful by handful.
Couchant for days on sods above the rafters,
He shaved and flushed the butts, stitched all together
Into a sloped honeycomb, a stubble patch,
And left them gaping at his Midas touch.
*Originally published in 2015, updated in Sept 2022.