Difficult to know where to start when it comes to discussing thatching – it is woven through my life from my 20s onward. So what is it about thatch and me?
It all began about 1979, after moving to the west of Ireland. We were part of the Back to the Land movement that grew out of alternative ways of looking at society and lifestyles in the late 60s and 70s. We wanted to house ourselves and be the producers of a lot of our own needs, whether that was food, health support, clothing – you name it. We were going back to Simple, or that was the general idea.
We weren’t interested in overturning the System so much as turning our backs on it as much as possible. It turned out that land was available if you looked hard, and it was cheap, if you actually had some money.
Reconstructed Iron Age house, Craggaunowen Co. Clare
I had notions about designing and building a house since I was in my teens, and looked to earlier and more traditional ways people had gone about it. It had to be small in scale, non-industrial by nature, extremely affordable (which meant not hiring people with specialist skills) and aesthetically pleasing. Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux vision man, had said “the birds build their house in a circle because they have the same religion as us”, and I knew that the old houses in this region, way back in the Iron Age, were usually round. I had to learn to thatch.
Luckily, there was help. A friend of mine who lived in a thatched cottage had made an arrangement with a local thatcher which involved working with him for a while to learn the basics. We did some skill sharing. Then there was this great book from England “The Thatcher’s Craft”, literally an apprenticeship manual with hundreds of photos of technique.
The house got built eventually (another story) and indeed thatched, with reed from the Shannon estuary. I did cut some reed, but it needs a lot, so most of it was bought from the reed-cutters. More about them later. But I had figured out the thatching and it suited me. After a while people began to ask me to do some thatching for them – first repairs, but then full roofs, and before too long I had a trade.
Thatching was my main occupation for 12 to 14 years, depending on how you count it, because I always did other stuff. The usual hippy smallholding stuff, like milking goats on winter nights with an oil lamp hanging from a nail in the beam overhead. Shoeing horses, hauling dung… Thatchers were scarce and mainly elderly at the time, which meant there was work about, but expected rates of payment seemed to be stuck in the 1950s, perhaps with a proposal that “you’ll take half now, and I’ll give you the rest when we sell the hoggets”. Anyway, it was possible to get by on the money, and many of the people I was working for were just wonderful. In the old way, tradesmen were treated with great respect, overfed at regular intervals and their work blessed at every turn.
There is something about thatch that appeals to people of all ages. It draws passers-by to the foot of the ladder ( where they are not supposed to be, according to Health & Safety ) and it would be unnatural not to exchange a few words with them. Several times I was greeted (God Bless the Work!) by men of an advanced age, who proudly told me that they too had been thatchers. I noticed that they were generally very arthritic, and began to wonder. The West of Ireland is proverbially a wet place, and thatching is an outdoor occupation – one that requires strange postural arrangements and a lot of running up and down ladders. -Note to self.
At one time most of the thatched roofs around here ( S. Galway and N. Clare) were straw thatched. Oaten straw – absolutely a joy to thatch with – soft, golden and biddable stuff. I thatched a few houses with it, in what would be called “longstraw” in England. That means the straw has been through a thrasher to remove the grain, and then has to be pulled or “drawn” into sheaves by hand. There is nothing like the golden sheen of a newly straw-thatched roof. Unfortunately, oat straw was on the way out when I started – it belonged to an earlier phase of agriculture where many farmers grew a lot more tillage crops and most of their own feedstuff. Tillage dropped off, the combine harvester came in, and thatching straw was hard to get. Reed from the lakes and the estuary had always been used very locally, but now it was the best choice. It takes no more labour than the straw to put up, but lasts a lot longer if it’s done right.
So, apart from reed or straw and a fearless heart, what else do you need to go thatching? Well, you need a ladder and some tools, of course, but you also need lots and lots of rods… hazel rods by preference.
Thatching Pt II will mostly be about Hazel.