Thatching Pt.II

Continuing the Thatching thread, This is about Hazel, the thatcher’s friend.

Hazel rods growing from the base of a hazel stool

The name of the townland we live in is Carrownagoul, or Ceathrú na gCoill, which means “The Quarter of the Hazel”, and it’s well named. The land is a mixed pattern of fields, scrubby woods and rocky limestone crag bordered by a turlough or “disappearing lake” at the North West. There is plenty of hazel, from the dwarfed scrub just surviving in the crevices of the crag, to the miles of hedgerows where it’s mixed with whitethorn, ash, spindle and buckthorn, and then there are the more established areas where the hazel finally rises above scrubdom and becomes a tree of the woods. It is not a big or showy tree, the largest trunks don’t get much thicker than my leg and it can rise to about 6 or 7 meters at best, but while all trees have their special uses, hazel is particularly generous. For this reason it was classed under ancient Brehon Law as one of the Lords of the Wood.

“Coil ‘hazel’. In spite of its relatively small size, the hazel is included among the lords of the wood. The ninth-century legal commentary explains that this is because of its nuts and its rods. Hazel-nuts were an important element in the early Irish diet: the fact that they could be stored made them a particularly important foodstuff during the generally lean and hungry winters endured by the early Irish. Later legal commentary describes the hazel as in briugufeda “the hospitaller (food-provider) of the wood”. It is clear from both the documentary and the archaeological evidence that the strong, pliable and quick-growing rods of the hazel were of the utmost importance in the construction of fences, enclosures and house-walls.” http://www.forestryfocus.ie/

Hazel nuts drying

Of course I use hazel for all sorts of things, but it’s thatching I came here to talk about. It’s probably the best of all native trees for producing long smooth rods that are strong but pliable. Willow is another contender – it produces softer rods that are better for the basketmaker, but second best for the thatcher. We need 2 kinds of rod, the longer ones that lie across a layer of thatch (we call them stretchers, but they have other names) and the staple-like scollops that pin down the stretcher. Stretchers can be whole or split, but scollops are nearly always made from splits. Here’s how it’s done:

Splitting a hazel rod and making a scollop

In the video, you can see that before I bend the hazel rod, I first have to twist it. This is the key to making a decent scollop – if you tried to bend the split rod double without the twist, it would just splinter and break. Twisted, the fibres separate and become pliable, but the straight part is strong and, believe me, sharp enough to injure you if you don’t pay attention.

A traditional cottage might use 2000 or so of these scollops and a few hundred stretchers. It’s labour-intensive work, thatching, and skilled labour at that. Most thatchers now buy in their hazel rods ready-made, or arrange for someone to do the work for them.

The traditional way to roof a new house with thatch was to first cover the roof timbers with sods cut from a bog or field. The sods, usually called “scraws” need to be tough and fibrous, so they were cut from old pasture to make sure they were held together by a wiry mat of roots. The scraw was good for adding insulation, but it was quite heavy. Nowadays the first coat of thatch is usually “stitched” onto roof battens using wire ties instead of scollops, but subsequent coats can be fixed into this layer using hazel scollops. I’m going to show this picture again, because you can see the battens and the wire ties on the modified roof structure:

Wire fixing method

There’s a lot more to be said about hazel and the local economy. The years of WWII, or The Emergency as it was known here, were significant. Due to difficulties with imports from Spain, hazelnuts from Ireland were suddenly a cash commodity, and many local nut-gatherers were able to sell them to agents for English buyers. There was also, I’m told, local production of charcoal for “producer gas”, a rather clunky alternative fuel to petrol which was heavily rationed.

I have always had a special feeling about going off into the hazel woods to gather rods. There are a lot of hazel woods, but only certain places yield good rods. In more populous areas like the South of England, where the land is richer, hazel coppices were established in which the stools of hazel were regularly cut, on a cycle of about 8 years or so. We do things differently in the Burren. We hunt the wild scollop, seeking out the darker places in the woods where young shoots have to reach up towards the light. In my early years hunting for prime rods, I would come across the telltale marks where someone else had cut rods, maybe 5 years earlier, out in the wild places. They were usually the best places. Now I only see my own cuts as a rule – no-one else cuts rods here now. The hazel woods of the Burren have their own magic: elf-cups, the tiny red fungi that grow deep in the woods, bluebells and wild garlic in spring, and above all the sense of being outside the World’s time.

More in Thatching Pt.III

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