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.”

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


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?

Reed Thatching in progress

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.

Ridge work

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 “Haynes Manual” of thatching

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.

Shannon reed-cutters

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.

Traditional thatched cottage

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.

Bringing in reeds

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.

Split hazel ‘scollops and stretchers’

Thatching Pt II will mostly be about Hazel.

Finding myself in the Bee-Loud Glade

Bees on the alighting board of a hive

Bees creep up on you.

About 37 years ago I set out an empty hive on the crag behind our garden, and within 3 weeks the bees just moved in. This was outrageous Beginner’s Luck – not to be expected then, and barely conceivable now. But wild honeybees were rather plentiful in the Burren in the early 80s, not so now, for which we can blame the dreaded mite varroa destructor.

Varroa mites arrived in Ireland in the 90s (the books say 1998) and spread so fast that I suspect they had been around but unidentified for a while. They are a parasite on Asian bees, which can coexist with them, but they kill European honey bees – not immediately but gradually. Their presence weakens the colony progressively until they collapse suddenly from stress, infection and debility. Nearly all beekeepers lost a lot of bees, and many of us lost them all.

That’s why there are far fewer wild honeybee colonies – essentially, hives need to be treated to control varroa, or they will die within a few years. The treatments that most of us use now are inexpensive and simple – organic acids like oxalic and citric acid, or in some cases aromatic oils.

Luckily, it is working – hence the Bee Loud Glade.

Bumble bee in our garden

Nowadays, I have 4 or 5 hives in the vicinity of our garden. Four hives is the theoretical maximum that I want to have to manage, but at times there are more. Then there are the bumblebees – 17 or 18 species of these in Ireland, and most of them have a presence in the Burren. In the month of May, it really is bee-loud around here. We are bucking the trend, I would have to say – bee news is generally not good around the world.

To celebrate the continuing vigour of the Roundhouse bees, I decided to push the boat out and buy a cedarwood hive. This is flatpack territory – like IKEA for bees. A well-know bee supply business in Co. Louth sells a rather fine cedar hive with 2 supers (honey decks) for a reasonable price, but you have to put it together yourself.

IKEA for bees.