Sunday 20 October 2019

Our thatch heritage

The stunning thatched cottage covered in seashells depicting The Mexico wreck in Cullenstown.
The stunning thatched cottage covered in seashells depicting The Mexico wreck in Cullenstown.
The stunning thatched cottage covered in seashells depicting The Mexico wreck in Cullenstown; INSET: A thatched cottage in Kilmuckridge.
Emma Byrne, author of 'Irisih Thatch'.

By david looby

PICTURESQUE white-washed thatched cottages are dotted around County Wexford and for Wexford woman, Emma Byrne, who lives in a 19th century cottage in North Wexford, they are living, iconic emblems of Ireland, which she has captured in her beautiful book, Irish Thatch.

Emma, from New Ross, moved into Old Mill Cottage in 2005 in North Wexford and she started writing the book in 2013 when she had to get her cottage re-thatched.

Emma said: 'We were going to buy a house in Dublin. It was the height of the boom and we couldn't afford a house in the city. Then we just came across this four bed cottage in North Wexford and we fell in love with it. Some people may have thought we were mad buying a thatched cottage.'

Emma and her husband Jonathan bought the house, which was in good condition and slightly cheaper than other, more conventional houses on the market. 'It's an ongoing labour of love. We changed the heating system and did up one of the sheds. You could have invested €100,000 in it in one go but it's liveable and it's very comfortable. Two years ago we got it re-thatched and we went through the process.'

When it came to rethatching the house they received some financial assistance from Wexford County Council and the Department of the Environment.

Emma said she wrote the book because apart from books on grants and lists of thatchers, there was no publication chronicling thatched cottages in Ireland, except the list provided by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

'There was nothing about these nice buildings except for the odd newspaper article about the difficulties of living in thatched cottages. I was nervous about the task of writing the book in the beginning. It was the great unknown, but I wanted to tell the story of the Irish thatch.'

Emma is an award-winning graphic designer and artist who has brought her talent to Irish Thatch.

'I wanted to look at it from an owner's viewpoint. It's like living in a living house. It's constantly changing. We have to re-thatch it every 20 years. When the thatcher was working on it he found a piece of newspaper from when it was previously thatched. Thatchers always leave something behind and there is a passage of time and a real tradition among thatchers. It's a tradition of heritage which is part of the community. There are decades of craft and stories involved in these houses. Most cottages are in private ownership and many are in small villages.'

Emma said Padraig Pearse's cottage in Connemara has become a national treasure, while the South East is home to several mud walled, usually scalloped or thrust-thatched homes from Kilmore Quay to villages such as Licketstown and Glengrant in Co Kilkenny.

'The Padraig Pearse cottage is tied up with Ireland and our national identity. A cottage in Clogh in Kilkenny was the last thatched cottage for the workers working on the mine in nearby Castlecomer and the local people have preserved it. There is often a local community effort. I heard great stories about our cottage, it was a great card house during the long winter evenings. It was built on the site of a house built in 1798 and our house was built in about 1850.'

Emma said the high cost of insurance is one downside of living in a thatched cottage, adding that there is only one insurer who will cover them. She said there is the same amount of maintenance in a thatch cottage as there is in any old house.

'There is an economy to these cottages as they have three foot walls with thick roofs made of water reeds or straw and they conserve heat, are environmentally friendly and are made of sustainable materials. In their construction these houses have a direct link to the past.'

There are around 3,000 thatched cottages dotted around the country and Emma said more needs to be done to protect thatched cottages around the country.

'This is something in our heritage which needs to be celebrated. Throughout the country these houses are lived in and some are used as holiday homes while others are museums open to the public.'

The book features stunning colour photographs of thatched cottages throughout the country. It is divided into easy to read, short chapters like My Life with Thatch, Thatch Through the Centuries, The Raw Materials, The Art of Thatching and there is a map of publicly owned thatched buildings throughout Ireland, along with a region by region account of thatch traditions in Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster.

'They have developed into their own unique shape in different areas. They have mud walls and a high pitch in the South East and in the west they used more stone with a lower, rounded pitch because of the Atlantic winds.'

Emma researched the book in her spare time.

'I looked at other books from other countries. I wanted a photographic book as other books published in recent times are more technical. I am not a thatcher or an architect, but I have an interest in this.'

Emma said the local stories she heard about cottages were the highlight of her research, adding that she found great inspiration for her book in County Wexford.

'We have a wonderful thatch cottage tradition here in County Wexford. The Irish National Heritage Park is amazing and the cottage in Cullenstown is incredible with all the seashells on it. Talk about being linked to an historical event. In shells, the cottage tells the story of the wreck of the Mexico. The people behind this are unsung heroes.'

'Irish Thatch' is available in book stores across the country.

Wexford People

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