The Thatched Cottage

Image of a thatched cottage in Donegal.
Thatched cottage in Donegal.

Synonymous with our rural traditions, the irish thatched cottage remains a source of fascination and delight the world over. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sleeping in one will tell you about the sense of magic and going back in time to savour a simpler way of living. In olden times the thatched cottage was the favoured form of accommodation throughout Ireland. It provided a shelter of personality, comfort and warmth which varied in each region of the country and in response to local climates and conditions.

The use of local building materials ensured that they blended effortlessly into landscapes of which they were a part of. A lot of the timbers used on roofs were found in local bogs. Finding bog oak was a skilled craft in its own right. Men would have visited the bog on frosty mornings when they could see the outlay of the tree in the bog. They would mark the area and when the frost disappeared they would dig up the tree which would had lay in the bog for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Cottages in coastal areas like Donegal had low pitched roofs and were built in sheltered areas to avoid storms. All materials for the house were cheaply and locally sourced – for example, in Donegal, Marram grass would have been cut from the sand dunes at local beaches. Straw, flax and rushes were also harvested from local fields. Different regions in Ireland used different methods for securing the thatch. In the Midlands hipped roofs are common; here the thatch is laid in a triangular slope from the ridge of the roof to the side of the cottage and there is no gable. In exposed situations on the coast, where a gale could strip the thatch off a house, a network of ropes is thrown over the roof to hold the thatch in place.

In Donegal the ropes are tied to stones jutting out from the wall at eaves level. Elsewhere they are anchored to large stones lying on the ground. Thatch has to be renewed after a number of years. Usually the new thatch is placed on top of the old and, as a result, the thickness of a thatch roof can become as deep as four feet.

Sadly, the thatched cottage is a building that is rapidly declining from our landscape in Donegal. Along with this, thatching has become a specialist trade, at present there are only a handful of Thatchers left in Ireland, a couple of them based in the North-West region and Donegal.

One of these Thatchers, Brian Lafferty, from Redcastle in Inishowen, learnt the trade from his father growing up. He argues that it has been a most rewarding job personally: ‘You get to meet so many interesting people, some in their nineties, hearing their stories of their experiences in life, seeing their caring ways and getting to know their charming superstitions - for example, one lady gave me a beer to drink every evening after work – she said a dry Thatcher meant a wet roof. Many offer me warm cups of tea and plates of soup and it’s a delight to see that they are pleased with the work you have done to make their home more comfortable’.