A new book traces the history of the thatched cottage, of which there are around 2,500 dotted around Ireland’s four provinces, writes David Looby

‘IT’S about owning something which is living and which is connected either to your family or to your heritage. It’s about bein g part of history.’

For Irish Thatch author Emma Byrne, who lives in a 160-year-old cottage in County Wexford, thatch cottages are an indelible part of Irish culture.

For every thatch cottage dotted along the eastern and western seaboard there is a story of ingenuity, a story of family and a story of survival.

There is also the story of the thatcher who sources the materials and carefully thatches the roof into the picture-postcard perfect things of beauty they are.

Thatched cottages have been a feature of the Irish landscape for thousands of years. For many, thatch cottages are a romantic touchstone image of a simpler Ireland.

Emma’s book, which is for sale in good bookshops in Ireland, 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.

As part of her research for the book, Byrne drove around the country observing the different styles on her weekends and in her spare time.

Byrne, 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.
Byrne said: ‘We had planned to buy a house in Dublin, but it was the height of the boom and we couldn’t afford it. 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.’

Along with her husband Jonathan, Byrne 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. Three years ago we got it re-thatched and we went through the process. Between a grant from Wexford County Council and The Department of the Environment, 90% of the cost was covered. 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.’

She said the high cost of insurance is the downside of living in a thatched cottage, adding that there is only one insurer who will cover them.

Byrne said she wrote the book because, apart from information 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.

Byrne, who is an award-winning graphic designer and artist, said: ‘I wanted to look at it from an owner’s viewpoint. It’s like owning 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. 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.’

Continue reading in Issue 5557