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How to make a living by learning a craft from Ireland's rich past

With many skills dying out, turning your hand to the right one may be lucrative, writes Louise McBride

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As the craft of thatching dates back almost 5,000 years, it is one of the oldest traditional skills in this country.

As the craft of thatching dates back almost 5,000 years, it is one of the oldest traditional skills in this country.

As the craft of thatching dates back almost 5,000 years, it is one of the oldest traditional skills in this country.

A dearth of skilled traditional craftsmen means it could still be possible to make a living out of an age-old Irish craft or trade today - though building up a successful career in such areas can be challenging. A shortage of traditional craftsmen means it is often difficult for companies and individuals to find people with such skills - meaning that you could end up in high demand and on good pay if you master the right skill.

"We don't have people with the old skills coming up, such as stone masons, master carpenters or master plasterers," said Peter Cox, managing director of Carrig Conservation, a company which has done conservation work across the world.

Another area where Cox cited a skills shortage is lime plastering. Lime plaster is a necessary material for the restoration of buildings over 80 years old, according to Cox. It can help reduce the growth of mould in buildings and add a nicer finish to walls than cement plaster does.

"We don't have many people who can plaster in lime - and over half of those experienced in lime plastering could be close to retirement," said Cox. "It's difficult to get any official training in lime plastering. Over the last 50 years, people have tended to use cement-based products, but these are not suitable for conservation projects."

Other traditional craftsmen in short supply include stuccodores (people who work with ornamental plasterwork), sliding sash window joiners and people who can work on traditional wrought-iron railings, according to Krystyna Rawicz, building surveyor and project manager with KRA Visionary.

"There are excellent traditional craftsmen out there, but they are few and far between and generally of an older generation," said Rawicz. "The number of people who are able to do proper traditional repairs on plastered ceilings and ornamental plasterwork is getting fewer and fewer. There are companies that are doing very well, but they are generally not available for quite a while because they are so busy and there are so few of them." So, if you want to try your hand at a traditional Irish craft or trade, what could you consider - and could you make a living from it?

THATCHER

As the craft of thatching dates back almost 5,000 years, it is one of the oldest traditional skills in this country. Kyran O'Grady, a thatcher with Wicklow Thatching Services, has been working in thatching for almost 40 years.

"It's not an easy way to make a living," said O'Grady. "Physically, it's very demanding - it's hard on the knees, elbows and back. You are totally dependent on the weather as you have to be outside all the time that you are working. It can also be quite lonely. You could be working on a cottage in the west of Ireland and not see someone from one day to another. You can be away from home for weeks or months at a time."

It can also be difficult to get into thatching, according to O'Grady: "You have to find someone who will take you on as an apprentice."

The amount you earn as a thatcher depends on how hard you work, according to O'Grady. "You get rewarded for what you put in," he said.

The owner of a standard Irish cottage could pay between €20,000 and €25,000 to get a roof thatched - and it would typically take between five and six weeks to complete the job. A larger roof would cost more. A large farmhouse roof, for example, might cost around €40,000 to thatch.

Thatched roofs also have to be maintained, so owners of thatched homes need to pay for upkeep. Anyone thinking of getting into the thatching trade should note that it is possible for homeowners to get a grant toward the cost of renovating a thatched roof.

O'Grady believes that it is still possible to make a living out of thatching today. "Thatching was dying out until the 1970s," said O'Grady.

"However, people are very much aware of their heritage today; owners of existing thatch cottages keep them well and new stock is being added."

"Thirty years ago, a lot of the work was commercial [such as on pubs, hotels and offices]," O'Grady added. "You also had people building thatched houses, gazebos and so on. That all dried up during the recession. During those years, repair work was the main work.

"Business is gradually picking up again. There are people building new thatch houses and people who need to repair existing thatch roofs."

DRY STONE WALLER

The dry stone walls dotted across the Irish landscape are some of this country's oldest walls and are therefore steeped in local heritage. Some dry stone walls were built almost 6,000 years ago. They were often built by hand by Irish farmers who cleared their fields of stone, and then used this stone to create a barrier around their property. Although cement is used to build most walls today, it is still possible to make a living building and repairing dry stone walls in Ireland, according to Ken Curran, director of the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland.

"Most of the demand for dry stone walls today comes from private individuals who are either looking for a boundary wall at the front of their property, who are getting a wall done when landscaping their garden, or who are restoring an old stone wall on their land," said Curran.

Your best chance of making a living out of the construction or repair of dry stone walls is to become self-employed, because there are not many, if any, Irish companies taking on people in this field, according to Curran.

You could earn between €100 and €250 a day when working on a dry stone wall.

"You won't be a millionaire, but a good waller can earn above the average industrial wage," said Ronan Crehan, a stonemason living in Killybegs, Co Donegal. "You can demand a very handsome rate for bespoke dry stone work, but it takes a while to get into that market."

Such bespoke work could include moongates, firepits and large seating areas. "In a small sector of Ireland, there are private individuals with high disposable incomes, who look for bespoke dry stone pieces," said Curran. "There's a strong demand for this work internationally as well, such as in Canada and the US."

Underselling your work when first starting out can help you to build up a portfolio and establish your career. This will make it easier to then win other jobs and to charge prices that better reflect the work you put in.

"If you can build one wall for some person, their neighbour will be on to you," said Curran.

Supplementing your income through teaching can make it easier to make a living in this craft.

You could earn between €250 and €350 a day teaching the craft of dry stone walling - if you have between 10 and 15 years' experience. Those with less experience in the craft could expect to earn around €100 a day as an assistant tutor.

"If you are motivated enough, are brave, and have integrity, you can make a living out of it," said Curran. "You need to know your craft and be able to explain the advantages of dry stone walls to clients. One of the biggest challenges you'll face is convincing people of the strength and durability of dry stone walls. The other challenge is training; it's difficult to get training."

The Irish weather, however, is not a challenge. "You don't need dry weather to work on dry stone walls," said Curran. "You can work all year around with it."

LIME PLASTERER

When St Mel's Cathedral in Longford was destroyed by a fire in 2009, Carrig Conservation was appointed conservation consultant for the restoration of the site. Around 15 plasterers were trained in the use of lime at the time so they could work on the restoration. "We went back to visit those people five years later and 85pc of them were still employed working in lime," said Cox.

So it seems there is demand for those skilled in lime plastering and lime rendering. Furthermore, pay for a lime plasterer is often better than it is for a cement plasterer, according to Cox.

"People who own these old buildings usually have a bit of money and so are prepared to pay that little extra to get the right skills," said Cox.

Traditional crafts are very labour-intensive and people often consider it too expensive to hire those with such skills.

So, for anyone considering trying their arm at an age-old craft, do your research and be sure that there is a demand for it - and that the economic conditions are right for such a career path.

Otherwise, your venture into an old Irish livelihood could be very short-lived.

 

Challenged traditional livelihoods

FISHERMAN

As an island nation, there is a long history of fishing in this country. However, it has become increasingly difficult to make a living as a small fisherman in recent decades.

Trawler fishermen have also faced huge challenges.

Often with fishing, pay is low, hours are long and it can be dangerous working at sea. 

“For the inshore fisherman, it’s difficult to make a living,” said Michael Cavanagh, chairman of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation.

“Salmon fishing was a big thing for inshore fishing but that’s all stopped now.”

Cavanagh, who is now retired, owns a pelagic trawler, which his sons continue to fish on. He described the ongoing dispute over Rockall fishing rights as a big challenge for many Irish fishermen. Rockall is a fishing ground in the north Atlantic and last summer, a row erupted between Ireland and Scotland over the rights to fish in those waters.

“For white fish vessels, the big problem will be Rockall, as a lot of the livelihood of the fishermen here has come from there,” he said.

Cavanagh, who is from Inishowen in Co Donegal, described Greencastle (a fishing port in Inishowen) “as pretty much like a ghost town most of the time”. “It used to be a strong fishing village,” he said. “There are no young Irish people going into fishing. The weather is a problem and it’s getting worse. I’ve experienced rougher seas over the last 10 years and storms are getting more violent.” There are no official figures on Irish fishermen’s pay but you could earn as little as €18,000 a year starting out in fishing, according to some estimates.

POSTMASTER

Many of us who went to the Gaeltacht or holidayed in the Irish countryside as children remember running to the small village post office to send postcards home.

A lot of these post offices have closed in recent years, and postmasters have warned that hundreds of them in villages, towns and cities could shut over the next two years if urgent action is not taken by the next Government.

The post office network started to evolve in Ireland in the mid-17th century.

There are currently about 900 postmaster-run post offices. “Three hundred of them are losing money, 300 are breaking even and 300 are commercially viable,” said Ned O’Hara, general secretary of the Irish Postmaster’s Union. “We’d have a significant number of people who are earning less than €30,000 a year to run a post office, and out of that money comes all the costs of running the post office, such as rent, wages and so on.

“The income [to run a small post office] could be as low as €10,000 a year.

“Income could be as high as €100,000 or €200,000 for a busy office in Dublin — but out of that you have to pay your costs. Rent is often high in Dublin and a busy Dublin office could be employing five or more people.”

Some of the biggest challenges facing post offices today are a decline in mail volumes and other sources of revenue.

Sunday Indo Business