Thursday 19 April 2018

End of an era for thatching

Master thatcher whose skill of hand and eye created an enduring legacy, writes Claire Mc Cormack

TRADE: John Higgins was much in demand for seven decades
TRADE: John Higgins was much in demand for seven decades

Claire McCormack

For 70 years master thatcher John (Jack) Higgins weaved reed and straw - crowning the houses and cottages of Ireland with gold.

He was a magician, taking the flimsy materials of soil and waterway and, by skill of hand and eye, creating an enduring legacy.

With a batch of the slender wooden rods called scollops, he travelled the country.

The passing of this artisan and craftsman from Doonis in Co Westmeath in his 98th year marks the end of an era.

Jack discovered the craft of building a thatched roof with water reed and straw at the age of 12.

He was an only son and was helping his father thatch the roof of their home in the small rural parish along the banks of Lough Ree.

Everyone soon recognised Jack's natural gift.

The youngster quickly developed a name for himself - a name that would keep him in satisfying work for seven decades.

Looking back on her father's life, his daughter Imelda, says he was a "jack of all trades".

"He was a farmer, he built walls, he was a blacksmith, he trained horses, but thatching gave him his greatest joy," she said.

"As a teenager he was headhunted by people in neighbouring towns and villages - particularly in Tang, Tubberclair, Newtowncashel and Keenagh," she said.

But as his reputation grew, people from neighbouring counties, including Offaly, Roscommon, Leitrim and Laois, came knocking on the Higgins' door.

He didn't drive, so his main modes of transport were his bicycle or donkey and cart - depending on whether or not he needed to bring a trailer load of materials.

"My greatest memory of him, from when I was a child, was watching him go off on his bicycle to thatch, wearing a hat and smoking a pipe," she said. For big clients, Jack, husband to the late Marie and a father of 13, often gathered reeds from around Lough Ree and brought scollops from sally or hazel trees to use as staples for keeping thatch on the roof.

It was hard work that could not be rushed. It could take him up to a month to thatch just one house.

When he started getting calls from the people of Connemara, Jack was confident he was doing a good job.

"He was flown out to the Aran Islands on a helicopter and he would be gone for weeks at time," said Imelda.

His more flamboyant commissions featured on historic postcards.

Despite having six sons and seven daughters, none of Jack's children took up the craft. But it didn't bother him.

"He often said he 'wasn't the least bit vexed' that none of his sons followed the trade," said Imelda.

He told us we all had our own calling in life and our own way to go, he didn't want to force anybody," she said.

But as the years passed by Jack knew the trade was beginning to die out.

It brought him sadness. However, Jack did his best to keep people interested in the craft by taking part in school talks on thatching and featuring in a heritage documentary on the craft.

After 70 years in business, a host of landmarks in his name - including an animal house in Dublin Zoo and a famous thatched pub in Cloghan, Co Offaly - Jack hung up his thatching needle and knife.

He finished his last house in 2001 at the age of 82.

Peacefully, he passed away in his 98th year last month..Below is a verse penned by his son Oliver J Higgins in his memory.

"In the last few days many the story's been told, of Jack the Thatcher - by young and old, the man with the hat who smoked a pipe, not many men left now of his type."

Sunday Independent

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