Irish snatching back the thatch: seven heritage homes on the market
Rural idyll combined with a fall in prices means Irish buyers are keen to snap up cottages
The scene is a soft spring, the 1920s, the west of Ireland, and a big, confident returned Yank arrives in Co Galway to buy back his ancestral home, White o' Morn - a tiny thatched cottage, dwarfed by mountains, with a rose garden and a stream.
The Yank in question is of course Sean Thornton, as played by John Wayne in John Ford's 1952 classic The Quiet Man and needless to say he gets what he wants.
In the following decades, Irish-Americans followed Thornton's example in their droves, buying traditional thatched cottages in 'the old country' in the hopes of living the simple rural dream themselves, at least part-time that is.
And if reports are to be believed, there were many others who couldn't afford the dream and simply took a piece of it away with them instead: almost nothing remains now of White o' Morn cottage, most of the stones having allegedly been carried off one at a time by fans of the film.
Thatched dwellings were still plentiful in the 1950s Quiet Man era, but now only a few thousand remain. Many have protected status, including, ironically enough, the crumbling vestige of White o' Morn.
The dream is enduringly popular among overseas buyers who want an Irish cottage that looks like an Irish cottage 'should' look. They want a fragrant thatch, tiny windows obscured by geraniums, and a half-door to keep the chickens out. They want a sleeping loft and a crane in the hearth and a dresser full of willow pattern.
However, a straw poll of auctioneers with experience selling thatched cottages shows that for the first time since we abandoned them for bungalows, Irish buyers are now very much in the ascendancy when it comes to buying chocolate box traditional thatched homes. Through the last year agents reckon home-grown buyers are acquiring from 60pc to two thirds of Irish thatches coming to market. This is partly because they have become relatively cheaper compared with other properties, enabling home purchasers to scoop them up as holiday abodes. The logic for that slippage however, is not for reasons you might expect.
"Quite simply all period home types have seen their prices fall relative to other homes in recent years because of the huge difference in heating costs compared with newer properties. Technology has moved on to such a degree that the difference in running costs has put a dent in the value of all period houses," says Colum Murphy of Kehoe & Associates in Wexford, a county renowned for still surviving thatches.
Steve Symes of Green Valley Properties in Clare says he's noticed fewer enquiries from the UK, a formerly strong thatch market, since the Brexit referendum. However, he also notes that there are also fewer thatched cottages available. His two most recent sales of thatched houses were to Americans.
On Green Valley's books at the moment is a recently rethatched property at Bauroe, near Feakle in east Clare. It's traditional-style rather than of traditional age, being one of a cluster built in the 1970s by the 'Rent an Irish Cottage' company and now all privately owned. Inside its 746 sq ft are all the features you'd expect from a traditional thatch, including the half-door and the flagstone floor and vaulted ceiling in the main living room, where there's a wood-burning stove in a typically vast hearth.
There's a small galley kitchen and two ground-floor bedrooms, the third being upstairs in an attic eyrie. It's on the market for €125,000 with Green Valley (061) 921 498.
Colum Murphy concurs that there's been a decline in enquiries from the UK in the sunny south east, which he attributes to the value of sterling rather than to any residency-related Brexit uncertainty.
"The weakness of sterling against the euro has affected the number of UK buyers purchasing here for sure. Obviously the value isn't as attractive as it was," says Murphy.
Both Murphy and Symes have observed, however, that domestic buyers are now very much more in the picture today, taking over from a traditional foreign dominance of thatch.
"In any thatched property sale there's probably a 60pc or 70pc chance it's going to be an Irish buyer," says Colum Murphy. "We wouldn't be relying on foreign buyers for those properties any more."
For example, just last weekend, his firm agreed a sale of Sunnyside, a spectacular - though by no means traditional - thatched cottage near Kilmore Quay to an Irish buyer who intends to use it as a 'staycation' holiday home.
Sunnyside is an example of a 'modern thatch,' having being built a few decades ago with overseas tourists in mind on what must be one of the most enviable sites in Wexford. It's the last house on a cul de sac ending at the sea, and it's about 60 metres from the water's edge. Unlike an original thatch, it's quite substantial, at 2,282 sq ft on two floors, with a huge open living area with views to the Saltee Islands, along with five bedrooms and a cinema.
It's on three acres with a detached garage and games room, and it was on the market at €525,000.
Murphy notes that the reverse also applies - there may be fewer potential UK buyers, but conversely increasing numbers of thatches are being sold by UK-born vendors these days. "The reason is the reverse of the currency issue; they can get much more for their euro in Britain now."
By way of example, Kehoe & Associates has a thatched cottage called Cailín Rua for sale, at Tomnalossett in Enniscorthy, which is being sold by its British owner.
There are two cottages here - the original thatched house and a converted outbuilding, also thatched.
The main house has a sitting room with French doors, an eat-in kitchen and two bedrooms. The detached 'granny flat' consists of a kitchen/living room and bedroom with ensuite. Kehoe & Associates (053) 914 4393 is asking €220,000.
Further north, Sherry FitzGerald Catherine O'Reilly (0404) 66466 is selling Dawn Cottage at Ballinahinch, Ashford, Co Wicklow.
Said to date from the 17th century, it's a protected structure and has been extended by the current owner to 1,119 sq ft - a mansion by 17th-century standards.
It's on a third of an acre with a cute front garden and a raised back lawn with a 'garden room'. Inside there's a triple-aspect living and dining room with an open fire and French doors. Off the hallway is a small kitchen and two bedrooms (one ensuite). It's on the market at €395,000.
In true traditional style, Spinning Wheel Cottage near Rathangan, Co Kildare, has an actual spinning wheel, and is said to have been in the ownership of the same family for 200 years until the 1990s.
It has modern comforts too though, including ensuites in two of the three bedrooms in a 1,200 sq ft floor area, and its thatch was redone quite recently, in 2009. It's for sale for €255,000 with Kate O'Shea (086) 798 1888.
Meanwhile, over near Quiet Man country you'll find Fairy Bridge, at Tonwee, Oughterard Co Galway. This has been a holiday rental and very popular among tourists who like their Quiet Man atmosphere laid on pretty thick.
Again there are two cottages on the site. The main one has three bedrooms (two ensuite), along with an eat-in kitchen and a living room. The second (the one used for holiday lettings) has an open-plan living room, dining room and kitchen and a loft bedroom. The grounds have numerous outbuildings and even a rose garden. It's 1.5km from Oughterard on the edge of Lough Corrib.
Yet another pair of thatchtops come with a three-quarter acre site at Mar Lodge, Commaun in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry. There are four bedrooms and three bathrooms and a luxurious interior for €350,000 through Kerry Atlantic Properties (066) 976 1349. Located just off the Wild Atlantic Way, this picture-postcard thatch is situated on an elevated site offering stirring views of the Caragh River valley, the Atlantic Ocean with the beaches of Rossbeigh and Inch. You can also see right to the mountains and valleys of the Dingle Peninsula.
This property consists of two thatched cottages, a main dwelling and a smaller one adjacent to it. Both cottages have striking vaulted ceilings. Back to lake country, this time Lough Ree and Property Partners Earley (0906) 626 579 is handling the sale of a three-bedroom thatched cottage in quite an exalted situation at Portnahinch, Lanesboro, Co Roscommon.
It has 1.1 acres of grounds with direct access to the water, and there's nothing traditional about its floor area, which amounts to 1,870 sq ft.
It's on the market at €250,000 and John Earley is confident of an imminent sale. "Come May Day, when the boats are up and down the water again, we'll have it sold going into the summer," says Earley.
"I had an American looking at it, I've had Germans looking at it, and I've had Dublin people looking at it. Anyone could buy it really, but it's always going to be a moneyed person at that level."