Saturday 16 December 2017

'Why I decided to refurbish a thatch cottage' - the families who are saving Ireland's traditional homes

A new generation is saving our chocolate box thatched homes

Mikal O'Boyle outside the family cottage in Lecarrow, Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Bryan Meade
Mikal O'Boyle outside the family cottage in Lecarrow, Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Bryan Meade
The inside detail of Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford,
Detail of Michael Masterson's cottage
Mikal O'Boyle with her husband Adrian, son Ruairi (1) and daughter Isabella (3)
Emma Byrne and her husband Jonathan Rossney beside their Co Wexford cottage. Photo: Bryan Meade
Emma Byrne's cottage being rethatched by master thatcher Peter Childs. Photo: Bryan Meade
Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford

Gabrielle Monaghan

Author Mikal O'Boyle moved to Ireland in 2009 to study at NUI Galway, where she met her future husband Adrian. Mikal's new mother-in-law had grown up in the thatched cottage, so when the couple were expecting their first child, Adrian's mother suggested restoring it to its former glory so that the young family would have a home.

The cottage had lain empty for about 35 years, so it was no easy feat for Mikal's father-in-law and brother-in-law to bring it back to habitable condition. They added two bedrooms to the upstairs loft, a kitchen, and renovated the hag - a three-walled room just large enough for a mattress that was traditionally located behind the hearth so that a bed-bound grandparent could keep warm yet be within earshot of the story-telling action in the living room. The family then hired Mayo thatcher Denis Wright to repair the thatch.

For the author of Snake the Gypsy, who grew up in a US home where the temperature was controlled with a flick of the thermostat, living in a thatched cottage in the west of Ireland has proven to be a learning curve.

Restoring and living in a traditional cottage is a longing held by many but not always a practical one. Through the restoration the O'Boyle family discovered both sides of the thatched dream.

The inside detail of Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford,
The inside detail of Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford,

"The biggest challenge is heating the house," Mikal says. "I had to learn how to keep the range on all day by throwing in coal, turf and wood so it heats the radiators.

"To look at the outside of the cottage, you'd think you'd walk in and step back in time. But we do have Wi-Fi and I tutor English over Skype."

Detail of Michael Masterson's cottage
Detail of Michael Masterson's cottage

In the 19th century, up to half of the Irish population slept under thatched roofs. But they began to fall out of fashion after the introduction in the mid-20th century of government grants that encouraged homeowners to replace thatch with easier-to-maintain slates or tiles. Thatched cottages became associated with housing for the poor and gradually were left to decay, according to The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design, a new book by Marion McGarry that has just been published.

Michael Masterson, a 62-year-old builder from Moyne, Co Longford who focuses on restoring old properties, says: "Slate came to be everything - it was an indication of an improvement in your standing or status - and the thatchers began to die out."

Indeed, there are now only 40 thatchers in Ireland, according to Thatch, a guide to the repairing of thatched roofs published by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in 2015. The guide estimates that there are 3,000 thatched buildings left in Ireland.

But people like Mikal O'Boyle and Michael Masterson are part of a burgeoning movement that is seeing homeowners eschew the comforts of new-builds for restoring thatched cottages, either to live in or to let out through Airbnb. For them, these timepieces are characterful slices of heritage that maintain a link with the past.

Mikal O'Boyle with her husband Adrian, son Ruairi (1) and daughter Isabella (3)
Mikal O'Boyle with her husband Adrian, son Ruairi (1) and daughter Isabella (3)

In the early Noughties, Michael bought a patch of land with a collection of old buildings, including the dance hall where his parents met, with an eye on renovating them. Among them were the ruins of a thatched cob (with walls of compacted earth) cottage that Michael estimates was initially built in the mid-1700s.

"Growing up, that house had the first television in the village, in the 1960s," he says. "We'd go there to watch Tolka Row and The Riordans; my mother would bring three or four of us to the house and dress us up like we were going to the movies."

Emma Byrne and her husband Jonathan Rossney beside their Co Wexford cottage. Photo: Bryan Meade
Emma Byrne and her husband Jonathan Rossney beside their Co Wexford cottage. Photo: Bryan Meade

In the meitheal tradition, Michael rebuilt the 18th-century cottage with the help of his four children and some neighbours in 2009. Despite getting a grant of €4,500 for thatching the cottage, the cold winters of 2009 and 2010 delayed him from roofing it. The work was finally carried out in 2012 by a nearby thatcher and artist called Orla O'Neill, using reeds Michael had bought in the Co Limerick village of Foynes, on the banks of the Shannon estuary.

"Orla was a curator at an art gallery in Scotland, and I brought her back to do the thatch," he says.

Emma Byrne's cottage being rethatched by master thatcher Peter Childs. Photo: Bryan Meade
Emma Byrne's cottage being rethatched by master thatcher Peter Childs. Photo: Bryan Meade

Michael, whose grandmother lived in a thatched cottage until it fell in the 1960s, moved into his own cottage in 2013 but lets it out on Airbnb during the summer.

"The French have a great appreciation for it," he says. "I've also had a family from Lanzarote come to stay, and a man from Israel who lives in a yurt and builds yurts."

Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford
Michael Masterson's cob cottage in Moyne, Co Longford

Emma Byrne, a graphic designer who celebrated the beauty of the country's thatched cottages in her 2015 book Irish Thatch, fell in love with her four-bed cottage in north Wexford in 2007.

"I had been looking for a house in Dublin at the height of the boom and I realised that all I could get for my budget was small and poky," she says. "I asked if I could work from home a couple of days a week from Wexford, where I was hoping to buy a place with a bit of character. I found this thatched cottage, though some people told me I was mad because it was an old house that would require a lot of maintenance."

In 2014, when it was time for Emma to rethatch the cottage, she set out to research the craft and to find a suitable thatcher. But there was a dearth of information online, so she began to drive around the country to examine the work of thatchers and photograph it.

Emma's research into her own Wexford cottage revealed that it had been built in 1840, but that it was on the site of an older house that locals said had been there during the 1798 rebellion.

"Mice try and come in during the winter because the thatch is nice and warm," she says. "When an old socket blew upstairs and came off the wall, there was a mouse inside, curved around the middle; it was a feat of gymnastics. Then crows arrived and were pecking holes in the thatch, so I put up a dead crow on the roof to deter them."

Emma hired a master thatcher called Peter Childs after being impressed by examples of his work on other cottages. Some 80pc of the cost of the work was covered by a grant. Emma and her family continued living in the cottage while Peter Childs spent eight weeks stripping off the old thatch and redoing it, but she believes it was worth it.

"A new house doesn't appeal to everyone - there are other ways to live," she says. "I was cold during my first winter here, but I've never had a cold living here. And it's hardly a Victorian lifestyle: I have a shower, a bath, broadband, a dishwasher and a washing machine; I'm not exactly doing all my washing on a scrubbing board."

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