Thursday 23 May 2019

Why thatched cottages are not for the faint-hearted

Examining the pitfalls of restoring an old Irish cottage.

The Guilfoyle's retatched roof begins to take shape.
The Guilfoyle's retatched roof begins to take shape.
John O’Neill and his wife Claire Breen restored their cottage in Kilmuckridge.
Lifting the floor at the Guilfoyle cottage project
Gary and Emer Guilfoyle with daughters Meabh and Erin.
How the cottage looked before work began in Offaly.
The O'Neill's restored cottage adjoined to the house at the rear
A worker rethatches the roof of the house

Gabrielle Monaghan

Ireland is world famous for its chocolate-box thatched cottages.

But for generations they've been disappearing - either succumbing to modern conversion with more conventional roofing replacing the thatch or becoming run down and melting as the thatch gives way and rain washes the mortar out from between the stones, leaving the house-shaped piles of dry rocks which have become such a familiar aspect of the Irish rural landscape.

Sometimes they can be saved with strenuous intervention. But with traditional Irish cottage construction often at odds with modern building techniques, what does it take? And even more importantly, what might it cost?

To find the answers we talked to two families who have each had different experiences bringing a traditional Irish thatched cottage back from destruction.

In October, Gary Guilfoyle and his wife Emer posted photos on Imgur, an image-sharing website, of the progress they were making on restoring their 214-year-old thatched cottage in the Offaly village of Aghnananagh. When he woke up the following day, the 33-year-old was surprised to find that 200,000 people worldwide had viewed the pictures.

Since then, images of the Guilfoyles' preservation efforts have been viewed by more than 654,000 people, some of whom had tracked down the property's location on Google Street View and are eager to pay a visit.

Lifting the floor at the Guilfoyle cottage project
Lifting the floor at the Guilfoyle cottage project
Thatching gets underway at the Guilfoyle cottatge project in Offaly.
Gary and Emer Guilfoyle with daughters Meabh and Erin.
How the cottage looked before work began in Offaly.
The Guilfoyle's retatched roof begins to take shape.
The O'Neill's restored cottage adjoined to the house at the rear
A worker rethatches the roof of the house

Neither Gary nor his wife, who inherited the cottage from an aunt in 2009, had any experience with building projects when they set about returning the cottage to its former glory.

It didn't help that complete strangers, both online and in person, had an opinion on what the couple should do with the property.

Almost everyone Gary knew told him to raze it down to the ground, saying the pair were wasting their time and money. One passer-by even dropped unannounced to give his two cents on the matter.

"I was putting a new door on one of the sheds and a guy walked past and said 'you should knock that'. "This guy was standing in my yard, saying 'oh, my mother has a house like that and she had it dry-lined and she still has problems with damp'. But this house wasn't left to us just so we could let it go to wrack and ruin. So we had no option - we could either do it up or let it fall down. We were starting a family and decided to make it a family home."

For centuries, thatch was the most indispensable roofing material in Ireland. But it began to fall out of favour from the 1920s when the new Free State started dishing out grants for home improvements. Homeowners availed of the funds to replace thatch with slates or tiles, which didn't need to be repaired or replaced as often. The craft itself, traditionally passed down from one generation to the next, was on its knees. Thatchers, like other rural dwellers, started moving to urban areas or emigrated entirely. As a result, thatch - once the roof covering of choice for the poor - gradually became an expensive option and thatched cottages were left to decay or used to house livestock.

The Guilfoyles' cottage was also in bad nick when they took it on in 2010. Parts of the thatch were deteriorating, ivy had buried its way into the stone, and the windows - installed in the 1950s - were rotten and letting in rain. A dreary mid-20th century extension stood out the back.

Undeterred, the couple moved into a relative's house next door and began researching the traditional skills needed to rescue the three-room cottage. They even visited Bunratty Folk Park in Clare to analyse the details of its reconstructed 19th Century cottages.

In the evenings and on weekends and with the help of family and friends they began the arduous process of rescuing the cottage. The first builder they hired recommended dry-lining the walls, advice the Guilfoyles quickly learned to ignore.

"Lime plaster walls work differently to modern walls," Guilfoyle said. "If there is humidity in the room, the lime draws it in and dissipates it into the atmosphere outside. If you dry-lined those walls, they couldn't breathe."

As a local thatcher knuckled down on the roof, the couple had other challenges to tackle - they had to fell the five acres of 60ft-tall Christmas trees surrounding the cottage. The trees, planted 20 years earlier and never harvested, were blocking air flow to the thatch, preventing it from drying and creating decay.

The thatch is now finished and the couple hope to make the cottage habitable by the summer. Their budget is €110,000, most of which went on the new roof and a new extension behind the cottage.

Grants from Offaly County Council and the Heritage Council took some of the sting out of the financial burden. But preserving the cottage for future generations "is hard work", Gary said. "It's also more expensive than building something from scratch, but you end up with something unique."

Through Imgur, Gary shares war stories with another owner of a thatched cottage who was documenting his restoration job online. Like the Guilfoyles, Claire Breen had inherited a cottage and she and her husband John O'Neill have been blogging about their experiences and vernacular building techniques.

Claire inherited the property, in Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, from her parents and even lived in it herself until she was three-years-old. Her parents, who own a farm nearby, used the cottage as a base while building their own home.

The couple used to live in Greystones with their two small children, with Claire commuting to Wexford and John travelling to IT Carlow, his then workplace. After Claire's parents offered them the cottage, they decided in 2010 to move to Wexford so they could have more family time and rented out a house while revamping the property.

The cottage has been home to generations of the Breen family since 1860, when her great great grandparents, Patrick and Mary Redmond, moved in so they could have a short commute to the national school they taught at across the road.

However, the oldest part of the cottage was probably constructed in the 1700s, according to John, now head of lifelong learning at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght.

Unlike the Guilfoyles, the couple were a little more equipped to restore the cottage, with its sagging, leaking thatch and ivy that had worked its way into the cement render on the eastern gable. John is a former archaeology lecturer and Claire had worked in the heritage sector, so together, they could at least write the architectural heritage report themselves. They replaced a 1970s extension at the rear of the building with a slate-roof farmhouse-style structure. Though the old and new structures are linked by a hallway, the new extension can't be seen from the front of the cottage, John said.

They hired a craftsman to repair the cottage's 3ft thick mud walls, using straw from Claire's father's farm and leaving each layer of the mud-and-straw mixture to dry for a week before the next layer.

After the removal of the cement render and repairs to the mud walls, coats of lime-based mortar were applied to protect the outside walls from the elements. They also repointed the chimney breast and flues, and preserved a 19th Century cast-iron stove in what was once the cottage's parlour.

In April 2013, John and Claire moved into the extension and continued restoring the cottage. The thatching was finished this summer, completing a project that cost about €100,000. They now use the parlour as a playroom, another room as a sitting room, and the upstairs space, which has a projector, as an office-cum-pop-up cinema.

"We had friends and other people who were able to give us advice and some of Claire's family were able to get access to things like mechanical diggers," said John.

"This meant we could manage the cost. But we had never built anything before. That kind of naivety gets you so far enough into the project that you realise you have to continue. I wouldn't do it a second time."

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