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The art of thatching

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Matt Whelan at work in Kilmore Quay last week.

Matt Whelan at work in Kilmore Quay last week.

Matt Whelan at work in Kilmore Quay last week.

wexfordpeople

It's difficult, tough, and demanding work that will leave you numb, stiff, and sore - and Matt Whelan loves it.

Matt is a thatcher of considerable skill and renown, and has been keeping the ancient craft alive for just a shade under a quarter of a century. He possesses an obvious and heartfelt passion for his work and all the history and tradition behind it, and it's something he's been connected to for literally his entire life, as he grew up in a thatched house on a farm near Kilmore Quay - a village famed for its plentiful and picturesque thatched buildings.

However, it's a man from thousands of miles away who inspired Matt to get into thatching himself. Australian John Nunn arrived in Kilmore Quay more than thirty years ago after marrying a local woman, and inspired by what he saw around him, he learned the craft of thatching himself. But according to Matt, he revolutionised it too, mainly by forsaking straw as roofing material and turning to water reeds instead, because of how they are much longer-lasting and more durable.

'There's still thatch around here that John put up 26 years ago, where previously it would have to be re-done every seven years,' he said last week, while taking a break from a thatching assignment himself in the heart of Kilmore Quay. 'He did my dad's house about 30 years ago too, and it lasted 22 years. He's a very gifted man and somebody I look up to a lot.'

Matt entered the trade himself through a FAS course that was offered in Rosslare. It ran over two years, attracted 16 students from right across the country, and was taught by master thatchers who were invited across from England. He says the course was fantastic, with brilliant tutors and a brilliant organiser - and the only semblance of a complaint is that it was just too short.

'In England, for example, thatching is a four-year apprenticeship, but we did it in two. There's advantages to that, I suppose, but the disadvantage is that when you want to improve all the time, you spend the next twenty years learning what you could have learned in those extra two!' he says.

From the beginning, he too has used water reeds for thatch rather than straw. 'Irish people tend to think that if it's not straw, then it's not 'real' thatch, but water reed is probably the oldest form of thatch on the planet,' he says, adding that the actual practice of using straw for thatch is now 'dead'.

'It just doesn't last,' he says. 'The problem with what we grow today is that it's all been geneticially modified for the grain. The straw itself has no substance and no soakage.'

He rather colourfully illustrates his point by saying 'it wouldn't soak piss off a cow's arse'.

'It's unfortunate, because straw is what was used for so long, but there are just so many more advantages to water reeds that you couldn't use anything else,' he adds.

Still, as he started out in the trade after finishing his course 24 years ago, he found himself in the hunt for work against other thatchers who were still using straw - which he describes as 'a nightmare' from a business point of view.

'Somebody would want a price for a job, but the difference was that I'd be going to do a job that would last twenty years, where somebody else's job would only last seven. But I'd have to put the same or even a lower price on it that them, to have any hope of getting the job, until I got myself established. The first ten years were a nightmare that way,' he says.

That said, one job led to another and then in turn to another, and soon Matt found that work was taking him all over Ireland. In the earlier years, he spent some time in England too, further honing his skills. In the past few years however, he's been trying to confine himself to jobs a little closer to home - and while the work is very weather-dependent, he says there's always something to do.

'Oh, you spend half the year looking out at the weather,' he says. 'It's a very hard way to make a living from that point of view - if you could do it day in and day out, you'd be all right. But when November and December come round every year, you can just about forget about it for a couple of months. Then we have all these wet summers lately too - it's next to impossible to work on a wet day, and it's very tough to work on a windy too. Still, there's always something to do.'

Every single job presents a new challenge, he says, as no two roofs are the same. Elements that have to be considered each time include the pitch of the roof, decorative possibilities along the ridge or perhaps dormer windows, and which side of the house gets most wind, rain, or sun.

The north-facing side of a roof, for instance, is thatched differently to the south-facing side.

'The side that gets the most sun will suffer the most,' he explains. 'As it gets wet and then dries out and then gets wet again in the next rain, the material there will break down the quickest when the sun shines on it. But at least you know a south-facing or particularly a southwest-facing side is going to get plenty of air, because it will be battered by the wind.

'On the other hand, the north-facing side will last the longest, because it never really gets sun. But it's more sheltered from the wind too, and that means you have to treat it differently, to get more air to circulate through the reeds,' he says.

This is achieved through the manner in which the different bunches of reeds are overlaid across each other using the traditional binding material of hazel sprays. The method is not a million miles removed from how slates are laid on a regular roof, Matt says, but the key to it is getting the spacing and the quantities correct.

'That's what makes it a science as well,' he says. 'Think about it - we end up with a roof that's a living, breathing, organic thing, that's going to last twenty years or more. That to me is magical and something to be proud of.'

He doesn't deny though that it's all a lot of hard work.

'It can break you,' he says. 'And so it's not easy to get people to do the work. Over the years, I've had six or seven different people with me, but none of them lasted except Vinny who's with me now. One guy left after only two weeks. The stress and strain is unbelievable. Just try wrapping one hazel spray and you'll see how tough it is - and we went through 40,000 of them last year! The work hurts your back and your shoulders, and it uses every muscle in your body - it's definitely not for everybody - and you need to be very physically fit.'

Still, he loves it, and he loves too how people are so entranced by it. Taking Kilmore Quay as an example, he points out how so many tourists - paticularly from abroad - take photo after photo of almost every second building down the main street in the village, purely because of the thatched roofs. Many will often stop for a chat too while he's working, though some don't realise that a thatched roof isn't necessarily an invitation to visit.

'I've had people even drive up a private laneway and ask if they could come in to look around,' he reports. 'I have to tell them no - it's somebody's house, it's not a museum!

'It just shows how people are so interested, though. I'm lucky to be able to work this way.'

 

Despite Ireland being synonymous with cottages with whitewashed walls and thatched roofs, through imagery such as John Hinde postcards of the past and films like 'The Quiet Man', Matt Whelan says that the real home of thatch is England.

He himself learned the craft from tutors who came across from the UK, and he is full of praise for one of them in particular, Peter Brockett, who he describes as 'a genius' in the field.

After completing the course given by Peter and others in Rosslare back in the early 1990s, Matt himself spent some time in places like Norfolk, Oxfordshire, and Bedfordshire in England. He learned from four more master thatchers there, and says that what they achieve is still greater than anything here in Ireland. 'Their thatch can last for up to forty years,' he points out. 'Imagine if that was the case here - there'd be a lot more thatch to be seen. It's something that should be promoted more here, because there's all sorts of potential that we still haven't reached.'

Even from a regulatory point of view, the UK takes thatching more seriously, he says. There's an Association of Master Thatchers there that's very strict on admission and on standards, but there's no equivalent body in Ireland.

And believe it or not, there's another international aspect to thatching too - because similar to how ash for making hurls is imported from Scandinavia and elsewhere, the reeds he uses come from Turkey.

'Irish reeds don't suit any more because of pollution to our rivers and lakes,' he explains. 'A reed is a natural sort of a filter, and it gets affected by things like nitrates and phosphates and agricultural sprays. Reed gets imported instead from places like Turkey, Austria, France, and even China - but I only use the Turkish ones, because they're cut at a high altitude where there's no industry and therefore no pollution.

'There are pockets of reed in Ireland all right that would suit, but nowhere near enough to supply all our thatching needs - and that's another great pity,' he says.


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