Ireland’s Historic Thatched Cottages

Ireland's historic thatched cottages

Ireland’s historic thatched cottages

Grant aid for the re-thatching and upkeep of Ireland’s Historic Thatched Cottages

Not far from the Giants Causeway on the north coast of Northern Ireland lies Hezlett house a thatched cottage dating from 1690 and now a National Trust property.

In August 2014 the re-thatching of this landmark building got underway. A layer of straw was removed and Turkish Water Reed was fixed to the roof. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this, although the rarity of the event attracted a lot of interest.

One aspect about the job which people would not have been aware of was that as recently as 2006 the same Thatcher had re-thatched the same roof in combed wheat straw. This material is often quoted as having a lifespan of between 20-35 years⁽¹⁾!

Less than 2 weeks later just across the border The Irish News published an article entitled “Our Iconic cottages are being lost to time” . The article went on to say that Ireland’s cottages and buildings were under threat from a lack of interest from the Government and the public. Heritage campaigners Dr Greg Stevenson and Dr Joseph Gallagher have undertaken studies on the decline of Donegal’s cottages and co written their findings in a book (Traditional Cottages of County Donegal by Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson 2012). They conclude this decline is despite planning policies and some grants that have been “in place in the last 30 years to protect the rural landscapes of County Donegal”. They also make reference to Thatched Cottages across the border in Northern Ireland which they believe have reduced in number from 40,000 in 1950 to just 150 by 2005.

The responses from the public to the article were generally negative and this person pulled no punches:

Let me guess the reasons why the numbers of these houses have fallen:

They were small, damp, cold, had no electricity, running water, or sewerage. Often enough, they are located in remote areas, without any community services nearby.

They are difficult and expensive to maintain, with costs coming out of the owners pocket, and a raft of taxes applied to this.

They are now also subject to the House Tax, Water Charge, soon to be introduced Broadcasting Charge, and any another tax the government might dream up.

Anyone who does own one and who rents it out will also be hit with punitive taxes on the income generated.

The ‘grants’ would likely not be available without massive work done to apply for them, requiring expensive consultants, and that is presuming there is actual money available.

Any more questions?

The respondent makes a strong case and his comment about the properties being expensive to maintain is particularly pertinent. Thatching is like any product and for it to survive and also prosper it must offer quality and value for money. Fundamentally any Thatched roof should not need re-thatching after only 8 years. What is more, not all clients such as the National Trust can afford to spend £25,000 – £30,000 each time a roof of this size is re-thatched.

There are clearly issues which need exploring to find out why thatched properties have fallen out of favour in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Some are cultural (they are not fashionable). Some have to do with a lack of skilled full time professional Thatchers and an absence of an agreed thatching specification. Some are to do with the architecture and poor pitch of these buildings: rounded ridges may deflect wind but they do not keep out water! Some also cite the absence of certain historic thatch materials, although good quality straw and reed from the UK are plentiful.

Moving forward to the end of 2014 articles began circulating in some of the Irish press about the possible ending of grant funding by the NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) for the upkeep of thatched properties. Given the findings of Stevenson and Gallagher this historic decision may not necessarily be the death knell that it may once have been perceived as.

I believe the almost misty eyed nostalgia needs to be taken out of any discussions on the future of thatched properties. What is more the idea that throwing Government money at the problem will not, and has not halted the decline of thatch properties.

On the contrary the danger of grant funding for re-thatching roofs is that it can engender an ethos of lethargy, that is, they will always be treated as a special case and this in turn puts people off owning and looking after them. Those people that do own them become complacent about ensuring every pound or euro is spent wisely – after all it’s not their money and they have very little say in what materials and techniques are used. Of course grant funding also often means that materials and practices of the past may be insisted upon even though these may not be best suited to present day economic cost considerations; this in turn leads to the necessity of more grant funding, which in turn leads to the unpopularity of the product.

It is up to Thatchers to do the best job that will stand the test of time. If outside bodies become involved (no matter how well meaning) and in any way compromise this then Thatchers have a duty to make this known. The thatching of a high profile property such as Hezlett House every 8 years is not a good advert for the trade and will only perpetuate the idea that thatched roofs are expensive to maintain and should be steered clear of.

You may also want to read in conjunction with the above a blog piece I did in October 2011

Traditional Cottages of County Donegal by Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson 2012.

(1) Thatching Advisory Services Ltd ( say Combed Wheat Straw should last 20 – 30 years.

The Thatched Owners Group ( quotes 25 – 40 years.