The Problems facing Thatchers in Ireland

The economic Tsunami which has ravaged Ireland in recent years has created the ‘perfect storm’ for beleaguered Irish Thatch owners.

This has manifested itself in a triumvirate of problems – namely falling property prices, less access to Government funding for maintaining thatch in the way of grants and a near absence of specialised Insurance companies willing to insure thatch properties; in some cases a recession related trend has seen Insurance companies cancelling cover for some thatched properties or imposing such strict policy details and high excess terms that many thatch owners are deciding not to insure at all.

Irish thatchers are likewise struggling to find work at a time when their overheads are going up and the cost of thatching materials (most of which have to be imported) also continue to rise.  For example three wet harvests in 2007-2009 have seen straw prices rise from 600 Euros a ton to nearer 800-1000 Euros a ton today over this same  period.  Water reed prices have likewise gone up from less than 2 Euros a bundle only 3 years ago to 2.5 Euros and for many single or 2 man thatching firms who buy reed through suppliers based in Ireland the price they pay can be nearer 4 Euros.  The thatcher has no choice but to pass these costs on.

Irelands relative geographical isolation means that when an Irish thatcher buys reed from a supplier in the UK it sometimes has not only has crossed the English Channel into the UK but then is loaded again to come across the Irish Sea.

For many entering the trade the wage is no more than the statutory minimum but here too employment costs are higher than the UK equivalent – currently 7.65 Euros compared to 6.75 Euros in the UK with talk of the Irish rate returning to 8.65.

Many times I have heard the comments expressed by Irish thatchers that the rainfall amounts in Ireland compared to the UK mean that thatch will deteriorate quicker making it a less attractive proposition for builders and developers.  Whilst it is true that rainfall figures in Donegal, Galway and Cork (3 prime thatching areas) are higher than anywhere in any English  counties, this is not the case  further east in areas such as Roscommon and Wexford and in the midlands which all have comparative rainfall figures  to most English counties as far apart as Wiltshire and Lancashire.

Ireland is said to have less than 3000 thatched properties, (the UK 35,000) yet remarkably in March 2011 there were 60 thatchers listed as covering the whole of the island. One wonders how many of these are still able to make a full time living in the trade?

As in the UK it was the new build property boom together with access to credit of the late 1990’s and 2000’s that created so much work for Irish thatch companies although the quaintness with which Irish cottages are viewed is not necessarily translated into people wishing to buy and live under thatch.  I don’t believe the 15 newly built thatched houses on the St James Wood Estate in Stradbally, County Waterford, would have remained unsold if they were in England.  The historically hard living conditions that many rural Irish endured whilst living under thatch has meant that a large square mock Georgian mansion is now far more desired than a house with a thatched roof.  This legacy is in marked contrast to thatch in the UK where thatch is still viewed as a desired roof covering and where the highly ornate ridges and complex roof shapes make UK thatching famous the world over.

Clearly thatching in Ireland has reached a crossroads and if it is to flourish a fresh approach or new way of looking at thatch has to take place…; thatch is not a cheap roof covering which in itself is not an issue as long as the end product gives value for money – especially if thatch is not the choice of the average house buyer in Ireland.

In the UK English heritage have  tried to step in and regulate a lot of the listed or older stocks of thatched roofs; this has been met with  opposition from some thatchers who believe their historical ability to innovate and care for thatched roofs is being unnecessarily interfered with

Clearly a balance has to be made between offering value for money (thatching in materials that will last the test of time and workmanship which is of a high standard) whilst not destroying the look of many older thatch roofs.  In the UK some listed building officers insist that the old multiple layers of thatch which show at the eaves and gables should remain visible as a reference point to show the age of the roof.  In some English counties they allow highly decorative ridges to be fitted to long straw roofs whist others Councils are adamant that only simple flush ridges should be fitted.

In many ways Ireland does not face these sorts of problems due mainly to the fact that there are far fewer thatched properties and such generalities which are promoted by many government agencies are not so much to the fore.

However what Ireland and England have in common is a whole range of opinions not only from thatchers but from those that make decisions about thatch.  This bureaucracy is often promoted in the guise of thatch being seen as a rural craft and not an exact science and wanting to keep with tradition – whatever that word means; even thatchers get caught up in this way of thinking such as trying to promote the idea that only Irish grown straw should be used on Irish roofs.  Things have clearly reached a point of absurdity and these views do nothing to promote thatch in Ireland.

The introduction of fire retardants has been a massive step forward in promoting thatch, but even with this how and in what circumstances they should be introduced have created confusion – in Northern Ireland this year we thatched two new build properties less than 15 miles apart and the different building control officers for each project came up with very different views on what fire barriers should be used and how the ventilation and insulation of the roof should work.

It is hardly surprising that a lot of potential builders shy away from thatch.  At the National Society conference of thatchers last year held in the UK the difference between UK and continental thatching was highlighted by guest speakers from Holland and Germany where new build thatching is carried out on a massive scale.  Many years ago I was part of a contingent of thatchers working on a holiday home complex in Holland where over 50 new build properties were being thatched.

We have to accept that there has to be a clear separation in thinking about thatch between on the one hand, the old stock of listed or historical buildings and the new build market which is where the future of thatching lies.  By unduly concentrating on a tradition of thatch which often means having to keep old roofs on old properties and all the associated problems our eye is taken off how good modern built thatch can be

The barriers, confusion, and negative thinking which is largely a result of either outdated legislation or no agreed legislation has to be got rid of and thatch has to be accepted as a modern roofing method.  Planners need to work with thatchers and architects to produce a uniform specification for thatch across all counties which takes into account insulation and fire barrier properties and maybe one day mock Georgian style mansions may no longer be the preferred new build

When this happens more insurance companies will enter the market, increased economies of scale will mean it will be more cost effective to bring materials in to Ireland.  Attention to modern design will mean roofs can be built with steeper pitches so even the Irish rain will not be a disadvantage  and young men wanting to enter and learn the trade will realise they can pursue a full lifetime of thatching without having to be constrained by out dated thinking.