Irish Thatched Cottages, Mayo Abbey in Co. Mayo

In olden times the thatched house were very popular, they provided homes of character, comfort and beauty which varied from one region to another in response to local climates, conditions and contacts.

The use of local building materials meant that they fitted into landscapes of which they were literally a part of. Their clay or stone walls gathered from the earth on the spot where they were built, their timbers dug from the bogs, their thatch harvested from the fields.

The most important distinction between prehistoric Irish farmhouses and ones later was in the materials used. Wood was the main component in their construction, reflecting the heavy forestation of Ireland in those times. The stone cottage became much more the norm after the 1800s.

Where stone was used for dwellings in earlier times it was mainly for low foundation walls on which clay and thatch houses were raised, or beehive houses erected in the treeless coastal areas of the west of Ireland. This is not to suggest that there was no tradition of stone working in Ireland at that time.

In most hipped roof dwellings thatching was by means of scollops (sally rods, willow or hazel rods), which pinned down the thatch. In well finished work the rods are hidden, for if exposed they tend to let water seep through the straw, but it is customary to leave a row exposed at the eaves and ridge and against the gables, where the outer layer of straw should lie snugly.

The exposed scollops are often arranged in patterns, and the expert thatcher delights in showing his skill and leaving his mark in finishes of various designs which are practical as well as decorative, serving for example to distribute the rain and prevent guttering. With twists of straw (bobbins) at the gables which carry the drips evenly to the ground.

There are various ways of pushing in the scollops: they may be put in at each end or bent into wooden staples resembling large hairpins, which secure the ends of the horizontal rods.

I know of one man in East Mayo that still continues the old tradition of thatching of his house, he is Paddy Fanning of Lisbaun Ballyhaunis. He ploughs the land in spring and sows the rye he uses for thatching, harrowing it the old way with his donkey. He cuts it with the scythe when it is ripe at harvest time for the thatching. Rye or wheat is much durable than oats straw, reeds were fairly commonly used if they were no other straw available.

The expert thatcher prefers his straw to be cut by a scythe and thrashed by hand and he does not like machine thrashed straw. Best of all is straw from which the corn has been removed by hand-scuthing or lashing over a stick or stone, and that the barrel of the straw being unbroken.

Along the western coasts, the cottages had stone gables to the apex of the roof on their narrower ends and thatch was tied down by ropes which were weighted with heavy rocks or pegged to the cottage walls. Pegged thatch gave roofs a particularly attractive rounded appearance, still seen in old cottages in Mayo, Galway and Donegal.

The chimney would be placed on a gable end rather than against the dividing wall as was normal in hipped cottages. Details of the roof frame of the long house show many variations from place to place, but as a general rule it comprised of couple of rafters traditionally of bog oak chosen for its strength as well as from the scarcity of live oak trees.

The coupled rafters are joined by one or two cross ties secured by wooden pins and pegs driven into the rafters to hold in place the purlins which support a layer of branches or thin laths of bog-fir. On these rest a warm blanket of carefully fitted sods (scraws), an essential element of the traditional roof, keeping out cold and damp and serving as a hold for the rods (scollops) with which the thatch, is secured.

The first thin layer of thatch was, in some parts of the country, sewn on to the purlins (that is a stitch with needle, moved in opposite direction) with a thatching needle-the older pattern had a large eye to take the hay-rope.

Window glass was a luxury, because in the early nineteenth century tax was levied on the number of windows of the traditional cottage. The windows were few and small and placed for preference on the side away from the prevailing winds.

The half door on top was always open, which admitted most of the light, its lower part closed. The half-door is regarded as peculiarly Irish, but in fact it was an old fashioned feature which lived on longer in the West of Ireland than in Great Britain.

In Ireland the half-door served to let in the light while keeping out unwanted animals, and it made a convenient arm-rest for purposes of conversation or contemplation. It was often said: 'A man standing at the open-door was wasting time, but leaning on the half-door he was just passing time'. To give maximum efficiency, the windows openings widen internally, most of the light came from the doorway, and thus you can see where the phrase referring to the unwanted visitor came from as one who 'darkens the door'.

The common explanation for the variation in the design of cottages between the west and east is that hipped cottages were introduced into Ireland by the Anglo-Normans in the Middle Ages, whilst the roped thatched gabled cottage is an older and more genuine Irish type.

In parts of western Ireland cows were brought into single-roomed houses. In Clare Island in Co. Mayo at the turn of the century only five or six houses out of the total of 120 did not put in cattle and pigs at night in their houses. An observer writing of the village of Kilgever near Westport in 1880 wrote: 'It is a terrible thought that these huge heaps (of manure about the doorsteps) had all been taken from the single rooms, each of which formed a common sty for men, women, children, horses, cows, pigs and poultry. It was characteristic of many small farms that the manure heap was not far from the front door.

When I was a gasur I often heard my Dad tell the story of two women in the Knock Area Gilligan's were their names whom he knew that you used keep the cows and hay in the one room with themselves. They died in suspicious circumstances and there was a full murder investigation launched.

The Garda arrested a suspect from the area and he was up at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin to stand trial. The trial lasted about a week but the Judge came to the conclusion it would be unsafe to convict the suspect as there was not sufficient evidence beyond reasonable doubt. Because of the fact that the two women used have the cows in the same room as themselves and the court could not proof beyond all reasonable doubt that it was not the cows that trampled the two women.

Poverty undoubtedly contributed to the long survival of such conditions. It used be said in defence of the custom of sharing the house with the cow that she helped to keep the house warm and that in turn the cow yielded more milk. It was thought to be unlucky if the cow was not able to get a glimpse of the fire. Behind this belief it was thought that the power of the fire would dispel evil spirits. The end of the house farthest from the hearth was commonly referred to as the 'bottom-end', a relic of its time when it housed cattle, for it was obviously wise to have the floor sloping down towards the byre.

Many cabins and huts were constructed as lean-tos against a bog face or an old ditch. Hence the saying that 'you can't cross a ditch or you'll fall down a chimney'. The tenants built and repaired their own houses with normally no assistance from the landlord and there was little point of building any house to last any longer than the lease of say twenty -one years.

The houses in Achill Island about 1840 were circular or oval in shape, built of boulders without mortar and having the thatched roof continuous with the walls. They had neither chimneys nor windows, and the single door was sometimes not more than four feet high.

In the 1940s nearly all Irish farmhouses were a simple rectangle in ground plan, anything from ten to twenty feet in width and of varying length according to the number of rooms they comprise, each room being the full width of the house. The normal developed house has three rooms, consisting of a central kitchen with a bedroom at the bottom end and another the best room called simply 'the room'- behind the chimney, which helped to warm it.

Sadly today the art of thatching is dying out.