Thatch puts shingles in shade

SUN JOURNAL

Ireland: The traditional roof of mud and straw can last for centuries, but the craft of thatching is dying out.

November 20, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

OUGHTERARD, Ireland - The house where Denis Geoghegn was born still stands, right next to his own, and the ceiling still looks like it's smeared with black mud and grass, which it is.

There are two reminders of Geoghegn's family craft in his tiny village, and one of them is that ceiling - evidence that the house used to have a thatched roof. The other is Geoghegn himself - the last thatcher left in this rugged corner of western Ireland.

Thatch, the roofing material of choice for centuries in this country's poor, rural outskirts, is now mostly a postcard novelty. Once a working man's roof, a shaggy thatched covering of reed or straw is today reserved mostly for rich people's cottages and a few tourist-hungry inns and pubs.

"They're few and far between that gets a thatched roof these days," says Geoghegn, 60, who considers himself more of a stonemason now because he can't find enough work to thatch full time.

"The people don't want it, unless they can get it handy, and by handy I mean cheap. And cheap is no way to do thatching."

Cheap used to be the only way to do thatching, of course. A roofing job that costs $20,000 today was once a community affair, with entire villages gathering to thatch a roof, using materials culled from the land around them.

The traditional Irish roof began with a layer of sod stitched onto the rafters - not just any sod, but muddy "scraw" from the Irish bog.

Bundles of reed or straw, tied together in sheaves about the size of a paper sack, were pinned to the roof with pieces of willow and overlapped like shingles. Then they were tamped down at an angle to give the roof a smooth surface.

Several layers are applied, with some thatched roofs exceeding seven feet in thickness. The entire collection is held together with twisted sticks of willow, like hairpins stuck into a tight bun.

Almost any type of plant can be used, and availability typically dictates which. Palm fronds are common in the tropics, for instance. Some Irish houses use potato or even seaweed, but oat straw and water reed are most common.

It looks quaint and cozy, but thatch isn't for everyone.

It sometimes attracts rodents, for one thing - particularly rats, which can live inside for months eating grain from the straw. Birds often attack it from the outside, carrying away pieces to build homes of their own.

Thatch smells under the wrong conditions, and the cold, damp climate of Ireland is precisely the wrong condition.

Thatched roofs also typically have no gutters, and thus shed rain in all directions - an inconvenience thought to have given birth to the porch centuries ago.

Thatch is a conspicuous fire hazard; it was banned from London after the Great Fire of 1666. It didn't return until the third Globe Theater was built in 1987.

A thatched roof demands concessions even from the very architecture of the structure, requiring a steep pitch and few dormers or windows. Galvanized tin, which is more manageable, far cheaper and lacks thatch's stigma of poverty, is preferred in modern Ireland.

The few homeowners who still want thatch typically get one or two layers of reed nailed over a moisture barrier and held in place with metal bands. Modern thatch is mostly for show and needs to be replaced every few years.

John Letts calls it "McThatch."

Few people know thatching more intimately and completely than John Letts, an archaeobotanist at the University of Reading. He spent three years in Ireland excavating roofs in old cottages and can tell you, without looking it up, that the average thickness of scraw is 4.62 centimeters.

"I've spent some time up in the rafters, yes," he says.

A true thatched roof is essentially "a controlled compost heap," Letts says. "You try to manipulate the rate of decay to use it as a roof for a while, but it's alive, and always changing. You'll find molds, pests - I've seen trees growing out of people's roofs."

It's often a wonder thatch has survived at all, he says. And perhaps it might not have, if it weren't one of the most efficient, leak-free roofing surfaces ever devised.

A well-thatched roof, made with the right materials, can last 50 years or more. And when maintained properly - the top ridge and the outer layers should be replaced every 10 years - a thatched roof will last for centuries.

Hundreds of thatched roofs from the 15th century are still in use throughout England. They tend not to last as long in Ireland because of the dampness and the materials used, but roofs from the 1750s are common. Scraw layers are still found inside some Viking-era structures near Dublin.

Medieval thatch, kept dry from the outside and smoked black from the inside, can be so well preserved that excavating it is like digging through centuries of agricultural history.

"I've seen wheat from the 1300s that was as perfect as the day it went up," says Letts. "I can find complete ears, with intact grain and straw. It's an extraordinary look at medieval agriculture."

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