Cottages of Ireland

A Short History

Ask most people what they think of when they think of Ireland, you would probably be answered with “Shamrocks, Harps, and Thatched Cottages”, and probably in that order. But, sadly that iconic symbol of Ireland, the Thatched Cottage, have been disappearing from the Irish landscape for generations. The plague of emigration has struck many parts of the island and hundreds of these one-time homes have been left to ruination. The thatched roofs have been allowed to rot and disintegrate, the rain to wash the mortar out from between the stones and leaving only house-shaped piles of dry stones. It is these that have become such a familiar sight in Ireland’s rural landscape. Those old cottages that have not been allowed to fall to wreck and ruin have been given a modern conversion for the roofing, such as corrugated-iron, slate, and tile.

Nowadays, there are less than 1,500 traditionally thatched cottages left in the whole of Ireland, which make it more vital than ever that we preserve them. Although they have proved themselves, over the generations, to be durable and environmentally friendly, in our modern technical age they are seen to be obsolete products of Irish history and tradition.

Though in some places, people are restoring old cottages or thatching new cottages built in the style of the old, less than 1 in 100 of the population live in them. It is quite a difference from the days of 19th century Ireland when over 50% of the population slept under the security of a thatched roof.

Thatching is one of the greatest symbols of our traditional building in Ireland and it has been around since prehistoric times. A thatched roof was the key part of any traditional building for it was the thatched roof that provided the family with shelter and protection at a very cheap cost. These buildings were usually constructed by local tradesmen, who used locally sourced materials to complete the work. These men were plentiful in number in years gone by and their trade had been handed down from father to son. The buildings themselves were, however, usually small in size (traditionally one room), simple in their design (usually rectangular in shape) and were built from local materials such as mud or rocks for the walls and thatch for the roof. 

The availability of these building materials in sufficient quantities was vital to the creation of the cottages. The idea of bringing in materials from other areas could not be considered, especially before the introduction of modern transport such as railways, lorries, or canals. The transportation of large, heavy loads was impossible also because of affordability. Even if adequate transport systems had been in operation it was beyond the means of the ordinary Irishman and peasant to pay for the materials, their transportation, and the employment of skilled builders to construct the cottage.

Naturally, the materials used in the building of rural cottages varied across the years, and from region to region. The materials employed would depend on the financial resources of the family, and also on what was available locally. The walls of the building were the most important parts of the construction but could prove to be the most expensive. Poorer families, for the most part, used mud that was tempered with strengthening agents such as straw, reeds or animal matter. Lime mortar, however, was the most desirable material for walls but it was the most expensive.

For many hundreds of years, the most indispensable material in creating the roofs of Irish cottages was thatch. In normal circumstances these roofs began with overlapping layers of sod were placed on the timbers. Then, on top of this layer, the straw thatch was laid. This thatch was derived from a variety of natural materials such as wheat and flax, which was carefully cut and threaded by the Thatcher until every part of the roof was covered and protected from the elements. In most cases, it would take the thatcher to place over 5,000 handfuls of straw to complete the work on the roof. This craft was a skilled trade and was passed down through the generations from father to son, and for the thatcher, the work was regular, since the thatched roof, depending on the material and its condition, would require replacing anywhere from five to twenty years.

Thatch had been the main roofing material for centuries in Ireland, but this began to change after Ireland won its independence from Britain. The new ‘Free State’ government, when it was established in Dublin, began to offer grants to the people for home improvements. Thatch now began to fall out of favour as Ireland’s homeowners took advantage of the funding to replace thatch with slates or tiles, which did not need to be repaired or replaced as often. The side-effect of all this was the virtual disappearance of the Thatcher’s craft, that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Lack of work in their trade saw the Thatcher move from rural Ireland into the towns or emigrate to other countries. Becoming a rarity in Ireland, where it was once so common, gradually made thatched roofs an expensive option for homeowners and the exorbitant cost of repairing thatch caused many cottages to be abandoned to decay or used to house livestock. Sadly, in our more modern times the decline in the popularity of thatched cottages, thatching has become rare as a family trade. But it has not totally disappeared, and several groups and individuals are continuing the craft throughout Ireland by helping to restore existing cottages and to assist in building new ones.

From various records and research, the thatched roof in nineteenth-century Ireland was a sign of poverty. The grand houses of the Landlords had slated or tiled roofs while the peasantry occupied the thatched, mud-walled cottages. Perhaps it was the stigma of poverty that was attached to thatched roofs in Ireland that helped in its demise when materials such as tiles and slated became more available. As new slated roofs sprang up throughout the country many people may have become ashamed of their poor-looking homes, so when the time came and modern materials became more easily available and affordable, they had no hesitation in abandoning their thatched roofs.