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.
In the early morning chill of that frost-filled winter’s morning a horse approached the large gate of the monastery, and on its back sat the figure of a man wearing a long, grey coat and a soft black hat. As soon as he reached the monastery gate the man dismounted and made his way to the smaller visitor entrance where he rang a large iron bell that hung at the side of the heavy oaken door. The bell tolled loudly in the morning stillness, and the stranger stood back for a moment to await the door being opened to him. As expected, the man did not have to wait long before he heard the loud clatter of a monk’s sandals on the stone floor as he approached the ‘Strangers’ Door’ to answer the call of the bell. He pulled strongly on the heavy iron bar that secured the oak door and it slowly creaked open to reveal the person who had rang.
The monk who opened the ‘Strangers’ Door’ was a small, portly looking man dressed in a habit of rough brown cloth, with a white rope girdle tied loosely around his expansive waist. From this rope belt was hung a large, highly polished, wooden rosary that was made from large beads. With great courtesy the stranger removed the hat from his head, and he began to fidget with it nervously as he introduced himself. Having done this, the stranger began to relate the reason for his visit to the monastery and the message with which he had been entrusted. In a quiet and nervous voice, he explained that that the friar who had been assigned to attend the sick was needed immediately by a patient that lived in the hill country, who had taken to his bed with a strange and severe illness.
The stranger told the monk that, although the local womenfolk had attended to the young patient with a variety of charms, ‘magic’ potions, and natural remedies, there had been none that had relieved his sickness. The monk was also informed that the young man had already grown very weak and that there was now a great deal of concern that the poor boy might not survive the night. As a last desperate gamble to save their son, the boy’s parents had sent this man with their appeal to the medical friar that he come and place his holy and healing hands over their son, Ciaran Horan.
With his message given, the stranger followed the monk in to see the medical friar and he explained to him just how the young man’s home could best be reached. There was no need for further explanation and within thirty minutes the friar was ready to take up his journey, and he turned to me and asked me if I would go with them. In those days it was unusual for an ordinary labourer to accompany a friar on a mission of mercy, but this friar had been born and reared in England. He had been sent to our part of the world from an associate monastery in Yorkshire and couldn’t speak a word of Irish, which was, of course, the first language for most people in this particular part of Ireland. It would be my task, therefore, on this mission of mercy to act as an interpreter because I could speak English almost as fluently as my native tongue.
We mounted our horses and rode off along the narrow country track that brought us past the lake, over the surface of which a light mist was beginning to form on that still, frosty morning. I was in the rear of the group as we passed the lake and entered a lightly wooded forest where, at the far end of it, we joined the road that would lead us straight into the hill country.
As we progressed along this road, we could see the rich arable land on both sides of the road slowly change to grey, barren, grazing land that was fit only for the raising of sheep and goats. We rode on a few miles further and the land began to turn into wild moorland and bog, coloured by the furze, heather, and bracken. The chill wind that had been blowing earlier was now still again and the sheep were lying down, with the weight of their heavy fleeces about them. The branches of the trees did not stir at all and their outlines against the pale sky appeared to be so many skeleton arms reaching up towards heaven. For the first time on this journey I was beginning to feel uneasy as we made our way through a wide network of dry-stone walls that marked the boundaries of absurdly small fields, which were all the land a family had to sustain it. Then, on a distant hillside, I saw the figure of a shepherd rise up on his feet with a crook in his hand, like some ancient prophet from the books of the ‘Old Testament’. But this ‘old testament prophet’ vanished just as quickly as he had disappeared.
The morning had moved on to afternoon and was approaching evening. The light of day was fading and everywhere began to change tone as the scenery began to reflect the watery red sun that was setting in the west as we rode on in the silence that surrounded us. Here and there stood small stone cabins skirting the road along which we were travelling, and among those poor homes some of the residents could be seen moving around. When these people saw the friar riding past an occasional bare-footed woman would hurriedly curtsey, ensuring that her shawl covered her head. The children who were playing boisterously around the bleak stone cabins suddenly stopped and ran back into their houses at the sight of we three men on the road, popping their mop-haired heads above the half-door, and their smiling faces and sparkling eyes followed us as we went forward along the road.
The people we passed shouted out greetings to us in Irish as we rode past, but their salutations were worded as blessings for the journey that we had left to complete. Whenever we came to a stop, just for a moment or two, a small crowd of local people would gather around us, peering up at the tall friar from under their black, broad-brimmed hats with faces that had been tanned naturally by the wind and rain that is so common in the hill country. When the friar spoke to them, the crowd would turn to each other wondering what he had said. It was at these times that I would break into the conversation and repeat what the friar had said to the crowd, in Irish.
“So, your reverence, it’s Ciaran Horan’s wee house that you’re going to?”
“It is,” I replied on the friar’s behalf.
“Is his reverence going to be reading the words of the holy book over the poor boy?” one of the local men asked me.
“He will, of course,” I confirmed.
“Aye. The Horan’s will be expecting you, then?”
“Of course, they are,” I answered him. “sure, they were the ones that sent for us to come to the boy’s aid.”
The man shook his head sorrowfully, saying, “We heard the poor boy was feeling pretty low and that a type of strangeness had come over him. Would that be right?”
I didn’t want to say too much to the man and, instead of answering his question, I asked him, “Is the Horan home far from here?”
“No. It’s not that far away. Just you follow the road there, keeping the big, ivy covered, demesne wall to your right. Then, after a while, you will come to a wee stream that you will cross, and you will find a narrow boreen on your right as you come to the end of the wall. Go past that boreen and to the west you will see two large poplar trees, and beyond them you will come to another narrow track. You should take that track but be careful of the thorn hedges on each side of the boreen because they will cut your clothes and skin in the darkness. It would be better to ride your horses in line rather than side-by-side to prevent damage to yourselves. As you go along this boreen you will come to a shallow river that flows over a stone-covered bed, which will allow you all to ford the obstacle with your horses quite easily. Now, do you think you will remember all that I have told you?”
“Yes, and thank you very much for your help,” I replied politely.
“Well, that’s a good thing,” said the man. “Now, listen carefully, for once you are across the ford at the end of the boreen, you go up to the Horan house by way of the back meadow and you will see a light shining in the north. If you give a loud call, Old Paddy Reilly will come out to you and lead your horses by the head to the house where Ciaran Horan is lying in his sick bed, God help him. Ah, sure, Ciaran’s a fine young man and a greater player of the tin whistle you have never heard. You should be off now, may God be with you all, and don’t forget to keep a keen watch out for the poplar trees.”
“We will,” I told him and wished him farewell on behalf of the party. As we rode onward my mind was busy trying to recall the details of the journey the man had laid out for us to Horan’s house. As directed, we rode alongside the ivy-covered wall of the demesne, across the stream, the passage, the boreens, until we finally came to the two poplar trees that stood like mighty sentinels in the rapidly reducing light. The entire land was being covered by a rapidly spreading darkness, and the clear star-filled sky above us warned of an upcoming severe frost on its way.
One-by-one, in single file, we moved through the boreen with some anxiety caused by the darkness we encountered. When we reached the end of the track we came to the shallow river, just as we had been told that we would. But despite the stone-covered riverbed, my horse needed a little touch of persuasion to enter the cold water. As we began to cross, however, we discovered that the water reached well above the fetlocks of our horses, and they splashed loudly in the slow-moving flow of water. Then, when we reached the opposite bank, we saw the light in the north, as we had been told we would, shining in the night. As requested, I gave a loud call and we waited for Paddy Reilly to arrive. The friar had a hearty laugh at my efforts to gain Paddy’s attention, but within minutes a tall, well-built man approached us out of the darkness. It was Reilly himself and he took hold of the horses by their heads before leading them and us across the back meadow toward that light that shone brightly in the north.
Outside the long, low, thatched cabin stood a crowd of men smoking pipes and busily talking among themselves, creating a loud mumbling noise. The door to the house stood open and there were lights shining from all the windows. As we dismounted from our horses none of the men at the front of the house came to greet us but continued talking among themselves. They looked at us with cold stares and made us feel uncomfortable as strangers intruding on local business. But it was their evident discomfort at our presence that made us anxious until a voice asked, “Will you not be going into the house to see young Ciaran?” Reilly asked the friar and I translated for him. “Now, there’s no need to be worrying about these horses, for I will take good care of them for you. I will brush them down, feed them,” Paddy assured us and walked off with the horses.
As we walked to the open door of the house the men saluted the friar as was their custom and the friar, unsure of what they were going to say to him, made sure that I was by his side when we entered the cottage. From the doorway I led the way into the kitchen where two women were standing respectfully a good distance from the door, their faces looking a little anxious and fearful. Their eyes seemed to be glued to the friar and it seemed they were waiting for the arrival of a magician through the door to the kitchen. They made a little curtsey to the friar, which was more like a quick jerk of their bodies rather than a graceful movement of their female form. There was no other person in the kitchen but these two women, silently demonstrating the power that matriarchs hold in an Irish home at a time of crisis. They were, without doubt, in command of all things when a life had to be cared for. The menfolk, at these times, are usually relegated to being outside of the home and out of site. The older of the two women now came forward and welcomed the friar to her home in Irish.
At first, there appeared to be some slight misunderstanding between the woman and the friar, which I did not quite catch in time to parry, although I was interpreter to both parties. The friar, fair play to him, was well used to handling such little embarrassing moments with his bright, friendly smile that quickly thawed the icy formality that had arisen. The two women seemed to be relieved at that moment, for they had not expected him to say anything, and now they no longer concerned themselves about any appearance of being considered somewhat inferior. The friar had a natural warmth about him, and he possessed a talent for putting others at their ease in his presence. Perhaps, this was due to him being from peasant stock himself. Softly smiling, the elder of the two women led the priest into the room where Ciaran lay on his sickbed.
As the priest left the kitchen area, the younger woman placed a chair in front of the kitchen fire and invited me to sit on it. As I sat there, warming myself, I could hear the woman’s feet quickly and quietly shuffling about the floor, causing her clothing to swish as she began to undertake a variety of tasks. Then, she came over to where I was sitting and offered me a glass that contained a liquid which looked like slightly discoloured water. Despite my misgivings about this drink, the woman inspired a certain confidence within me, and I accepted the glass from her hands and began to drink the liquid it contained. There was a slight taste of peat left in my mouth, but the liquid passed smoothly down my throat, spreading a comforting warmth through my body, and I knew immediately that the liquid was poteen. As I drank, I noticed that standing to the side, and in the shadow, a young woman stood with her fair face illuminated by the yellow-red flames coming from the turf fire. Although she was standing quietly you could not fail to recognise the tension in her body as she kept alert to any movement from the sickroom.
The door to the room was slightly open and I could hear the low, soft murmur of the priest’s voice as he recited the litany of prayers in Latin. The young woman sighed loudly and made the sign of the cross before she took another chair from the table and sat herself down beside me.
“My brother is very low,” she said in quiet, genteel voice.
“Has he been ill for a long time?” I asked.
“Aye, sure the poor boy has been ailing for a while, God love him,” she said. “But to look at him you would have thought he was as sound as a young bull heifer. At first, he became moody and just wanted to be left alone and he would spend hours down at the bottom of the meadow sitting under the ‘Fairy Thorn’ by the river, playing his tin whistle. Then he began to lose the use of his arms and legs, and he began to cry bitterly for no apparent reason. There were people who warned the family that the boy had been brought under some kind of strange influence, then he lost the power to speak. Surely, the holy friar will know the cause and what needs to be done to make him well again.”
When the friar came out of the room, he was already removing the purple stole from around his neck. Just behind him walked the older woman with the excitement dancing across her face. “Ciaran spoke,” she announced to us all. “He looked up at his reverence and tried to bless himself. But I couldn’t hear what the poor boy was saying because his voice was so weak, but he definitely did speak.”
“Don’t be worrying yourself,” the younger woman replied, “Ciaran will live.” Her voice betrayed some of the excitement expressed by the mother, whose eyes were now fixed upon the priest and he quickly became of aware of her steady gaze. Although the woman’s gaze made him feel somewhat uneasy, the friar was more amused than frightened.
Just as I was watching all these events occur, I heard some loud shuffling of feet coming from outside the house, which reminded me of the bustle made by a herd of animals as they approached. The door creaked open and with a certain uneasiness I turned my eyes in that direction, but nothing appeared at the door, which confused me. Although nothing appeared, however, I kept a close watch on the door for some time. My alertness was rewarded by the sight of a cluster of heads and shoulders that belonged to men with weather beaten faces, all of which bore anxious expressions. They stood in the doorway, peering down at the priest who was now seated next to me at the fireside. It suddenly became clear to me that these eager faces were half-hoping that the legendary magic of a priest would conjure up some form of apparition for them. Then, this set of heads and shoulders were quickly replaced by a different grouping, all eagerly wanting to see into the house. The mother now turned to the friar and quietly asked him, “Do you think that Ciaran will live, Father?”
“We should all have courage,” the friar told her quietly.
“Sure, we will all get a bit more courage now that you have read the prayers over him, Father”
“Just you keep that faith, Mrs. Horan,” the friar smiled. “It’s all in the hands of God now and, if it’s his will, all will be well again.”
The bedroom door opened, and the daughter came out with an expression of immense joy etched on her face. “Ciaran’s going to live!” she announced loudly to all who were present. “He has just spoken to me!”
“Could you hear what he was saying?” the mother asked.
“Indeed, I could hear it all. The boy told me clearly that in the month of April, when the water runs clear again in the river, I will be playing my tin whistle once more!”
“When the river has clear water again, then he will be playing his tin whistle again?” the mother questioned. “Sure, him and that old tin whistle of his would put years on a person!”
The friar had now risen from his seat and was beginning to make his way toward the door, and I decided to follow him. But even as I followed him, I was able to catch a glimpse of the patient through the partly open bedroom door. On a crisp, white pillowcase lay the long, pallid, and anxious looking face of a young man. I noticed a light reflecting off his brow, and his eyes had an unnaturally bright shiny appearance around them. My mind began to wander as I looked at Ciaran Horan, because it seemed to me that he had the face of a teacher. I also began to think that, perhaps, his vision of playing his tin whistle by the river was just his vision of heaven on earth.
As we exited from the cottage, Paddy Reilly was already harnessing the horses in the sulphurous yellow light of the stable lantern. As we began to mount our horses the groups of men who had been standing outside the cottage began to shuffle toward us. Several of them broke the silence by speaking cordially to us and thanking us for coming. In those few minutes there was more said about young Ciaran than was said all night up to that point. We leaned enough about the young man that we began to suspect that he may have been brought under the influence of the ‘Good People.’ As we talked there was a sense of mystery and ill-omen that began to fill my very being. All the dark figures of those men standing about that lonely house mourning the loss of this tin whistle player affected me. But very soon they would hear the joyous news and would be able to depart happily as the grass beneath their feet sparkled with the heavy frost that was falling over the hill country.