Friday 25 January 2013

Thatching Ireland – A Return to tradition or a dying dynasty?

A recent restoration project in Co Laois led to the question being raised as to where traditional craftmanship falls against the back drop of post Celtic Tiger Ireland. With so many young people emigrating will traditional craftsmanship become a dying trade?

SET in the majestic Laois countryside, the backdrop to this  thathching restoration project on a once family home built in the 1800’s has captured the attention of a community as it is a rarity in our current economic climate to see a tradition such as thatching in action.
The once occupied rural cottage has been in The Dunne family since the early 18th century and is now a protected landmark within the locality. The small cottage still has the crisp essence of traditional Ireland.  As you unlock the yellow half door and walk into a kitchen you are instantly transported back to what life in Ireland used to be like.

The dusty plates on the dresser and the pots hanging over the open fire are a testiment to what life was like for a generation pre Celtic tiger.

At the height of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland’s building trade was at the tip of the economic boom. All tradesmen had a plentiful supply of work as housing estates and office blocks appeared to spread further throughout Ireland.

 The harsh reality is that most building work has long since ceased and developers have now gone into receivership. Ghost estates lie empty and workers who once occupied the offices are signing on in their local social welfare office.

It raises a valid question in a fledging economic crisis is Irelands craft  industry about to see a surge in traditional means of earning a living or will such trades become a distant memory as so many of young Irish people must now emigrate in search of a work.

The process of thatching truly is a tradition deep rooted in most Irish communities but sadly many people let the tradition die, and the sight of a thatched building in the majestic rural landscapes of Ireland is now a rarity.                    Attitudes towards conservation of such building perhaps lie more with the older generation of Ireland, more so than the “Celtic Tiger babies” who are now, readjusting to a more simpler Ireland than the one they were conceived in.

None the less such projects are of great importance, however like most things in Ireland, keeping a tradition alive comes with a hefty price tag which is no real great shocker in Irish society.

The Department of Environment offers some assistance towards the financial implications of such a project, a grant of two-thirds of the approved cost of renovatiing thatched roofs of owner occupied houses.
A further level of financial assistance is available up to 5,714 euro for houses on specific offshore islands. The Department of Environment issues houses with a medical card with thatching grants of up to a maximum of 6,350 euro.

However locals in Co Laois, they critised the emerging new generation of thatchers which the FÁS scheme creates. The new generation are just out to make a “quick buck” says one disenchanted farmer by trying to charge astonishing prices in comparasion to what it used to cost.

The FÁS Thatcher Traineeship aims to provide unemployed people with a grounding and necessary skill basis to gain practical experience in the sector. The course is 51 weeks in total with 35 weeks off the job training and 16 weeks on the job training. However Carmel Higgins of the Galway FÁS Branch explained how costly the course was on them and that placement was hard sought. She adds that the course has not been run in recent years and was not in the “pipeline for 2013”.

Criticism however, for such emerging new “skill sets” comes with a price tag that is just not feasable against the current economic climate.  Is this why we see so little of traditional Ireland in our cosmopolitian landscape?

Paul Johnson is one local thathcher based in Co Galway who has his thatching business part time as there is just not enough money in it nowdays to pay the bills. He also works as an electronic engineer. Paul was formally trained in the UK to become a master thatcher that can take six years.

Mr Johnson spoke of the FÁS scheme to train Irish thatchers. He is dismayed at how young thatchers are not inspired by the craft, which is seen as a means to get them off the dole and then move on to another course.

The system in Ireland however does appear to have flaws. If it takes a six year process in the UK to become a master thatcher and learn the heritiage behind the crafsman ship then how can FÁS be training people in a 52 week period?

Local people in Laois spoke of the “cowboy” system so perhaps learning a trade in such a quick period of time is alluding to this generalisation with all traditional craft in the Emerald Isle.

Paul Johnson expressed concern of having to compete with FÁS trained thatchers: “We have been competed with by FÁS trainees who have not even a year experience under their belt, who are going out and underpricing us”, he says

“They are providing services with vey little or no experience, very little portfolio work and basically undermining the skills set needed to do something that is highly experience based, a craft that takes years to perfect
He adds:”There is no regulatory body in Ireland, so you can go out tomorrow and set yourself up as a thatcher and use customers as guinea pigs”.

A Work in Progress but at what cost?
The restoration project in Co Laois, takes about 250 bundles of straw. The straw has to be specially cut with an old type binder and put into a rick and trashed. It is a process that has long been carried out in a piece of heritiage such as the Laois cottage.

The last person to live in the house was William Dunne who was the grandson of William SR and Elizabeh Dunne. Tragically William died   just a few hundred yards from his home, stepped in local history following a road traffic accident in 1994.

Mr Johnston voiced concern to attitudes in Ireland nowdays. He said:”In Ireland, in a recession people think, some people; spending little money will save them lots of money but this is not always true”.

There appears to be the traditional Irish couple he explained who have lived in the traditional sense of Ireland all their lives and thatching their house is a necissity, but sadly have little to pay for restoration.

There are those on the middle ground, who are willing to take out perhaps a loan to carry out essential maintenance and perhaps go a little further. Lastly there are those who see thatching as an invesment particularly in a new build.

The question lies though should thatchers not be willing to set prices that adhears to the tradition it represents and perhaps that 80 year old man or woman who need the maintenance but can only afford so much?
Celtic Tiger Ireland saw tradition go out the window. People stepped over pennies on the street. Now we see people search the streets to pick up those fallen coins.

The image of a traditional Ireland and perhaps taking thatching as an example was as Mr Johnston put it “A fella pulling up with a donkey, a bottle of poitin and a bag of spuds” This was the man that would thatch the roof for a fair price.

In today’s cosmopolitian Ireland, an Ireland that is batting through the latter half of a recession, when emigration is rampant perhaps one solution to solving Ireland’s problems is a return to traditionalism?
Traditional Ireland was not materialistic in Celtic Tiger Ireland. The tradition was always the family and the home.
Restoration efforts such as the Co Laois project is perhaps one step in the right direction of keeping alive a part of Ireland that seems to be forgotten about.

After all it’s not a house that makes it a home, it’s the family inside. As the great great grandson of William Dunne it was a proud moment to see three generations stand around and watch a house become alive again even if it was just a new straw roof.

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson said last week: “That Ireland will emerge stronger from the current economic crisis” is true.

It’s the Irish tradition to keep the faith and perhaps a return to tradition is what this country has been missing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sean,

    I’m looking for photographs of people thatching, similar to those in your blog. Are those your own photographs?

    Please contact me at mniloingsigh at

    Looking forward to hearing from you,