Just a few thoughts about Thatched Roofs and Stone Walls, two things that seem to be ever present in rural Ireland. The stone walls make sense, as Ireland is a land of stones. But the thatch, where does that come from? Ireland in stone and straw. These are lovely things to see, but not so lovely to build. They take time and effort and they need to be repaired or replaced from time to time-so more time and effort. Which is nice in its way to think about. That whole impermanence kind of thing, nothing lasts forever.
The typical stone walls associated with the West of Ireland are dry stone walls-which is to say there is no mortar holding the stone together, they are made by carefully selecting stones that will balance and ‘sit’ into the wall as they are built.
In Counties Galway and Clare, around the Burren for example, and in much of central Ireland you will see the typical low walls of rounded stone, which have big gaps between the stone. They are made of Carboniferous limestone, very old stones from the ice age which are naturally rounded in shape. The size of the fields is proportional to the stoniness (or poverty) of the land – if there are more stones to be cleared, more walls are built and the fields are smaller.
Irish thatched roofs are unique in a wider context in having preserved methods and materials once much more widely used throughout Western Europe.
The evidence suggests that wheat straw was more commonly used in Ireland country cottages than oat straw in many areas in the last century, along with barley and rye straw. Somewhat surprisingly, combined barley straw was still used in some areas until very recently. Truly appalling examples of straw thatching are not difficult to find in Ireland thatched cottages. Cases exist of newly applied thatch that could not withstand one Irish winter without major repair, and the oat straw currently used rarely lasts for more than five to seven years. In contrast, straw roofs in Wales and Western England – districts with ‘Irish’ rainfall and shallow-pitched roofs – routinely last for 20 years with minimal maintenance. Ethnographic records suggest that thatched roofs were expected to last from 10 to 15 years at the beginning of this century, and the reduced longevity is at least partially linked to the introduction of modern hybrid varieties with straw too short for use as thatch.
Ireland thatch roofed cottages and Irish stone walls are a common enough sight-and they filled with a lot of history as well. So take the time to admire these traditional symbols of Ireland.