Purchasing a thatched cottage was a decision that would change Liam Broderick’s life. Kya deLongchamps meets the long-time thatcher
Until the 17th century, thatch was the predominate form of roof finish in Ireland. It still embodies a wealth of tradition, skill, and loveliness — sounding a deep, resonance in the Irish memory and imagination.
The sight of a ravaged thatch, sagging in at the gables, its weather coat slashed vertically with discreet mouldering channels, the securing hairpin scallops of hazel or willow rudely on show, is a poignant moment in the history of a once-beloved complex of rural buildings.
The ragged hole in an old roof appears like a breach in its very heart.
A native of Ballymacoda, Liam Broderick was a carpenter by trade when he returned to the area after seven years working in London.
Long entranced by heritage buildings, in 1990 he bought a thatched cottage near Mount Uniacke. It was a decision that would change his life.
At the time, Liam knew almost nothing about that materials and process of thatching, but the character, ingredients and structural clues in his roof drew him in.
“Examining the line, the making, the minutiae of the roof and treatment of the gables, I was just hooked.
"It was a FAS course (all there was at the time) and paid just £86 Irish pounds a week. Coming from my former well-paid trade, that was tough, and I was lucky that my wife was working and could support the family.
“I was always interested in the traditional way of doing things, in natural materials with real integrity and I think I was probably meant for the 18th century not this one!
"The beauty and rightness of a thatched roof is hard to beat. The South East, I believe, contains the greatest density of habitable thatched houses. People don’t realise that at one time thatching was the primary roof material used on everything from churches to terraced housing and even castle roofs.”
The poem of Fred Johnson “A Contemplation of Thatching” reads that all you needed for an Irish thatched roof in times past was “good neighbours, and trust them to do the Job” (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 28).
According to publications by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, around 3,000 surviving thatched buildings have been identified in Ireland to date. Liam believes there are many more, not listed with the Minister’s office.
His commissions include the summer home of Padraig Pearse (Ionad Cultúrtha an Phiarsaigh) built in Loch Oiriúlach in Connemara in 1909, now with its 2016 Visitor’s Centre, Seán MacDiarmada’s homestead in Kiltyclogher, County Leitrim, the Swiss Cottage in Cahir, and the Mall, a quaint and important domestic bothie in Cork in the care of the Irish Landmark Trust.
“Just about all of my private work is by word of mouth if not through public commissions,” Liam clarifies. (Liam does a lot of work for the OPW, The Irish Heritage Trust and The Irish Landmark Trust throughout Ireland).
Some 99% of the roofing he does is in water reed, Liam adds, “as it is so suitable for our damp climate with a life expectancy of up to 40 years”.
“Turkish water reed is very fibrous, waxy and strong — you can twist it in your hands without breaking it. Irish reeds that have been subject to a lot of fertiliser (nitrogen) run-off from adjacent farmland tend to grow too quickly, leaving them thin, weedy and brittle and unsuited to thatching.
“Obviously there are important conservation and restoration projects that demand straw, turf ‘scraw’ and say sugan rope.”
Liam has worked alongside Dr Fidelma Mullane, a vernacular building conservation specialist from Galway, on projects for the OPW and the Heritage Council.
Her consultancy before anyone reaches site would determine what and how the building is to be treated. Liam describes her laughingly as his “work wife”.
“In many projects I can include some modern, appropriate materials including sawn timber and rope. I source my hazel and sally scallops and other elements from Veronica and Paul O’Keefe in Lismore rather than coppicing my own.
“Irish thatched roofs are not what I would call ‘pretty’ in the way that English roofs with their very sharp eaves are and highly ornamental roofs in general just don’t look right here,” says Liam.
“I’m not a fan of fancy ridge types, thatched dormers and eyebrows, but the Irish vernacular of 100-150 years. That really started with organic materials being heaped up on the roof as needed by the owners and neighbours helping out on the jobs that needed doing. There were no professional ‘thatchers’ as such at that time.”
Liam explains that in the past owners of thatched houses had more hands-on experience with their buildings, which were almost entirely vernacular — hand-built without the aid of an architect.
Today, people don’t have the same skillset and the sense of community work on the home place, neighbour helping neighbour is largely absent too.
The 1945 questionnaire sent out by the Irish Folklore Commission ethnologist and vernacular building specialist Caoimhín Ó Danachair (Kevin Danaher) elicted 450 responses on the topic of roofs and thatching.
It bears out Liam’s argument, showing that at the time, 60% of respondents were able to do some level of their own thatching.
Raw materials were at that time in plentiful supply, including long straw undamaged by the pressures of modern machine threshing.
“Owners cannot manage a thatch roof on their own and the relationship with their thatcher will be important,” Liam argues. ‘The communal care of buildings in the 1940s is over, and without the input of a thatcher, owning such a house creates a simmering anxiety.
"Even without ongoing repair, a survey at least every two years by a thatcher is important to maintain the roof in good, performing condition.
“It’s a pity,” Liam continues passionately, “that buyers don’t talk to a thatcher before they buy a thatched house. That’s a thatcher — not an architect or engineer.
"The vast majority have a limited understanding of thatched roofs. People buy such houses in a sort of blind dream without knowing the cost of the work to maintain the building.
“Most of the roofs I’m faced with are in what I would call a mediocre condition and would still have a solid thatch base to work off. If you can see the fixings (for instance, hairpin scallops holding the bundles of reed) the roof is at the end of its life.
He’s interested in the archaeology revealed by the roof — its history, materials, architecture, repairs and even the botany preserved in ancient layers of weatherproofing. Liam has found a bayonet in thatch and says crude weapons and old coins are regular discoveries.
“You cannot solve a roof problem with even €30,000 of thatching work — it has to start in the roof structure,” he says. These were often made in larch from nearby woods or even driftwood. The older larch gets, the harder it gets, but there are other little softwood limb elements that inevitably degrade faster.
"The timber “couples” used in a traditional roof are around four inches apart, so scale that out with 10 feet to 14 feet of an upright section of roof, you have a large area of thatch hanging in space.
“If the top weather coat of thatch is letting water in and the timbers are disintegrating, the whole thing can be soaked through and extremely heavy. There are plenty of incidences of thatchers going straight through the roof when they put up their ladders.”
Trap doors are integral to the care of a thatched roof, he explains, as they allow for regular inspection and access for repairs.
Low ceilings installed under the thatch are generally not the issue, but boarding over the thatch inside to prevent creepy-crawlies dropping into the rooms below can seal the roof out of sight.
“Thatch roofs can ‘breathe’ on their own when in good condition with air circulating under the eaves through the reeds to the other side — keeping it dry,” he says.
“It doesn’t require the heat from indoors to do this, and is a superb insulator for a house. When it comes to reed or straw — the steeper the roof is the better as that increases the speed the roof sheds water. Forty-five degrees Celsius is a minimum and 55C-65C is the ideal.
"The eaves should be thick. Three feet might seem thick enough for a bus shelter — but it throws water away from the walls (there are no gutters on a proper thatched roof).”
What about fire worries? Is the mortar flaunching enough to protect the roof? “Most houses have had an electrical upgrade since the 1960s, but it’s fair to say that some electricians would have concerns approaching a thatched house,” says Liam.
“In the case of fire, in my experience it’s about a 50/50 split between problems with the chimney and electrical fires. The old style plastic casing on old wiring can go brittle, allowing the wires to be exposed and spark. Insurance companies will handle houses that are re-thatched and have proof of being rewired, but they are a few specialist firms.”
Thatch is waterproof, warm, and packed tight and in good condition a reed roof is not attractive to birds or vermin.
With the correct treatment and properly commissioned up to date electrics the roof is in no more danger of fire than a conventional roof and for insurance purposes chemical retardant is sprayed on the interior to slow down smouldering and burning.
How does Liam approach repairing a roof?
“When I get up on a roof,” Liam reveals, “I might have a plan, but the plan develops in response to what’s needed by this building. I enjoy the sense of control in the job – it also has naturalness to it. My hands do what I need without asking them (muscle memory).
“A bundle or reeds will cover an area of a slate, about 1’ square. Every thatcher is unique and will do the job in their particular way – you can spot the man by looking at the roof.
“Years ago, the ladder would go up and the thatcher would do the work two feet to the left and two feet to the right in a stretch and then work three feet ahead of the ladder up the roof. I do things differently to avoid a vertical seam that can lead to a channel — a weakness really.
"Today, we work up, thatching an area of say 10 feet wide across at the bottom of the roof and they thatch a nine-foot span above that — staggering the joins that are then blended back into the surface."
Traditional buildings are “sensitive creatures”, Liam expands: “You just have to move one thing out of the alignment from how it was placed by the maker, and it throws everything else out.
"I’ve been asked to raise chimneys for example (chimneys in traditional thatch buildings are surprisingly low and squat — planning permission sometimes demands change).
“Afterward, the draw of the fire changes and the room is filled with smoke. It’s amazing. These are not standardised buildings – they are living things, formed in response to field contours, the wind, the needs of this family over centuries.”