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Raise the roof

Updated: Feb 12

It was one of my recent online posts that set me off on this very interesting journey of discovery.

A 'before and after' photo that i had posted up before but obviously hadn't reached the same amount of people or had the same impact.

The photo was of one of the previous inhabitants of the cottage sitting in a chair in front of the kitchen window from almost eighty years ago to one of me in a similar position but taken from further away.

The 'inflammatory' photo! 😅

The photo got a lot of comments questioning was it the same window, was it even the same cottage and one or two wondering whether the roof had been raised or the window lowered.

Now most were because they couldn't see the difference in perspective.

The original black and white photo was taken at a side angle and in close proximity.

In my modern take it is face on and much further away.

The change in the thatch also made a visual difference as the old thatch hung lower with a fringe effect and the new thatch is thicker, higher and cut straight across.

A better example with a more similar angle

But something kept niggling in the back of my head and I couldn't shake the feeling that there was definitely still a difference between the height of the wall above the window in the 1650's compared to any photo after that time.

I didn't sleep properly for days thinking about it, as i like to say, my head was addled!

If the wall height had been changed at some point that would mean the A-frame structure on the inside must have been changed too surely?

The corrugated tin roof taken in 1987

This confused me as the inside part of the roof seemed so ancient, so perfectly preserved and it made me so sad to think this had possibly been tampered with at some point.

After trying to get some answers online to no avail I touched base with one of Joe's brothers Martin.

Martin is one of those people that has a great brain for answers to the weird and wonderful and is a bit of a vernacular houses nerd.

'Marvellous Marsy' as we like to call him on occasion! asked me to take measurements of the outside wall from the top of the window to the base of the roof and do the same on the inside.

He said he had a good idea what was going on.

I did as asked and got a measurement of 27/30 inches on the outside and a mere 4/7 on the inside, a huge difference.

The measurements from outside
The indoor measurement

Martin explained then as to his reasons for the measurements and why.

He told me that in the 1960's and onwards the Irish government were giving grants to thatched home owners to remove the thatch roof and replace it with corrugated tin.

The majority of people of course took up the offer, seeing it as a cheap way to upgrade and save, as the cost of straw and labour would have increased as well as the availability of thatch and thatchers.

With a tin roof there was no upkeep or maintainance and no risk of fire and in that time a lot of Irish people were embarrassed to be living under a straw roof, it been seen as 'peasant like' and old fashioned.

It was also a reminder to many of very hard times.

Unfortunately and to our vernacular histories detriment, along with the removal and burning of the thatch roof, in a lot of cases the underside A-frame was ripped out and burned with it aswell.

Martin was able to tell me of one case in The Naul, County Fingal where in the 1980's he watched them do exactly that to the roof of an old thatched building.

A lovely example of an intact A-frame structure

The McMahon family that lived in Maio house must have availed of that grant at some stage after the photo was taken in 1950c

The measurements indeed prove that the walls were lifted with blocks to support the new tin roof.

But what the measurements also prove is the huge difference between the outside and inside of the cottage and though the outside was altered the inside was actually never touched.

Better again this proves that the inner A-frame of 'peg and dowel' timber and scraw (earth/sod) are indeed original and in fact more rare and important than I ever realised.

The (now) bathroom in Trohanny Cottage. Note the meeting of timbers/scraw directly to the stone wall

After a lot of research (there was very little to go on) I found a couple of articles that talk about the A-frame structures of old thatched houses yet not one mention of either the old grant or the removal of these precious frames.

This is some of what I learnt and some of what I knew already..

The one room depth of most irish cottages is probably due in some part to the length of timbers that were available to create an A-framed roof.

Wood was sourced from local trees (often birch,oak or pine) and in some cases people went to the bogs and used bog oak.

They constructed the roof by testing the long timbers directly on top of the stone walls.

The shorter timbers (bracing collars) were positioned between a pair of longer ones as in the letter 'A'.

Wooden pegs were used as pins between the join (dowels) before nails were introduced later on.

On top of the timbers went the layers of scraw ( lengths of turf, sod and even heather) to form the first layer.

This layer not only was a natural insulator but the pieces were laid out to overlap each other ensuring a weather tight ridge as well as a fireproof barrier!

Another beautiful example from Co.Tipperary (courtesy of Tony Donohue)

Here's a lovely description by Séamús Conroy from County Laois..

" To make the scraw you'd go up to the mountain bog where there would e grass and Heather.

You'd cut your scraw maybe two foot wide and maybe ten feet long then roll it up. You'd let it dry in the summertime.

When the weight had gone out of it you'd bring it home and put it up on the new roof then roll it down like a carpet.

It would be stitched on then.

It would be about four or five inches in thickness.

Once that was done you'd have a grip for the scallops (bent hazel/willow twigs) in the scraw"

In 1911 more than half of Irelands houses were thatched.

Today in 2024 the number is around 1,000 with that decreasing day by day.

Of those left how many still have the original A-frame structure?

I can't imagine it's many.

Thatch is designed to be renewable and replaceable but a vernacular roof frame is not.

Once they are gone they are irreplaceable as they are part of the very fabric of the building.

The first sighting of the original A-frame structure to the original hearth and beams all completly intact

Trohanny cottage is not only one of the last remaining thatched cottages in Ireland, it is also one of the very few with its original vernacular roof structure completly intact.

It is a rare gem indeed and that has been just recently recognised by The Historic houses of Ireland who have just given me the green light to be on their prestigious group of listed buildings.

One of only a couple of thatched cottages to be accepted it has bbeenfar too long that the humble thatched houses of Ireland have been kept aside in favour of the grander specimens.

No offence to the wonderful and beautiful buildings they are but it was not through large windows and by sweeping staircases that the majority of Irish people lived, but within earth and stone under straw and scraw.

1950 to 2024 the raised outdoor walls and new thatch and ridge

I slept very well since making those new discoveries and I know for sure a certain someone would be mighty pleased that I finally learned what he would surely have known all along.

Áine McGarry 2024

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