The thatched roof cottage with whitewashed walls is a powerful symbol of Ireland, fondly cherished by the Irish wherever they are in the world.
The Irish thatched cottage is based on a simple rectangular plan.
The walls were built with stones found locally, pieced together in interlocking fashion, then covered with a mud plaster before being white washed. As we all know, there was no shortage of these stones in the west of Ireland.
Cottages were usually built with a door to the front and back, and usually oriented to the north and south.
It has been said that these two doors were necessary to prevent mother-in-laws and daugher-in-laws from using the same door. Many sons brought their new brides home to live beneath the thatch with their beloved mothers, and peace did not always reign.
Separating the women was one good reason for this door positioning, but the most likely reason was to ventilate the room.
Burning turf was smoky business and not all chimneys were up to the task of keeping a small room smoke free.
Irish thatched cottages boasted few windows. This helped limit heat loss in winter and kept the interior of the cottages cool in the summer months.
However, one of the main reasons for this limited number of windows was the infamous “window tax” imposed by the British government from 1799 to 1851.
This ludicrous tax was imposed on any homeowner whose house had more than six openings. This penalty came to be called the “typhus tax” because of the increased incidence of respiratory problems related to poor air quality in these thatched cottages.
The Irish census of 1841 reported that 40% of the population lived in a one room cottage.
That meant about 3 and a half million people were cramped into tiny, dark, smoky rooms.
Not only did most families have six or seven children, they also shared their living quarters with a pig, and a dresser full of hens or chickens. Not exactly the cosy, romantic thatched cottages we have grown to love.
These little houses weren’t full to the rafters with charm, but were quite literally full to the rafters with humans and animals.
Our Irish ancestors who were thatched cottage dwellers did not own their homes. They built them with their own hands, but they did not own the land on which they were built.
Rent had to be paid to a landlord, or sometimes to a middle man, who sub-leased lots from a bigger plot of land he controlled.
Money was not always exchanged in lieu of rent. Cottagers often paid their land rent by working in the fields, or wherever they were needed.
If work was in short supply the cottagers were at the mercy of their land owner, and eviction sometimes ensued.
(Eviction Scene at the Doagh Famine Museum, Donegal)
Many of Ireland’s surviving thatched cottages are now privately owned, and I wish to express my gratitude to those who are preserving these cottages, recognising that they are an important piece of our Irish heritage.
But ownership of these cottages poses some challenges. Insurance premiums are significantly higher than for houses with regular tile roofing. Underwriters believe a thatched roof poses a greater risk of fire.
I hope the Irish government recognises the importance of preserving these little cottages, as a national treasure, and a piece of our heritage that must be handed down through the generations.
The thatched cottage may be a romanticised symbol of Ireland, but if they were to vanish, we would soon realise their importance. I hope that day shall never come.
Credits to ‘Irish American Mom’