Thursday, February 17, 2011


By the second week in January 2011, the last of the winter snow was finally gone and work commenced in earnest on the thatch roof. In the frost, the screws we'd been using to roof the house had snapped clean off. I'd used common or garden steel ones that break in cold temperatures (unlike nails! Next time…). The batons came away with the slightest pressure - not a good sign for something that's going to have to hold 2 tons of thatch and three strapping men on it - so we reinforced the whole thing with bits of old timber.

But there was another challenge. The straw we got at the threshing had been teased out and laid in beds 4ft wide by 4ft high by as long as Shem's shed would allow. We thought we'd got more than enough, but it was in fact far too little. Jimmy Lenihan (the thatcher) was determined to use it anyway, but as a toupe rather than the main wig. For that job, he very kindly volunteered about two tons of old reed that he was saving for a film set, and we set to work.

Thatching is a true skill, one that Jimmy mastered long ago. He first learned to thatch in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and has been doing it ever since. Two newly-qualified thatchers from Inistioge - Danny and Lee Hanahan - also volunteered their time, and in three very long, busy and exciting days it was finished. The process itself is complicated but very sensible! You start with a long sausage roll of reed that goes around the circumference of the roof. It's called a ridge roll. Then the first layer of reed is applied. Each bundle is laid, ruffled out a bit, held down with long strips of rebar, secured with a long piece of wire wrapped around a screw sunk into the frame and thwacked with a fantastic contraption called a legget that dresses the reed so that the butts face out smoothly. It looks a lot less complicated than it sounds! Here are some pictures…

This process continued layer on layer until we reached the top…

Then we ran out of reed! The top section was finished with the straw from the threshing. First the beds were re-laid on the grass, the straw was pulled and Jimmy made it into bundles of 'yelms' in a process too awkward to describe here. These were then laid onto the roof and secured with saplings of willow and stakes of hazel (more traditional than the rebar and wire!). It was finished just as we were running out of light.

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