Thatched cottage heritage in north at risk, craftsman warns

A thatched cottage over 200 years-old in Ardboe Co Tyrone. Picture by Mal McCann
A thatched cottage over 200 years-old in Ardboe Co Tyrone. Picture by Mal McCann

TRADITIONAL Irish thatched cottages in the north remain at risk as long as they are “protected” by Stormont, it has been claimed.

The Department for Communities oversees the care of listed thatched buildings through its Historic Environment Fund, however according to one of Ireland’s remaining professional thatchers, the iconic buildings could be changed beyond recognition due to a failure to use an important traditional thatching technique when repairing their roofs.

Mark Taggart, a Co Tyrone-based thatcher who has been practising his ancient craft for over two decades, warned that about 22 percent of the remaining traditional thatched cottages in Northern Ireland are officially deemed “at risk” and are on a government register of historical buildings “whose future seems threatened and may be suitable for restoration or repair”.

Yet the work carried out on many thatched roofs does not use “scraw” – a layer of turf below the thatch – to ensure it lasts many years. This leaves the roofs requiring frequent repair work, and as a result, some thatches have been replaced entirely to save the rest of the building.

“I know of at least 10 cottages where the roof has been removed entirely and replaced with tiles,” Mr Taggart said.

“We are going to lose a major part of our architectural heritage at this rate. Sub-standard work and no scraw on these roofs means they can’t stand up to the elements. On top of this, so much money has been wasted, when proper thatch work could ensure the roofs remain in place for the next generation.”

Mr Taggart spoke out as a campaign continues to save one of the north’s oldest remaining lived-in thatched cottages.

Seacoast Cottage, in Magilligan, Co Derry, faces having its thatch – dating back to the 1700s – replaced with tiles after the roof collapsed during stormy weather in 2014.

The Historic Environment Fund has offered to pay for part of the repair work, while the elderly residents hope the bulk of the money can be raised through an online campaign.

Mr Taggart said around 175 thatched cottages remain in the north, but the straw roofs that make them a popular sight for tourists could be gone within a few decades.

“The work being done on these roofs will ultimately lead to their extinction here. It will be a devastating blow to our history and heritage,” he claimed.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities said it does not employ thatchers to work on privately occupied cottages.

However, he insisted preserving thatches remained a priority.

“The department sets out advisory standards for repairs and works to listed buildings funded through its Historic Environment Fund,” he said.

“Northern Ireland’s thatched buildings are a rare and important part of our built heritage. As they require regular maintenance they can also be vulnerable to changed circumstances.

“The department has therefore ensured that all known historic examples in the region have been protected as listed buildings and are visited regularly. Thatched buildings were also one of three priority categories in the Historic Environment Fund Repair Stream launched in September 2016. As a result, the majority of the repair schemes currently under assessment for funding relate to such buildings.”