Jim Devlin remembers building and thatching

'He was a fearful sight to us at first...'

A simple time when nothing was wasted
Memories of the early 50’s keep flooding back to me. The love of the simple ways of life and the inventiveness of the people of that time still astonishes me.
We were self-sufficient, the only things bought were sugar, tea and eggs. Articles were made to do a job at the time and if reusable, they were left over to the next time when needed. No patents, the ideas went around the neighbourhood. And everybody used them.
Building and thatching were jobs that were done after harvest, before winter set in.
These houses for the most part were built of mud and stone, the better ones of stone and mortar (burnt lime and sand mixed and tramped onto a paste) and whitewashed with burnt lime.
I remember my uncle telling the story of Paddy Brennan, Jonny Brennan’s father of Mullan, a character now deceased and sadly missed in the parish, a quiet, soft-spoken man with a quick wit. Some neighbour had asked Paddy for the lend of this trowel only to be refused. The neighbour taking this rather amiss, stated ‘its tara you wouldn’t help a neighbour.’
To this Paddy replied ‘Here are my trowels,’ and held out his hands, ‘If you can take them and use them you are welcome to them’.
A new roof on Bog Oak
But stories aside I remember the new roof going on our old house, Bog Oak (Black Oak). Sticks that had been carefully set aside in the barn stood upright to dry, to carry the new roof. These had been gathered in the moss over the years and stored until needed.
A day’s digging of scraws (long foot wide or better strips of soil and grass) usually cut at the top end of the moss where there were lots of roots of scutch (a type of straggly weedy grass) to hold it together. We enjoyed watching my uncles, Jim and John, masterfully cut these with a spade, roll them up and put them in the horse’s cart.
Next we cut the scallops of Sally, or if you’re posh, willow branches. These were sharpened at each end and driven through the thatch to hold it in place; then back to the moss to cut rushes for putting over the thatch. The underlay was wheat straw, which had been carefully stored, and the seed taken off over a barrel with a stick so as not to damage the straw.
The big day had arrived. Robert John Workman the local thatcher arrived to start the roof. He came sauntering down the bray dressed in heavy black trousers tied at the knees to prevent mice or rats from running up the legs. He was a stocky, broad-shouldered man with strong arms and big hands, wearing an old tattered cap tilted to one side. He had very black hair and two or three day’s beard, as black as soot.
He was a fearful sight to us at first. ‘Well boys, is everything ready?’ We were too dumb struck to answer, and mumbled a muffled, ‘Yes.’
The old thatch was taken off and put in the dunghill, or dughel as it was pronounced; (I don’t think there is a spelling of this word as it was the local dialect and point of fun when some unfortunate was asked to spell it at school).
Nothing was wasted, the old thatch was mixed with cow manure and used to fertilise the land when that time came; another hand done job with a grape from a horse cart.
The old scraws were used to fill small hollows in the fields and the wood was kept for firewood.
Hidden treasures
During the stripping of the old roof the gems of previous years came from the eaves of the roof. A harragh pin pushed into the eve for safe-keeping only to be forgotten about, a drop of poteen in a bottle which was kept for a sick calf or cow, an old scythe blade too dangerous to be left lying around as there were no bins for rubbish, and many other items like the odd horse shoe or an old mussel loading shotgun which Robert John deftly slipped; onto a sack he had with him.
This was the first time the loft (upstairs) had seen daylight in many year, hidden treasures abounded. Old brass candlesticks, willow pattern plates that were not needed and stored for later, mortingales that had come adrift from a horse harness and were never sewn back on, grandad’s pocket watch in a box. As children we were chased away and told to leave things alone that didn’t concern us.
We would patiently watch Robert John replace the old timbers, then roll the long scraws over the new ones; he was now ready to start thatching.
The first spars were put into place over the wheat straw; we watched as he twisted the scallops with his large hands and drove them into place along the rigging, all the while we tried to twist the scallops without much success and Robert John scolded us for destroying them.
When he had finished, the eaves had to be trimmed and cut into shape; this was done with a special knife for the job, so as to run off the rain.
He would then stand back and survey his handy work ,scratching his chin and darting back and forth, stripping any bits he had missed.
These memories are stored in my heart. Unfortunately our children will never know of the marvels of the old style of work and life on the farms of yesteryear.  What will they have to tell their children in years to come?
By Jim Devlin

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