Big thank you from

Do you think it would burn? Just try it!

by The Rambler 08/11/2002

I have been perusing a piece on insulation of homes which has caused me to marvel at the strides which have been made since my day.

We have come a long way from the primitive stone and lime built walls, not to mention the mud walls which proliferated within living memory, and the snug thatched roofs.

Corrugated iron, properly referred to as 'zinc', also had its day - often put on on top of thatch, the latter being left on as insulation.

What a fire hazard it was when open coal fires, paraffin oil and candles were widely used for heat and light. And, to add fuel to the flames, many householders smoked tobacco in pipes, even in bed with their heads rubbing against the roofs of the long, low, whitewashed thatched cabins.

In many thatched houses opened out jute sacks were used to decorate ceilings, the fabric being nailed to the black-oak rafters and coated with whitewash.

Often elliptical scorch marks were evidence that lighted candles had been brought dangerously close.

Yet, miraculously, the houses had not been burned down.

The speed at which a thatched roof burns was once manifested on a neighbour's farm in my teenage days.

The owner of a vacant cottier house discussed with my dad the best way of removing the old thatch to make room for corrugated iron, the intention being to convert the old building into a barn.

Burning was mentioned and the owner remarked, 'maybe it wouldn't burn'.

Carelessly he struck a match and held it to the 'aison', which was the name for the edge of the roof. 1n seconds, the roof was an inferno and the two men (sensible farmers) had lumps of blazing thatch showering down on them as they frantically tried to salvage wooden potato boxes which had been stored in the building.

They only managed to save a small number, but their doubts about whether a thatched roof would burn had been removed!

The author of the piece about insulating a house missed nothing. He even advised readers not to forget to stop up draughts from keyholes and letter boxes.

In the community in which I grew up there were the usual 'smart alecs' who excelled in scoffing and allocating nicknames.

I can well imagine the scorn which one of these 'boyos' would have poured out onto any neighbour who might have fixed a cover to his keyhole to stop a draught.

Even the 'oddity' who dared to speak 'proper' (shades of Shaw's 'Pygmalion') was ridiculed by local scoffers.

It would be heaven help the one who in all seriousness had fixed a cover to his keyhole. The Ulsterism 'cowl rife critter' comes to mind.

Fixing a brush inside a letterbox and using a gun, loaded with plastic sealant, featured in the author's piece which I have mentioned.

The plastic sealant is recommended to stop up cracks in window panes. Fair enough.


But regularly I have had to release mail wedged in one of those letterbox brushes. Just this week an important-looking envelope tumbled out of a friend's letterbox a well squashed one. I actually alerted the businessman involved.

Squashed envelopes are a pet hate of mine, so there'll be no brushes on my door!

I'll end with a note about the 'insulators' which were commonly used in West Tyrone fifty years ago.

When I did field work I got well used to seeing sheaves of straw at the bottom of front doors which were decayed nearly half-way up, and also inside windows which had panes broken. No market there for guns to apply plastic sealants!

It is a mark of the revolutionary strides made since the 1940s in the standard of housing in Ulster, where a traditional long, low, thatched cabin is now only seen on an artist's sketch.

Oil fired central heating hadn't been introduced in my young days, and men scorned the idea of putting on an overcoat in winter. In a word, 'cowl rife critters' were few compared with 2002, when sitting-on-the-bottom is the norm.

I have just had a thermostat replaced, so all power to the vendors of insulating materials.

Ulster Star