By The Rambler 5/01/2001
OVER the holidays I read a piece about problems which had been encountered in finding suitable straw to thatch what was termed "a 1705 time capsule house in the Johnston Castle area of County Wexford".
We were told that wheat had had to be grown specially and that it had to be threshed, not harvested by combine harvester. A picture of the vintage steam engine which ha d been used to drive the threshing mill was featured. This surprised me.
My father was an expert watcher and he would never have used machine-threshed straw to thatch a house. I spent the first 20 years of my life in a thatched house, and I can only remember it being thatched once. l also know from observation that a coat of thatch was expected to last for ten years or more -20 maybe.
Only wheat straw was used. Corn straw, which is soft, was all right for thatching corn stacks as that only needed to last a winter. Wheat straw was essential for dwelling houses, and it had to be long and unthreshed. The grain was removed by a pro cess called 'lashing' As the word implies. the sheaf of wheat was lashed manually over a plank sup ported horizontally by two large barrels (casks) set on their ends.
Father gasped a suitable volume by the butt ends and lashed the ears off the plank until all the grain had been dislodged.
There was a knack in the process. The bunches had to be lashed with just the minimum degree of force to dislodge the grain without breaking straw.
Corn straw for thatching stacks was fed into the rotating drum of the barn threshing machine, side wise, after one of the rollers had been removed to avoid breaking the stalks. The barn threshing machine was, of course, horse drawn.
A pair of horses dragged a horizontal lever around on a circular horse-walk like rotating the handle of a giant clock mounted horizontally about thirty inches above the ground. one can be seen at the American Folk Park at Mountoy, near Omagh.
Father spent many hours making 'stopples' when corn stacks had to be
thatched. A' stopple' is defined as 'a bunch of straw folded over or tied at one end for
thatching' When fashioned correctly a stopple of straw resembles a large (giant) fly The grain or chaff head was secured by the master
craftsman with a few deft twists to form a pointed bunch or arrow which the thatcher rammed into
the but ends of the sheaves forming the head of the stack or hovel.
Starting at the 'asin', he encircled the stack with a row of stopples. Then he added a second row immediately above and so on until the apex of the stock was reached.
A purpose-designed tool was used to open up the butts of sheaves to allow the stopple to be rammed home. (It had in stay put). When the sloping, conical roof of the stack had been completely covered with stopples the thatcher dressed the thatch: then he roped it.
He used a short stubby knife fashioned from the tip of a worn-out scythe blade by a blacksmith. By stroking the straw thatch, downwards, from the apex to the asin, the dressing process left the finished job as neat as a well-kept beard.
Ulster thatchers would skilfully have solved the problems of thatching that 300-years-old house in Wexford and it wouldn't have required re-thatching for, maybe, 20 years!