A thatch cottage owner says she is facing an uncertain future as the number of firms willing to provide insurance continues to dwindle.
Concerns have been quietly growing for years that Ireland’s thatching tradition could die out as insurance becomes increasingly difficult to secure.
Now, with the number of cottages dropping close to the 1,000 mark, a campaign to address the crisis is gathering speed.
At the latest plenary meeting of Donegal County Council, Fine Gael’s Barry Sweeny asked that a letter regarding insurance be written to the Department of Housing.
He wants the Government to consider creating a national insurance policy of its own for thatched structures.
Samantha Ibbs, husband Paul and their two children have lived in a thatch cottage in Ardara since moving back from England in 2005.
“The cottage was 15 minutes from my mum’s house and we spoke to a friend of hers about the pros and cons and what it takes to live in a thatched cottage,” Samantha said.
“It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing but it was the perfect site and it was so beautiful that we decided to give it a go.”
What was originally a two-bed property has been extended to five bedrooms. The thatched element needs re-done every seven years and usually costs in the region of €7,000. Around 50 per-cent of that is provided through Donegal County Council’s Thatch Repair Grant scheme.
Not accounted for though are the minor repairs that are needed once or twice during the seven years.
These can cost up to €1,000 a time and while limited funding is made available on an occasional basis, the repairs have be required during that particular window.
Last time such funding was available did not suit the Ibbs family.
“To thatch the house completely, the straw costs between €2,500 and €3,000 but it is a seller’s market because in order to get the grant we have to use local straw. We have a gentleman who does the thatch for us and he is very reasonable but we pay for the scaffold, we pay for the chicken wire to go over the thatch, we pay for the lathe and usually we have to do a bit of touch-up work such as painting the chimney.
“It’s definitely not a cheap way of living.”
The family initially got insurance from a company in Letterkenny. When they decided that they could no longer provide cover Samantha and Paul looked elsewhere and were able to find someone willing to grant them a policy.
But as health and safety regulations tighten, cover is becoming harder to hold on to.
“To get the grant this year we had to have a certain kind of smoke detector installed which we never had to do before. There are other hurdles we have had to jump as well to get insurance, things like fire extinguishers, heat detectors and we have to have the chimney swept twice every year.”
Samantha previously attended a conference for thatch owners. She said she raised the issue of insurance and was shocked to see how many people are living without any cover at all.
On what the future holds for her and her family, she said, “At some point I may want to sell the house. But if you can’t get insurance I’m fairly sure you can’t get a mortgage. So do I have to wait until someone has the cash to buy a thatch cottage in Ardara?
“Only the very rich will be able to afford them which is basically the reverse of why thatch houses came about in the first place.
“We bought the house because we liked the look of it and it is such a lovely place. When you are under a thatch roof, you have no idea what the weather is like outside and you get the best night’s sleep ever. And I love it on a good day when the sun is reflecting off the thatch.
“But the reality is that I may have to un-thatch and replace it with tiles. Ireland wants to portray us as a country of thatch cottages but with the way things are going, there won’t be any left.”
Earlier this year Donegal County Council granted planning permission for a ‘thatching school’ at The Dolmen Centre in Portnoo in the hope that it will encourage people to pursue what is a dying trade.
“I don’t know what the future holds because our thatcher, Hugh, is retiring,” Samantha Couzens added.
“The thatching school is a great idea and it would be lovely to think there might be a new generation of thatchers coming through because we don’t need that many.”