Traditional Irish Thatched Cottage

On a recent tour to the Cliffs of Moher we stopped off at the small fishing village of Kinvarra, Co. Galway. Here my guests were able to climb the picturesque Dunguaire Castle and enjoy the beautiful views from the rooftop over looking Kinvarra. But it was the stunning Traditional Irish Thatched Cottage nearby which really caught the attention of my American guests.

The thatched roof cottage with whitewashed walls is a powerful symbol of Ireland, often featured on postcards. This quaint, traditional image immediately represents Ireland for many people throughout the world.

The Irish thatched cottage is based on a simple rectangular plan. The walls were built with stones found locally then covered with a mud plaster before been white washed. Cottages were usually built with a door to the front and a door to the back. The reason for this was most likely to ventilate the smoky room from all the turf burning that would take place. Not all chimneys were up to the task of keeping a small room smoke free. The Irish cottage would have boasted few windows. This would help limit heat loss during the winter and kept the interior of the cottage cool in the summer months. The roof itself would have been constructed of coupled rafters, layered with sods of turf to create a layer of insulation before materials such as wheaten straw, oaten straw, rushes or marram grass was placed on top secured in place with ropes to protect it against the abrasive weather conditions.

The Irish census of 1841 reported that 40% of the population lived in a one room cottage.

That meant about 3 and a half million people were cramped into tiny, dark, smoky rooms. Not only did most families have six or seven children, they also shared their living quarters with a pig, and a dresser full of hens or chickens. Not exactly the cozy, romantic thatched cottages we have grown to love. These little houses weren’t full to the rafters with charm, but were quite literally full to the rafters with humans and animals.

Our Irish ancestors who were thatched cottage dwellers did not own their homes.  They built them with their own hands, but they did not own the land upon which they were built. Rent had to be paid to a landlord, or sometimes to a middle man, who subleased lots from a bigger plot of land he controlled.

Money was not always exchanged in lieu of rent. Cottagers often paid their land rent by working in the fields, or wherever they were needed. 

If work was in short supply the cottagers were at the mercy of their land owner, and eviction sometimes ensued.

The traditional thatched cottages are such a formidable part of our Irish Heritage. They are a romanticized symbol of Ireland, but if they were to vanish, we would soon realize their importance. I hope that day shall never come ….