Thursday 14 February 2013

Celtic Roots Craic! 54 – 'Scraws, thatch and 'the back streets''

Groomsport Harbour and village with thatched cottage behind

I was helping my daughter and son-in-law to move house recently and we had a Brazilian helping us, whose name was Clauder – Claude with an 'r' on the end. I was able to remember his name quite easily because it reminded me of some-one throwing lumps of turf – clods.  We call this pastime 'cloddin''.  That reminded me of another local word for turf – scraw. Scraws were used in thatching, which is making a bit of a comeback after nearly dying out as an art. The rafters and battens of a roof to be thatched were first covered in scraws – grass sods complete with the roots, but with the soil mostly removed. This provided a base for the hazel rods that were used to pin down the bundles of thatch on the roof. Nowadays I believe steel spikes are used as well to secure the bundles of reed thatch.

There are not too many thatched cottages any more in Ireland – north or south. Most of those you would find now would be of fairly recent construction and often used as tourist accommodation. The original thatched cottages of the Irish countryside have mostly rotted and tumbled into ruin by now, while modern tiled or slated dwellings have replaced them. 

At Groomsport village – where my boat, Warrior Maid, is moored – there are still two of the original fisherman's cottages preserved by the local council as a visitor's centre for tourists, known as Cockle Row. In the summer months they hold classical concerts outside at weekends, while inside you might be fortunate enough to be given a piece of soda farl, freshly baked on a griddle over a traditional turf fire.  If you are even more fortunate you might get butther on it!

These cottages are also the landmark I use to line up my boat with the end of the pier. Beyond this line the water is deep enough for my boat at any stage of the tide, but inside that line I can only approach my mooring at more than half-tide. The cottages are also lit up at night, which makes a pretty backdrop to the harbour.

Ye'll not find too many thatched houses in Belfast, now. The original workers houses in Belfast were built during the Industrial Revolution, when a lot of people moved from the country to the city to work in the Linen mills. These brick built, slate-roofed houses were the bare minimum that Mill owners could provide for their workers. Whole areas of Belfast were laid out in matching rows of these terraces, known locally as the 'back streets'. The houses are known as 'kitchen houses', or 'two up, two down' – meaning two bedrooms upstairs, a 'living room' – or 'parlour' downstairs, with what was known as a 'scullery' behind – probably with a 'Belfast' sink – leading to a tiny paved yard, with an outside toilet – or 'outhouse' – off it.

Years ago, at the height of the troubles, I ran my own construction business, rehabbing these old houses under a local authority grant scheme. One of these jobs was a house that had been bricked up during the troubles, because it was in an interface area and rioting between the two sides had put whole streets of houses out of use on either side of the 'Peace Line'. When I began this job I could only access the house by means of a ladder, climbing in through the first floor (upstairs) window, because all the downstairs windows and doors were bricked up.

These houses would need repaired, a bathroom added and an extension out back with a proper kitchen. Some of the work involved removing the roof slates, re-pointing the chimney and replacing the original slates on new felt and laths. Every morning I would climb the ladder, then take a good long look around in every direction, before beginning work. One morning I spotted two other men on a roof just across the Peace Line from me – but it turned out they were doing the same as me – rehabbing a house on that side, so no problem!

There were occasions, though, when bullets would be fired across the fence, hitting the street outside. Or a hunger striker would die, and all the women from the 'orr side' would be out banging dustbin lids in protest. On those days you found some work needing done inside! 

When the roof was nearly finished the prospective new owner of the house arrived to see the progress and, seeing as I needed a couple of extra slates, I took him for a wee tour of the empty streets beyond his – next to the Peace Line. There were no people, the houses occupied only by pigeons – 'road pickers' as they're called locally. It was a very eerie experience and he was nearly a nervous wreck after that trip – though I did manage to find the slates I needed!

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