OLDEST IRISH AMERICAN NEWSPAPER IN USA, ESTABLISHED IN 1928
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Thatch all, folks!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Concern that the survival of the country’s remaining traditional thatched cottages is under threat because of insurance and other problems has been voiced by the Heritage Council.

Owners of about 2,500 surviving cottages are facing premiums that are about twice the cost of normally roofed houses and one leading broker dealing with thatched homes said he can’t find new cover after his underwriter stopped taking the business.

But an architect with the state-supported council, Mary Hanna, said insurance was just one of a number of difficulties threatening the future of the traditional rural homes.

“There is a major problem with thatched properties,” she said last week. “As a nation, we have to decide what we are about. If we are serious about keeping them in the landscape, something has to happen.

“Owners are being hit from every direction, yet they are flying the flag for Ireland’s heritage with very little support.”

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Hanna said there are inadequate grants to help the mainly elderly cottage owners and a lack of trained thatchers. Some thatchers are using English thatching methods and others are importing Turkish water reeds.

“The thatched cottage is a very powerful symbol throughout the world, and if they were all to vanish, we would be much the poorer for it,” Hanna said. “We have a buildings-at-risk list where owners contact us. You’d weep to read the letters; people are really struggling on all sides.”

Thatched roofs, using straw or reeds, on cottages with whitewashed walls have been a feature of the countryside for centuries. As a symbol of a traditional rural landscape, they have been widely used as a tourism marketing tool and they are featured on many postcards.

However, they are also regarded as a particular insurance risk as many of them are old and the thatching materials are highly inflammable.

Insurance broker Michael Brown, whose company, Kidd Insurances, has handled a large part of the thatched cottage business, said a Lloyds insurance syndicate in London that had previously dealt with the business withdrew coverage in July.

Brown said he has failed to find anyone else who is interested in quoting for thatched properties.

“We are doing our utmost to find an alternative but so far without success,” he said. “It is a shame, as thatched properties really are part of our heritage.”

Brown said that since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States there have been problems with reinsurance.

Another difficulty is that there are few insurance companies left in the Irish market as a result of consolidations and mergers.

“Unfortunately, the underwriters hadn’t made much money out of the business, because it only takes one fire to wipe out the premiums of maybe 100 properties,” Brown said. “We have tended to have, over the last few years, perhaps two or three fires which would have been total losses.

“The other problem is wind. A lot of these properties tend to be in the west and would be subject to gales. If the wind gets underneath the thatch, it can strip the roof off.”

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