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Treasure in the thatch

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

In the old days you might have left a bottle of something strong for the next thatcher, the one who would be summoned after many years to patch up what time and the weather had undone.

These days, the thatcher would be driving, so a wee drop in the roof is not such a good idea. But William Cahill will leave behind a sign of both his presence and labors in this place. With his task nearing completion, Cahill will place a few Irish coins snugly under the roof he has wrought. Years from now, someone else will find them and know that this particular thatch in this particular place was crafted by an Irish hand.

This particular place is a short distance from the village of Oldwick, deep in New Jersey’s horse country, a place that seems surprisingly remote and removed from the urban bustle not too many miles away down Interstate 78.

William Cahill arrived here earlier this year to thatch a stone cottage on the property of Bill and Kathleen Kluge. When the Echo arrived to inspect, the job, which began in the spring, was just about nearing completion. And on a late summer’s day, after months of drought and thatching work, something most appropriate happened. It began to rain.

Rain and thatch frequently meet head-on back in Ireland, not least in Cahill’s native County Galway. It doesn’t rain quite as much in deepest New Jersey, although when it gets going it can belt down as hard, if not harder, than any damp spot in Connemara.

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That’s why the roof Cahill is finishing up is pitched at 45 degrees and a bit. Forty-five degrees is the minimum for a thatched roof. Any number less than that and the rain doesn’t run off properly and the thatch will spoil faster.

You learn all sorts of things in a close encounter with something that you never gave much consideration to beyond an occasional admiring glance. True enough, there’s no such thing as a flat thatch roof, at least this side of the Sahara.

William Cahill is 37 years old and has been living and working in the U.S. since 1986. His Irish home was in Salthill, just outside Galway City. His American home is in Cincinnati, where he lives with his wife, Mary, a schoolteacher and Ohio native, and their twins, Liam and Fiona.

Like many of his fellow Irish who landed in America during the depressed 1980s, Cahill set out to earn a living working construction. But Sheetrock wasn’t his cup of tea. Rather unusually in the age of near instant building, Cahill reached backward in time, offering Americans a skill that has its origins in a distant past, one before history was even being written down.

"I did my apprenticeship in thatching on an Irish government training course and when I came here first, my two brothers and I worked together on Cape Cod," Cahill said.

One of the jobs the brothers Cahill did on the Cape is immediately obvious to anyone who ventures across the Sagamore Bridge. There is a large store selling Christmas items just on the Cape side of the bridge.

"About 10 English guys put that roof on, but by the time we arrived it was in need of repair, so we fixed it up," Cahill said.

Master craftsman

By 1990, the construction business wasn’t too hot in Massachusetts, so the brothers Cahill went their separate ways. William stuck with thatching and soon began to develop a solo reputation as a master of the craft.

One of Cahill’s first big clients was the Smithsonian and an example of his early work can be found at the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, where he thatched the roof of a colonial-period church.

"I’m doing a lot of garden houses and small buildings at the moment, although the next big job is minding my babies for a while," he said.

The thatcher’s life might seem like something from a bygone age, the pace of the work more akin to the era of the horse than the minivan. But it means a lot of travel and time away from home.

Cahill landed himself the job at the Kluge residence a couple of years ago when he was pricing another job in the area. He dropped some of his business cards in strategic locations. One was the office of a local architect who knew the Kluges and found out that Kathleen, whose family name is Madigan, wanted a thatched roof on the cottage adjoining the main house, a rambling two-story stone building, the oldest part of which dates back to 1700, a time when this part of New Jersey was on the frontier, if not beyond it.

The architect brought the Kluges and Cahill together and once the deal was struck, Cahill was off on his travels again.

Finding the ingredients for a thatched roof involves a little more legwork than calling up the local building suppliers. And thatch itself can be composed of more than just one ingredient. Some of the ingredients are natural, some are man-made. Each needs the other.

Cahill mostly uses water reeds, which he harvests every January and February in southern New Jersey. Landowners and preservation societies are usually eager to see Cahill at work as, left unchecked, the reeds spread quickly and can clog wetlands or pose a fire hazard in dry summers.

The roof area of the Kluge cottage is not very big, just 1,000 square feet. Each square foot is covered by a bundle of reeds but while everything seems compact at the finish, it was not so at the start. 1,000 bundles of water reed equals 10 acres when the reeds are in their natural form.

Next, Cahill buys straw from Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pa. Plywood, tar paper and steel rods all go into the mix and once the main part of the roof is finished, the apex, or ridge, is the only part that remains undone.

Thatching a roof is slow work. It is completed in stages. It can also be slowed down by the fact that everybody who passes by wants to talk about it. Cahill has come down off his ladder as many times in recent months to explain his work.

The next-to-last part of the thatching involves combining straw, reeds, steel bars and hazel rods, soaked in the waters of a nearby river, atop the ridge of the roof. The hazel is imported from Ireland. The final task is decorating this top part of the roof with cattail leaves.

Tools of the trade

At least this time Cahill doesn’t have to travel to another state or dial up Ireland. The cattail required for this job grows in a pond at the rear of the Kluge property.

Cahill’s tool chest is not of the hammer and nail variety. It contains instruments that look as if they might have come from a medieval torture chamber or, more benignly, a blacksmith’s forge. Cahill actually has a small forge of his own back in Ohio, where he crafts his own tools.

Those tools include a farrier’s anvil, a wood and wire combination called a legget, a Dutch mallet and a mean-looking curved blade known in Ireland as a slane.

Once complete, the thatch roof will be between 10 and 12 inches thick. The Kluge cottage roof, Cahill reckons, should be good for 20 years, maybe even 25.

"Thatch, he eagerly points out, "is cool in the summer, warm in the winter and very soundproof."

Cahill is a man who knows his subject. To the average viewer, one thatched roof looks much the same as another. Sure, most of us can probably tell if the roof is in a state of good repair or needs work. But that’s as far as it usually goes.

So is all thatch the same? Not so in Ireland, as Cahill explains.

"In the west of Ireland a lot of straw is used," he said. "Reeds are more commonly used in Wexford and the southeast of the country, also in Limerick. Sea grass, also called bog grass, is commonly used in Donegal. Whatever is found most locally is what is used locally."

He points to the Bunratty Folk Park in County Clare as a place where the thatch connoisseur can view all the various forms found in Ireland in one spot.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, Cahill uses mostly water reeds. It is, he says, generally longer lasting than straw, hence the score of years he reckons it will take before the Kluge cottage needs a makeover.

When that day comes, the next thatcher — Cahill doesn’t want to tempt the fates by saying it will definitely be him — will find the Irishman’s calling card in the thatch. Those coins Cahill is leaving behind are Irish pennies dated this year, 1999.

"The next thatcher will know from me what year the job was done," he said.

All in all, it has been a good year on the rooftops of America for William Cahill. The fall is a quieter time before reed harvesting in midwinter. Time to put the feet up at the Cahill home in Cincinnati and gaze at the roof from underneath for a change.

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