Master craftsman Eddie Black keeping a dying art of thatching alive
Here's a sight you don't see very often - a thatcher practising what has become a dying art.
Peruse the Irish tourist brochure abroad and you might be forgiven for thinking that every second house has a thatched roof, but in reality thatched homes are sparsely dotted across the island.
And Eddie Black of Countrywide Thatching, who is revamping the thatched roof on the National Trust's historic Hezlett House in Castlerock with colleague Peter, is one of only two Northern Ireland-based thatchers left to carry on the dwindling craft. The other is Gerry Agnew from Ahoghill.
Master thatcher Eddie was brought in when the National Trust inspected the roof of former rectory Hezlett House and found it had fallen into poor condition.
Thanks to funding from NIEA Built Heritage and a legacy gift, he is currently stripping away the old thatch and replacing its with new Turkish water reeds, which look similar to straw but last around seven to eight years longer.
Toby Edwards, National Trust manager for Hezlett House, said: "Maintenance of the thatch is essential to ensure the house is protected and maintained for future generations. Thatch was once the roofing material of choice, but today few remain."
In fact, Hezlett House was one of the very first jobs Eddie did after becoming a thatcher, a job he had coveted from childhood.
"It would have been in the blood because my grandfather William Black was a thatcher and stonemason back in the day. I never knew him and never met him, but it was something I had wanted to do all my life," he said.
Eddie's dad arranged for him to serve his time as an electrician after he left school, but he never took to it, and then he got the chance to work with Donegal thatcher John Masters.
"I trained with John Masters and went and did a few jobs with him before I went out on my own," he said. "Hezlett House would have been one of the first ones I actually did, and I put up a website and things took off."
Eddie estimates that he thatches six or seven houses a year, as well as repair jobs. He has thatched houses all over Ireland. A number of houses in the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh are his work, and he also thatched the summer house at Florencecourt that recently hit the news after it was destroyed in an arson attack.
The job involves stripping away the old rotten thatched roof, building a straw base coat, then adding an eaves course. After this, a brow course is built up on top of the eaves course, added in layers up to the ridge. At the top, ridge rolls of reed and straw are built and straw packed between the ridge rolls and the final layer, before the ridge is added on top.
"There aren't as many thatched roofs now as there were because there's not as much money about," Eddie added.
"It used to be that thatching a roof was a poor man's roof, now it's a rich man's roof."
Five buildings thatched by Eddie Black
1. The Red House, Enniskillen
2. Gazebo, Galgorm Hotel
3. Forge, Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh
4. Private residence, Islandmagee
5. Dunminning Cottage, Glarryford