Just when you thought thatched cottages were a thing of the past, along comes a woman who says that straw holds out the promise of a sustainable future. Professional thatcher Marike Leen spoke to Ryan Tubridy about learning to thatch from 3 bachelor farmers in Loughrea, running away to sea at the age of 15 and how she thinks locally produced straw and reeds could lead to a reduction in the use of oil-based insulation materials.

Born in the Netherlands, Marike Leen left home at the age of 15 and found a job on a fishing boat shuttling back and forth between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Marike told Ryan the basics about what she was doing on the ship:

"Fishing. Tailing prawns mostly, most of the time. Yeah, that's what I was doing. A bit of adventure."

Teenage Marike then took a notion to head for Galway. She alighted once the trawler arrived in Northern Ireland, hitched to Dublin and on to the west:

"I got a lift from a man from Loughrea, who brought me down to Loughrea and then said 'Would you like to come down to the house and freshen up and meet the neighbours?'"

The man promised 3 interesting "characters", and so they turned out to be, Marike says:

"The neighbours were three bachelor farmers; 60, 70 and 80 years of age. The Fathaighs or the Fahys. Three brothers - none of them married. Mad for music, mad for life."

Meeting the three Loughrea brothers changed the course of Marike's life:

"Months later I decided to visit them again at Christmas. And, yeah; never left. I stayed living with them for about 3 and a half 4 years."

The men took in the teenager, putting her up in an old prefab that had been used to store animal feed. This was in the early 1980's and Marike says she was very happy living there. The brothers lived in an old thatched cottage and the roof needed constant repair. One of the three was the 'designated thatcher' and when he got injured, they decided that they would pass on the trade to Marike.

"They thought it was a great plan to introduce me to it and they showed me how to make scallops, which are the fixings that you use and how to draw bundles of straw and before I knew it, I was on top of the roof thatching."

Marike said at first, the work involved mostly repairs on existing thatched roofs. At the time, people couldn't afford a complete re-do, it was all about maintenance:

"They were different times. It’s not like now, where you do a whole house in one go, or half a house. I’d say mostly people lived from year to year, doing bits and pieces on their houses as it needed to be done."

The simplicity of the process appealed to Marike, and while sustainablity wasn't exactly a buzzword in 1980's Ireland, thatching ticked all the environmental boxes:

"I thought it was so interesting that you could make a roof out of local material, sourced locally, you know hazel, grown locally, the straw. And you just made it into bundles, brought it up the roof and you had your roof covering! From the minute I was up on the roof I was fascinated by it."

Marike says she couldn't make a living as thatcher at the time and she had to supplement her income with other work. In her 20’s, she got married and started a family. Her husband was also a thatcher, and she had known him a long time, as she explained:

"That’s a really long story, but we used to know each other as teenagers. We were both runaways, really, and that’s how we met up and years later we met up again and got married."

Marike and her husband worked together as thatchers until around 18 years ago, when he decided to give it up. At that point, Marike wanted to continue thatching, so to make things official, she did an apprenticeship; even though she had been working in the area for years. Nowadays, she's a professional roof thatcher, one of the few in the country. Ryan asked her about the gender balance in the job:

"Not that many people do it. There’s a good few in the west here that I know of. Not that many women. I only know of one other lady thatcher. Sure I don’t know everybody, so, there could be other people out there!"

Thatching materials have changed over the years, going from mostly straw to around 90% reeds, much of which is imported. Marike says modern farm techniques have led to the demise of straw, and that the locally produced Irish reeds are not of the best quality; again due to the impact of farming:

"There is Irish reed. In my opinion, not in everybody’s, it’s inferior to the imported stuff because of pollution and fertiliser run off and all the different issues we have here and also because of what I said that methods of harvesting here are not perfect."

Marike says if the growth and harvesting were managed properly, Irish reeds and straw could become the main materials used by Irish thatchers once again, with little to no carbon footprint. She says with locally-sourced materials, thatching is a sustainable roofing option:

"It’s a great roofing material, really, because it’s not only roofing, but it's also very highly insulating. It’s not derived from oil like many modern insulating materials. It’s carbon neutral. Its a natural material. There’s no issues with diposal because it can just compost away. In my opinion, it’s the material of the future, really."

Marike de-bunks myths about mice in thatched roofs and talks about the physical demands of working high up on the roofs of the west of Ireland in the full interview with Ryan Tubridy here.