At home with John Mathis
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘I’m not sure when I was born’, says John Mathis. ‘It was the wintertime’. We do our sums and work out that he’s probably 82 years old. ‘Aye hey, ‘bout that’, concedes John.
His is a strong dialect, characteristic of the older generation who live along the east coast of Co Louth. He lives in a pink thatched cottage that forms part of a labyrinth of white-washed cottages set up the Farm Road, a couple of miles south east of Annagassan village. When his grandfather and father lived here, all of these buildings were thatched. Today, they are all slated or corrugated and the Mathis homestead is the odd one out.
That is as it should be for John Mathis is one of the last surviving old-style thatchers in the county.
He was the fourth of seven children, two boys, five girls, schooled a mile south in Dillonstown. John left at the age of fourteen to make some shillings on the roads, building the drains of Drumcar, Martinstown and Salterstown. Sometimes he helped his father and uncles with the thatching. The Mathis brothers were famous all over Co Louth. They thatched cottages from the Cooley Peninsula to Tallanstown.
John’s father Patrick perished following a stroke at the age of 54. John, who was ‘seventeen or eighteen’ at the time, and his only brother quickly filled their father’s boots.
John believes the basic techniques have changed little in a thousand years. ‘It’s all handwork’, he says, save for a few vital tools. He shows us a thatching fork, a veritable claw that you attach to your thumb for twisting and dragging the straw into locks. One of their first major jobs was at Seatown, the old de Courcy stronghold in Dundalk, known locally as ‘Strawtown’ because there were so many thatched roofs.
John never married. Today, his chief companion is a virulent and devoted sheepdog called Chester who lives on the settle bed and focuses a menacing growl upon strangers until such time as they depart. There is also a cat who has not yet earned a name.
His principal living room is curiously oriental; dark furniture, the red glow of the Sacred Heart, a hint of burgundy lacquer rolling up from the white tiled fireplace. An elaborate mirror is framed upon floral wallpaper. There are many photographs upon the wall and on the tabletops. His parents, looking mildly surprised by the camera flash. Two of his sisters, pretty girls, one of whom died young. Another sisters’ grandson, grinning in his 21st century school uniform. And here is young John himself, tall and lanky, cap on head, clambering up a ladder with an armful of reed straw and a purposeful frown.
The worst part of being a thatcher is that it can be ‘a cold, old job’, especially on the hands. Everyone wants their roofs thatched when the straw is fresh from the fields, and that is generally the tail end of autumn with the chill winds of winter already whistling in. In summer time, John was out repairing and patching up the roofs he had already built. ‘I was never short of a job’, he says.
When the weather is fair, you can see the mountains of Mourne from John’s house. The Irish Sea is directly to the north. This shore was home to an active fishing community until recent decades. ‘I was never over the water’, says John. ‘I was hardly in the water either, mind. I’m afraid of the sea’.