DRY STONE WALLS OF IRELAND
There are over a quarter of a million miles of them
you travel across Ireland from East to West, some changes
in the landscape become apparent. The wide fields and flat
bogs of the Midlands give way at the river Shannon to the
rich farm lands of east Co. Galway, but these farm lands
are different. Where once the boundaries between the fields
were ditches and hedgerows, now they become dry stone walls.
The further you travel into Co. Galway, the smaller the
fields become until you reach Connemara. Here the whole
landscape becomes a patchwork of tiny plots of land with
the dry stone walls the thread that binds them. It is the
same all along the Western seaboard from Donegal in the
north to Cork and Kerry in the south. For many visitors
to Ireland, their abiding memory of the scenery is not the
great sweeping seascapes or the ancient mountains shrouded
in mist, but these tiny fields emerging from the stony land,
surrounded by tens of thousands of miles of stone walls.
They are silent witness to hundreds of years of Irish history
and reminders to all of us of where we have come from.
Many of the existing walls are not as old as you might think.
Most were built after the great Famine of the 1840s when
the open system of farming, known as the Rundale system,
was replaced and the land redistributed. Stone walls not
only defined fields but also helped to clear them . Nonetheless
the tradition of dry stone wall building is still very ancient.
Stone walls marked out The Ceide Fields (see Issue
81) in Co. Mayo nearly four thousand years ago. Covering
nearly five square miles some of the walls are over a mile
long and about 250,000 tons of stone were used in their
construction. However it is in Kerry along the Dingle Peninsula
that you can see the most spectacular and beautiful example
of these ancient walls. The Gallarus Oratory was
built sometime between the 6th and 9th century and is the
finest example of an early Christian Church in Ireland.
It looks like an upturned boat and was built using a technique
developed by Neolithic tomb builders - dry stone corbelling.
Each stone is laid at an angle, slightly lower on the outside
than the inside, so that the water runs off. Despite more
than a thousand years of exposure to the Atlantic storms
and without even a handful of mortar, the inside of the
Church is bone dry and the structure is rock solid. In addition
to the Gallarus Oratory there are literally hundreds of
smaller beehive huts scattered around the Dingle Peninsula
which were used by early Christian monks, and the tradition
survives. At Brandon Creek only a few miles from Gallarus,
where St. Brendan set out to discover America, there are
the remnants of an old 19th century fisherman's cottage.
Though not as finely built as the Oratory, you can still
see in its gables and walls the style and technique of the
early church. More modern examples can be seen in the boundary
wall of the Silent Valley Reservoir in Co. Down, which is
twenty two miles long. It took eighteen years to build (1904
- 1922) and is made of locally cut granite, is eight feet
tall and - as if that is not enough - it climbs over fifteen
summits in the Mountains of Mourne. It must be one of the
longest dry stone walls in the world, although it is not
honour seems to go to a wall in the Memorial Park at Islandbridge
in Dublin. The Park was laid out in the late 1920s to a
design by Sir Edward Lutyens to commemorate those Irish
men who died in the Great War of 1914-18. The wall rises
over 20 feet behind the Memorial Cross and was built by
stonemasons brought from Connemara especially for the task.
Looking at a dry stone wall it would seem to defy the laws
of gravity. Usually only one or two stones thick, they are
very sturdy and can rise to a considerable height. They
are quick and easy to build, having no foundations, and
can be built from local materials; they require little maintenance.
The style may vary from county to county depending on local
tradition and the material available. In his fascinating
book "Irish Stone Walls" Patrick McAfee describes
three main types: Single stone walls common in Donegal and
Down; Double stone walls common in the southwest; and combination
walls which have a small double wall at the base on top
of which a single wall is built. These appear to have been
introduced to Galway by improving landlords in the 19th
century. All have their advantages and disadvantages: Single
walls appear particularly unstable, so sheep are not inclined
to jump them; double walls provide more shelter, and combination
walls give a little of everything. The large rounded boulders
of the Mourne Mountains make for good strong single stone
walls whereas in Dingle double walls are made with the local
McAfee also says that "some dry stone walls deserve to
be listed as national treasures." There is no doubt
that they are more appreciated now than in the past. Perhaps
it was their association with the Famine or a past when
we were all that bit poorer, but there was a time, not too
distant, when dry stone walls were not held in the high
regard that they are now. Sean Fitzgerald, a dry stone wall
builder from Ballydavid in Co. Kerry, dates the change there
to the arrival of an artist in the village of Dunquin in
the early seventies. Instead of having the walls around
her house built of breeze block, as was the then fashion,
she wanted a traditional dry stone wall. Suddenly everyone
realised what they had. Sean Fitzgerald is constantly busy
now, building new walls not only on the Dingle Peninsula,
but also as far away as the United States.
stone walls are not merely piles of rocks. They live and
change with the season. Like a good bottle of wine they
improve as they mature, becoming a home for all kinds of
wild animals and birds. In the Winter they glow with lichens
and mosses and in the Summer they come alive with fuchsia,
montbretia and many other wild flowers. If they are the
thread that links those small fields of Connemara to one
another, then they are also the threads that link the people
to the land.
McAfee gives lessons in stone wall building and conservation.
His book "Irish Stone Walls" is published by the O'Brien
Press, Price £14.99.
1. The Ceide Fields Interpretive Centre Ballycastle, Co.
2. The Gallarus Oratory Ballyferriter, Dingle, Co. Kerry.
3. The Silent Valley Reservoir can be reached from Warrenpoint,
4. The Memorial Park, Islandbridge, Dublin (Nice walks along
the river Liffey)
5. Cornerstone. The Irish Centre for Architectural Conservation
and Training. Larch Hill Kilcock Co. Kildare. Telephone:
353 1 628 4518 Fax: 353 1 628 4538
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