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There are over a quarter of a million miles of them

by Peter Mooney

As 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.

New farming system
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 the tallest.

That 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.

Three main types
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 flat sandstone.

Patrick 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.

Dry 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.

Patrick 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. Mayo.
2. The Gallarus Oratory Ballyferriter, Dingle, Co. Kerry.
3. The Silent Valley Reservoir can be reached from Warrenpoint, Co. Down.
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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