Building a Stone Wall

Our craft is one of the oldest in the world. Our handiwork is seen everywhere in town, country and village. The men who have gone before us have left us a heritage to be proud of; and we feel our own contributions have been for the good. With hammer, mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned tough boulders. We often curse our material and often we speak to it kindly – we have to come to terms with it in order to master it, and it has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves in it, but if we know our material and respect it we will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.

That’s a quote from the preface of Stone Mad by the distinguished Irish Sculptor, Seamus Murphy, as are all the following quotes.  Watching Diarmuid O’Callaghan rebuild our tumble-down stone wall I could see that same pride and respect for materials that Seamus talked about. 

I suppose I imagined that stone wall building had somehow modernised in the same way that many ‘hand-forged’ gates are now mass-produced in China. But what I discovered is that Diarmuid built this wall using the exact same techniques and tools that the stone workers did who built Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century. You can see the remains of that Castle in the photograph below.

It’s called rubble construction, which simply means that the core of the wall is filled with rubble and mortar, while the outside or visible parts are shaped by the skilled sorting, selecting, shaping and placing of larger stones. In the photo below you can see the wall starting to take shape. Diarmuid is building on a concrete foundation – Rossbrin Castle is built on solid rock.

We wanted the wall to match, as closely as practical, the stretch that was still standing. Given that  a stone wall is, in itself, a whole habitat for wild plants, my brief to Diarmuid was not to make it too tidy so that over time it would settle in and become covered in interesting growth in the same way as the existing wall. My request found a sympathetic ear and it became apparent quickly that here was a man who appreciated the craft of stone wall building and was fully alive to its long history, while having his own approach and practice.

Every graveyard, every old church, every old building keeps reminding us we are not as good as we think. They are our models, and very exacting they can be, very often they bring us down a peg or two and make us realise how much of our knowledge is handed down from old times, and what small advances we have made.

Some heavy equipment was needed in the beginning, all managed by our friendly neighbour Stephen O’Brien and his family who cleared into a neat pile all the fallen stones, dug a trench and laid a foundation for Diarmuid to work with. Diarmuid re-used almost every piece of original stone – it was remarkably efficient, with only a few bits left over. 

As I watched him work he explained his practice to me. “I turn every piece three times,” he said, “and then I can see exactly where it will go.” He lays the outer lines first, turning what was the backside of the old stones towards the front to present a new clean face. He lays down some mortar (nowadays that’s a loose mixture of concrete and sand) to bed the stones in, keeping his lines horizontal with judicious insertions of smaller pieces of stone. Once the outer lines are set he fills the interior with ‘rubble’ – a mixture of mortar and discarded pieces of stone. 

It all goes remarkably quickly and in no time at all the wall is taking shape. I was curious how he was going to manage attaching the new wall to the old so I asked him how he was going to marry to the two sections. “With love,” he grinned. I was struck by how he echoed Seamus’s description of medieval stone masons.

That was the spirit and attitude that prevailed in mediaeval times, when you had whole colonies of craftsmen gathered in the towns, building the big cathedrals.

They worked and they talked of work, and the ways and means by which other jobs were done, all the time comparing and striving to produce as good, if not better than the man at the next banker. Occasionally indulging in caprice and caricaturing vice and virtue, enjoying the exaggerated and the fanciful, or using as models the odd personalities that were on the job. Or they could be as reverent as the portal statues at Chartres. They loved their work, and one can sense the enjoyment they got out of that, each vying with the other to attract the attention of the rest. This sort of vanity pushes men on, it gives the imagination a chance to play about and thereby enriches our lives so that work is no longer a task, but a use of our leisure – in a word — pleasure.

The finished wall is a thing of beauty. There’s still a good demand for stone walls in this part of the country – we have seen great new examples and others that are not quite so successful. Stone walls are such an integral part of the character of the west of Ireland and it will be a long time, we think and hope, before the demand for them dies out, but I will leave the last word for Seamus.

Times have changed and the work is no longer plentiful… But some of the old stonies will hold their heads high, and carry with them to the grave the feeling that they have left their mark on many a church, and on many a building, and that in the years to come, there will be people to admire the work they have left behind them, as we of this generation respect and understand the work of the men of long ago.

I often wish I had money and could take a few of the old stonies on a pilgrimage from graveyard to graveyard, from quarry to quarry, calling on the small stonecutters’ sheds here and there around the country, exchanging gossip about the members of the craft, and of the stone, and realising – marvelling – at the at the amount of knowledge and skill, and the years of thought that go to the perfecting of a craft.

But it is coming to an end, and more is the pity. Art grows out of the good work done by men who enjoy it. It is the wealth, surely, of any country.

22 thoughts

  1. Its been a great era for the return to stonework in the past 20yrs. I recall a wonderful traditional mason who I had asked (nay begged) to do a fireplace for me. I had given up until he approached me one saying ”I am retiring & your jobbeen will be the last”. He told me that he years of work ahead if he carried on but that their ”was no young lads interested nowadays”. A very short time elapsed before a new breed had begun to work the stone & long may it continue.

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    • The Annual West Cork Stone Symposium on the Sheeps Head is always fully subscribed – the interest is certainly alive. Not just ‘lads’ too – lots of the participants are female.

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  2. Lovely article and photographs. Good to know that the craft of stone wall building (as opposed to stone-faced) is alive.
    Our local farmer (near Baltimore), builds beautiful walls, similar in construction to Diarmuid’s, but with each course at an angle to the one below, forming a zig-zag pattern. See also Pat Collins’ film “Song of Granite” with actor Mícheál Ó Confhaola building a wall in Co. Galway: stones very different in shape.

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  3. An interesting book on a similar topic is titled “A Guide to Dry Stone Walling” by Andy Radford and published by The Crowood Press, Marlborough, Wiltshire.

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  4. One of my favorite things. Thanks for covering this subject. Here in the US there is a stone master named Dan Snow who has a wonderful book called In The Company Of Stone. In it he says, “I am always excited to build steps because they remind me of what’s to come. They will take the footfalls of friends and later on, others who will know me only by where these steps lead them.”

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