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.

The Tailor and Ansty

The-Tailor-and-Ansty

Travel up to the north of County Cork, into the high country which is still not quite part of the Kingdom of Kerry: make your way to the windings of the youthful River Lee just before it rises in the fastness of the Shehy Mountains, and you will find yourself in a magical place.

Gougane Barra Lake

The Lake in the Mountain – Gougane Barra

You are in Múscraí (West Muskerry), one of the Gaeltacht districts of Ireland – areas where Irish is still spoken as the predominant native language. These districts were first defined when the Irish Free State was set up as part of the new government’s policy to restore the Irish language. Finola will confirm that everyone who grows up and is educated in Ireland today studies Irish in school. Sadly, the maps below show how native Irish speakers have declined since an Ghaeltacht was set up in 1926, partly through migration but mainly because of the predominance of the English language in public life.

The Gaeltacht areas: Irish native speakers in 1926, 1956 and 2007

The Gaeltacht areas: Irish native speakers in 1926, 1956 and 2007

Our journey today takes us to Gougane Barra, a historical site where in the sixth century Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on a lake island in the mountains. Nowadays it is a centre for pilgrims and tourists. I was sent to Gougane Barra many years ago on the instruction of a client and friend, Father Sam Philpott, who had commissioned my architectural practice in the UK to reorder a church in the centre of Plymouth. The place proved an inspiration to me – as he had hoped – and the renewed St Peter’s now has a rill of water running around the worship area echoing the water surrounding Finbarr’s community in the mountains: a piece of West Cork in West Devon!

St Peter's, Plymouth - the reordering completed in 2007

St Peter’s, Plymouth – the reordering completed in 2007

Gougane Barra was also the home of The Tailor and Ansty – immortalised in a book of that name first published in 1942 and written by Eric Cross, a journalist from Newry who lived in the locality for many years and visited the couple on a daily basis. ‘The Tailor’ (Tim Buckley) was a storyteller: not a Shanacai who travelled around the country seeking hospitality, as he had a paralysed leg since his youth and could only walk with the aid of a crutch, but someone to whom the world came and sat with while he ‘minded the dairy herd’ (a single black cow) or ‘reddened his pipe’ while perched on an old butter box (which he called Cornucopia) beside the kitchen fire of an evening, and listened to his tales and his homespun philosophy. He and his wife Anastasia were both fluent Irish speakers, and perhaps the book loses something for being written in English. However, it is a goldmine for folklorists or students of Finola’s Cork Speak lessons, because of the expressions which The Tailor uses: Thon amon dieul – (T-anam an diabhal – your soul to the devil), Yerra, man alive and (my own favourite) Thamwirrashimfaina being just a small selection.

I can only commend the book to you: it’s impossible to summarise it. It’s romantic, thoroughly entertaining and completely readable. It’s one of those books that you don’t want to get to the end of and – when you do – you almost feel that you are ready to start it all over again. I will extract only the first few paragraphs to give you a flavour:

…’In the townland of Garrynapeaka, in the district of Inchigeela, in the parish of Iveleary, in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, in the province of Munster’ – as he magniloquently styles his address, lives the Tailor.

His small whitewashed cottage, with its acre of ground, stands at the brow of a hill, at the side of a road which winds and climbs into a deep glen of the mountains bordering Cork and Kerry.

In the summer you will usually find the Tailor himself leaning up against the bank of the road, minding his one black cow. As you pass up the hill he will have watched you come and sized you up in his shrewd and kindly way. As he stands talking to you, helping you, pointing out this and that to you, you will scarcely believe that he has seventy-seven years put over him. The vigour of his body, in spite of the handicap of his crutch, the firm tones of his voice, the smile of his lively eyes, the thick head of silver hair, all belie the fact of the years.

He will most likely invite you inside for a glass of buttermilk or a heat of the tea. Go with him. Let the beauties of Ireland wait. They will still be there when he has gone. Be, as he is, prodigal of time, and sit and listen to him. Forget the rest of your journey as the Tailor forgets the cow. Humanity matters more than either cattle or scenery. You have met a man – finished.

Sit by his turf fire at night and learn how to practise his favourite precept – ‘Glac bóg an saol agus glacfaidh an saol bóg thú: take the world fine and aisy and the world will take you fine and aisy’…

jacket

The Mercier Press Edition

The book was published in 1942, when the Tailor was 83. He lived only two years longer. He was proud of the book – and of his celebrity: scholars, folklorists and writers flocked to his fireside to meet him and to hear his stories, his proclamations and his banter with the long-suffering Ansty.

But – there is a twist in this tale. The Tailor was down to earth and forthright. As with all country people he had no qualms about including in his stories all the vagaries of human existence, and references to the coupling of man and woman or the cow and the bull, and these were faithfully recorded by Eric Cross. The effect on the government of the day and its leader Eamonn de Valera was instantaneous: the ‘indecent and obscene’ book was banned, and the life of the bewildered Tailor and his companion became unbearable. The story is taken up by Frank O’Connor, a notable writer and friend who remained faithful to them:

… As a result that kind old couple who had offered their simple hospitality to students from all over Ireland were boycotted. I am not exaggerating. I was there with them one night when a branch of a tree was driven between the wall and the latch so that we were imprisoned. Three priests appeared at their cottage one day and forced that dying old man to go on his knees at his own hearth and burn the only copy he had of his own book…

The situation led to a debate in the Senate which lasted four days! Only one public man – Sir John Keane – defended the book. He quoted sections from it and these quotations were struck from the public record ‘…in case they should lead to immorality of the nation…’ The motion was lost by 34 – 2, and the couple were ostracised within their own community.

It wasn’t until 1963 that the matter was reconsidered, and a revamped Censorship Appeals Board discovered that the book was not obscene at all. It was republished and has remained in print ever since. But by then both the Tailor and Ansty were buried in the graveyard at Gougane Barra, under a stone designed by their friend Seamus Murphy, a well known sculptor. Frank O’Connor wrote the short epitaph that adorns it:

 A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born

headstone