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.

Murphy wins by a neck!

High Stakes

Romping home! Dirty Dick Murphy winning the Salthill Fiesta, Galway, in June 1977 (photograph Connacht Tribune)

In the All-Ireland Name Stakes we’ve always known that Murphy is the front runner. In fact it’s the most popular surname, significantly outnumbering the next in line: Kelly. This was the case in 1890 – when the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Robert Matheson, compiled the first comprehensive analysis of names for the whole of Ireland. Then, there were 62,600 Murphys and 55,900 Kellys in a population of 4.7 million. More recently the phone network company Eircom published A Survey of Irish Surnames 1992-97 compiled by Sean J Murphy from telephone directory records in the Republic and Northern Ireland (making it comparable to the 1890 study): this showed 70,900 Murphys and 59,800 Kellys in a total population of 5.3 million.

The race

Runner-up! A Kelly, perhaps… from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

So Murphy wins – by a margin. Let’s have look at the name: Ó Murchadha (or in modern Irish Ó Murchú) means ‘sea warrior’ (Irish Medieval History gives Murchú as ‘hound of the sea’). Most of the Murphys are evidently here in County Cork, with Counties Wexford and Kilkenny next up. There are O’Murphys – mainly confined to Ulster, where the family were part of the tribe claiming descent from Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was responsible for kidnapping St Patrick and bringing him to Ireland. Otherwise the Murphys usually trace their ancestry back to Diarmait Mac Murchadha – King of Uí Cheinnsealaig and King of Laigin (Leinster) who lived in the twelfth century and was himself descended from the High King Brian Boru through his father’s grandmother.

Key players in Murphy geneaology and Irish history: Brian Boru, Diarmait Mac Murchadha and Henry II

Diarmait Mac Murchadha was deprived of his titles by the then High King of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, and asked the English King, Henry II, to help him retrieve them. In return, Mac Murchada pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry, who sent troops in support. As a further thanks for his reinstatement, Mac Murchada’s daughter Aoife was married to Richard de Clare, the second Earl of Pembroke, popularly known as ‘Strongbow‘. The result of all this was that the Normans came to Ireland – and stayed – and it’s all thanks to the Murphys!

murphy's irish stout

We mustn’t forget Murphy’s Irish Stout! (advertisement by BBH London)

Now let’s look at some famous Murphys. Father John Murphy – an Irish freedom fighter – is immortalised in the ballad Boolavogue. Fr John was born in 1753 and studied for the priesthood in Seville as this was the time of the Penal Laws when Catholics were persecuted in Ireland. He returned to his homeland in 1785 and there he was only known as ‘Mister Murphy’: Irish priests were not styled as ‘Father’ until the 1860s. John Murphy led a group of rebels against English forces in the 1798 uprising. He was captured, tortured and brutally executed at Tullow, Co Carlow. Here is a rendering of the beautiful elegy Boolavogue composed by Patrick Joseph McCall in 1898, the centenary of the Rebellion, played on the pipes by Davy Spillane, with Aly Bain on fiddle:

Boolavogue is a town in Co Wexford where the rebels secured their first victory before they were captured. Here are the words to the ballad:

At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
And brought the neighbours from far and near.
Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you,
For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.”

He led us on against the coming soldiers,
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Booky’s Regiment how men could fight.
Look out for hirelings, King George of England,
Search ev’ry kingdom where breathes a slave,
For Father Murphy of the County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave.

We took Camolin and Enniscorthy,
And Wexford storming drove out our foes;
‘Twas at Sliabh Coillte our pikes were reeking
With the crimson stream of the beaten Yeos.
At Tubberneering and Ballyellis
Full many a Hessian lay in his gore;
Ah, Father Murphy, had aid come over
The green flag floated from shore to shore!

At Vinegar Hill, o’er the pleasant Slaney,
Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burned his body upon the rack.
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men;
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
In another fight for the Green again.

Two of my Murphy heroes are musicians: Denis Murphy (1912 – 1974) was a great fiddle player from the Sliabh Luachra area of Cork and Kerry. There were so many Murphy families in that area that Denis’s father Bill was always known as ‘Bill the Waiver’ because his people had been weavers of flax in olden times. I have Denis in my collection of Irish music cd’s but was never able to hear him playing live. I did meet my other hero, however, on my first visit to Ireland back in 1975. That’s Paddy Murphy (1913 – 1992), the renowned concertina player from Co Clare. I was privileged to be taken out to a private session in a remote townland somewhere north of Kilmihil. There, in a bar which seemed like someone’s front parlour, I heard Paddy play and talk of his family history and his very individual virtuoso style of playing an instrument which I have been trying to master for the last 50 years!

Noted traditional musicians: Denis Murphy (left) from the Sliabh Luachra and Paddy Murphy (right) from County Clare

Next is someone we have met before, in our posts on Saint Gobnait and The Tailor and Ansty: that’s the sculptor Seamus Murphy (1907 – 1975). This Murphy, from Burnfort near Mallow, Co Cork, became Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He is also known for his book, Stone Mad, which was published in 1950.

Murphy in studio

Seamus Murphy in his studio: pictures top and lower left are from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

The last Murphy that I want to mention (and there could be so many) is, perhaps, an unexpected one – she is Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who lived from 1737 to 1814. Although she was born and died in France she was of Irish extraction: her grandfather Daniel, a former army officer, had left his home in Cork for Rouen, where he worked as a master shoe-maker. When just in her teens, the physical features of young Mlle O’Murphy were spotted by Giacomo Casanova, who recommended her to King Louis XV. As a result she became the King’s Petite maîtresse – little mistress (or, rather, one of them) and bore him a daughter. However, the King’s favourite, Madame de Pompadour, decided that Marie-Louise’s presence in the royal household was too challenging and she was sent off to the country to marry a nobleman – and also received a handsome dowry for life. Marie-Louise O’Murphy (who was given the name of Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly – possibly to raise her status in Versailles) is familiar to us as the artist’s model for François Boucher’s Resting Girl, painted in 1751. The canvas is now in the Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne.

A colourful note on which to end our survey on the Murphys of Ireland (and beyond), perhaps. We apologise to all the thousands of Murphys who we have not mentioned, but we’d like to hear from any of them…

Racing stamps