YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD the rumour that wherever you are in this country, you are never more than six feet from a rat.
That rumour was debunked by this website a few years ago but another fanciful rumour that could be true is that wherever you are in the west of Ireland, you are never more than 600-feet from a dry stone wall. Except maybe if you live in a city. So the opposite of rats, really.
You know the walls I mean – any time you’ve ever left the Pale, you’ve likely spotted these mighty structures delicately criss-crossing the fields as you speed by. You’ve probably looked upon them as your train has zipped cross-country, not really registering the grey thread that weaves a path through nearly every county on this island.
These stone walls are unique to the area whose very fabric they emerged from, built from irregular-shaped stone, without mortar. Dry stone walls are a building feature as old as time, built by the hands of the many industrious farmers who cleared their prized fields of stone and used this stone to create a barrier around their property.
The oldest known dry stone walls in Ireland are the Céide fields of Co Mayo, built approximately 5,800 years ago.
It is estimated that there are over 400,000km of dry stone walls in Ireland, with a roughly similar length of hedgerow creating land boundaries more so in the east of the country. Dry stone walls are built of whatever stone is local to that area, which, for most of Ireland, is limestone.
‘Destruction would be a huge loss’
There is a rule in dry stone walling that you should never touch a stone twice; you should pick it up and intuitively know where to place it down, finding a spot for it to sit snugly between its neighbours.
I learned this skill while taking part in a dry stone wall festival on Inis Oírr last year (giving a new meaning to the term ‘rock festival’, as my Dad quipped) called Féile na gCloch, organised jointly by the Dry Stone Walling Association of Ireland (DSWAI) and Galway County Council.
There are more and more similar festivals on each year, showing that traditional crafts are, thankfully, experiencing a resurgence.
However in less optimistic news, plans have recently come to light in which Gaway County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) aim to replace thousands of kilometers of dry stone walls with post and wire fencing as part of a national road upgrade scheme.
The first proposed stretch of wall to be replaced is along the N67 between Kinvara and Ballindereen, Co. Galway. This news has prompted the establishment of a local group called ‘Destruction of the Gateway to the Burren‘.
Group spokeswoman Caroline Corless said that while they welcome the planned upgrade works, “the walls form an integral part of our culture, history and our landscape”.
“Their destruction would be a huge loss.”
From comments published in an article in defense of the dry stone walls, local councillor Michael Fahy said that this region is one of our prime tourist areas and that the stone walls are steeped in local heritage. He reminded officials that if a timber or wire fence is erected, the EU may consider fining Ireland as this is a heritage area and part of the wider Burren conservation area.
The plans appear to contravene Galway County Council’s own county development plan, which purports to “retain and incorporate existing stone walls into new development layouts”.
As much as this area is a huge draw for tourism, with great credit owed to the Wild Atlantic Way scheme, this issue is one for Irish people first and foremost. Destruction of our built heritage means ruination of our tangible history.
A building is a primary historical source, offering a palpable insight into the point in time at which that structure was built or repaired. We can tell so much about the past from our old buildings and structures, which are free to view and touch in what is essentially an open-air museum.
Vernacular structures (unique to a region, built in a local style, without an architect) are particularly vulnerable to neglect and dereliction – think of how many ruined buildings you see around Ireland – but these structures are relics of the past and the people who built them.
An old cottage tells the story of its builder and its occupants, their customs, the building materials available locally to them, and the ingenious ways they came up with to fashion these materials into a building. In Donegal, for example, marram grass was used to thatch roofs as that was the locally available material. Layers of history are wrapped up in an old building, telling the story of people as much as of architecture.
This new Galway County Council and TII plan is one which the newly established Irish branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is firmly opposing and petitioning against.
The SPAB champions traditional building craft skills and vernacular architecture; dry stone walling is a prime example of both, and it should be protected and maintained for future generations to enjoy.
In the words of the SPAB founder, arts and crafts designer, poet and novelist, William Morris, “We are only the trustees for those who come after us.”
Tríona Byrne is a structural engineer and chairperson of SPAB Ireland, which is currently holding a Working Party in the Burren region as part of Heritage Week. It continues tomorrow and you can see more information here on how participants are learning traditional building crafts in an informal setting.