On Dry-Stacked Stone Walls

I must be the only Irishman in the world to have ever bought stones.

Stone walls in Co. Clare. (credit: mirsasha/Flickr via creative commons license)

Stone walls in Co. Clare.
(credit: mirsasha/Flickr via creative commons license)

It all started when we decided we wanted someplace to sit out and have dinner or a few drinks when friends came over.

(I blame that film “French Kiss,” when Kevin Kline’s family are having sunday dinner at a huge table under a tree in a vineyard on a gorgeous summer’s day, drinking wine and arguing with each other in French. It always sounds so much more romantic when you can’t understand the words. Love that film!)

Right, so!” says I. “I’ll build a patio.

Enter, stage left, on a fairly small truck, two tons of flagstone.

After seeing how easy that was (I lifted up the phone and a few days later the stones came sliding off the lorry) I started landscaping with stones. (Oh, how quickly I forgot about the hours of labor, the crushed fingers, and the constantly aching back that the patio project involved.) Two tons of river rocks went into edging, two tons of fieldstone went into a dry-stacked retaining wall by the front of the house, and anytime a buddy had a pile of stones left over from a project (“Are you gonna use that?“) I’d haul them home and start another wall.

I shake my head and laugh when I consider how the picturesque stone walls of Ireland were built in an effort to make the land productive. The stones were in the way, making the fields difficult to plough, and preventing the meanest crop of grass from growing. They were also very practical, keeping animals contained, and providing shelter from the fierce wind where the only trees grew small and misshapen. Picking the stones out and building those walls must have been an endless task for the early farmers (it still wasn’t an unheard-of chore in my grandfather’s day in Co. Monaghan). There’s a place in Mayo, the Céide Fields, where a huge network of stone-age fields are enclosed by dry-stacked stone walls. They’re now under a bog, which has preserved that tiny corner of stone age agriculture. What’s amazing is that the landscape of small farms in the west of Ireland still looked very similar until comparatively recently.

So, as I learn the skills of dry stacking — the importance of drainage, the need to lay a foundation of gravel to ensure the wall stays level, and the search for the optimum rock — I realize these would have been skills many of my forefathers would have known, taken for granted even.

Ah, they’d still have laughed at me, I’m sure, for voluntarily buying rocks. For them, nothing but a hinderance, for me, the raw materials to build something beautiful and utilitarian. And, a small reminder of home.



My grandfather grew up in the same era as the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and came from the same part of the country, Co. Monaghan. Kavanagh’s famous poem “Stony Grey Soil” sums up how many small farmers felt about the ever-present stones infecting their fields:

“O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.”

— Patrick Kavanagh, “Stony Grey Soil”

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  1. bloggingfromthebog’s avatar

    Perhaps there is some genetic memory at play here! 🙂

    1. Rich’s avatar

      Could be. I should have added that the other side of my family were all stone-masons. Practically every headstone in all the cemeteries for miles around were made by some member of the extended family.

      1. bloggingfromthebog’s avatar

        My husband is a Burke, and weren’t a lot of them stone masons as well, way back when? He said it used to be a tradition that Burkes were nicknamed “Stoney”. haha

        1. Rich’s avatar

          Ha! Stoney would be a good one. We have a few odd nicknames back through the family tree, but nothing that seems to be specifically stone-oriented.

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