5 Facts about Irish Stone Walls

July 20, 2020 by
POSTED BY July 20, 2020

Virtually all visitors to Ireland always say that the west coast is by far the best coast. Even locals from eastern seaboard cities like Dublin will admit that they’d much rather live and work in western counties like Galway and Kerry. One thing these western counties have in common that you won’t find back east is the multitude of stone walls snaking across the gently undulating landscape. As an immigrant to Ireland myself, and as a professional photographer, I find these creations to be one of the most beautiful parts of the West of Ireland. On a cloudy day, their grey stones seem to fade up into the skies above as the endless lines of walls march off into the distance, resting beneath row after row of softly folded Irish clouds. And then one day the sun will inevitably come out and it’s like you’ve teleported to an entirely different country. The stone walls of Ireland take on an entirely new look altogether in the sunlight beneath vibrant blue skies. You’ll suddenly notice that the stacked grey stones aren’t merely grey and grey alone, but are covered in beautiful blotches of white lichen which glisten in the sunshine. Look closer and you’ll see dashes of orange and yellow lichen as well, sometimes creating an effect reminiscent of military camouflage patterns along the stones.

If that description of our beautiful stone walls here in Ireland has piqued your interest, read on for some facts about these amazing creations dotting the Irish landscape.

Why are there gaps in Irish stone walls?

Many of the stone walls in the west and south of Ireland are known as ‘dry stone walls,’ meaning that they are made entirely without any mortar or other materials to help stick them together. As such, this leaves gaps between the stones, something tourists often notice as they drive past and can actually see the sky straight through them. Many of the walls here are quite ancient, and as such were made before the advent of or easy access to mortar and other cement-like materials to build them up.

stone-wall-ireland-grundy

Stone wall in Connemara. – Photo credit www.nicholasgrundy.com

How do they stand up then?

While I’m not an expert wall-builder or stone mason myself, I have actually built a small section of stone wall here in the traditional style. Irish stone walls are made by carefully selecting the correct stones bit by bit as you progress onwards and upwards. One must ensure that each rock will properly be at rest within the wall, sitting still and balancing atop the last layer. Another thing I learned the hard way is that a common technique is to actually place the smallest stones along the bottom and then finish or ‘cap’ them with your larger and heavier rocks. Although seemingly counterintuitive at first, the downwards force of these larger rocks can help pack down the bottom layers, compressing them together and preventing them from moving or spilling. But yes, there’s a lot of trial and error as you go, especially when it’s your first time learning how to build an Irish stone wall.

West of Ireland/Connemara
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Why are there stone walls everywhere in Ireland?

Well, it’s simple really. The land in Ireland, especially in the west, is exceptionally rocky. As such it was a practical solution for farmers of yesteryear to achieve two important tasks at once: clear their land of excess stones so that more grass could grow while simultaneously creating separated fields. Given that there were so many rocks all over the place, the free material may as well have been picked up and put to use.

Ring Fort by Galway Photographer Nicholas Grundy

Ringfort in Connemara. – Photo credit www.nicholasgrundy.com

Why aren’t there many stone walls in the east?

In the eastern counties of Ireland, the soil and land are of a higher quality. As a result, the surface was never as stone-ridden, and when it was, it wasn’t as necessary to make every available patch of land count. As a result, the most common forms of land division in counties like Meath and Tipperary are by utilising hedges, ditches and dykes.

What are famine walls?

The Burren in County Clare is probably the best place to see these famine walls for yourself. Sadly during the period of the two great famines in the west of Ireland, the government put the downtrodden and often starving peasants to work in return for food or remuneration. Unfortunately like prisoners breaking rocks or painting stones white, the poor peasants were tasked with making mostly useless stone walls in the middle of nowhere. That’s why in the Burren in particular you’ll see long rows of stone walls up the sides of mountains seemingly dividing nothing from nothing, as they segregate pieces of land which aren’t even arable anyway.

 

One of the best ways to see these walls in person is to go for a hike in Ireland. Hillwalkers in Ireland will often spot such walls all along the west coast, especially in places like the Kerry Way and the Dingle Way, two of the country’s most scenic hiking spots.

Kerry Way
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