An Irish guide invites you to share Ireland’s beauty, stories, music, sport, history, literature and more
Each of the above will be dealt with as a series. Today we begin with the natural beauty of the Island.
The Emerald Isle, as Ireland is so often described as, is a painters canvas. The green pasture lands, rolling hills and forests that have been captured on screen but leaves a lasting impression on the minds eye.
One of the outstanding sights of the west of Ireland are the stone walls. The main variety of stone in Ireland are granite, limestone, sandstone, marble and basalt. In the west of the country granite is the most common stone, a relatively hard natural stone and is used in building these walls.
Driving along the roads tourist often remark of the gaps between the stones and on a clear day how the sky can be seen straight through them. Looking closely one can see that nature is having an effect on stone. Lichens are growing here, this is a complex life form of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga. Moisture causes the fungus, sunlight the alga, together we have lichen. Predominantly white but orange and yellow tinges can also be seen.
Most of these walls are ancient, built before farmers in this area had access to mortar or other cement like materials. These are known as “Dry stone walls”, lose stones placed on top of one another with no mortar to stick them together. To build a dry stone wall is somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle, first you have to have a variety of stone at hand. Having cleared the ground for the outline of the wall, let’s go. Starting with a wide base each stone must properly rest within the wall, sitting still and balanced atop the last layer. Part of the technique is to place the smaller stones along the bottom and then finish or cap the wall off with larger and heavier rocks. This may seem strange, yes, but the downward force of these larger rocks can help pack down the bottom layers, compressing them together and preventing them from moving or falling.
The walls give wonderful shelter to young calves or lambs in bad weather.
Why use stone? On the west and southwest the land is poor. If it’s not peatland it’s rocks. For mast farmers to make an income, they have to grow grass. So get rid of the rocks, result more grass growing. The stone or rock can be used to build walls for separate fields or divisions, for animal husbandry or crop rotation.
On the eastern counties the soil and land is of a much higher quality, very little stone. Land divisions and fields are of ditches and hedges, suitable for drainage and farm management.
Famine Walls. In the 1800’s, 1845 to 1852 Ireland was one of the worst countries in Europe to have suffered worst from the failure of the potato crop. Various methods of relief and charities were enacted to prevent the starvation and death that occurred. The sight of these walls however beggars believe, a government department introduced a building program that would employ a workforce to build walls in the middle of nowhere, on the side of mountains and hills like the Burren in Co. Clare, in Co. Kerry and Co. Galway. Walls dividing nothing from nothing. The remuneration for same was hardly worth the physical strain of the labour exerted.
If you are hiking or hillwalking throughout the western part of Ireland you will see many examples of “The Famine Walls”.
Enjoy a drive through the countryside on a fog soaked evening watching the stone walls snake across the undulating landscapes as they disappear into the mist. What tales they can tell of a people that ploughed and tilled these fields. Of songs that were sung on an Autumn day as harvest came to an end. Them shadows that mirror yesteryears of generations long since passed.