They can be seen throughout the West and South of Ireland in particular and do not seem odd or unusual at all to Irish eyes, but we are so often asked about them by visitors that they evidently seem odd to them!
The typical stone walls associated with the West of Ireland are dry stone walls, which is to say there is no mortar holding the stone together, they are made by carefully selecting stones that will balance and ‘sit’ into the wall as they are built.
Why Stone Walls?
The reason for their existence is simple and practical.
The land in many parts of Ireland is naturally very stony and in order to be farmed had to be cleared of stones. Since there was no method of getting rid of the stones and there was a need to create separate divisions of land, the obvious thing to do was to build walls with the material to hand.
This is reflected in both the distribution of walls and their character.
In Counties Galway and Clare, around the Burren for example, and in much of central Ireland you will see the typical low walls of rounded stone, which have big gaps between the stone. They are made of Carboniferous limestone, very old stones from the ice age which are naturally rounded in shape.
The size of the fields is proportional to the stoniness (or poverty) of the land – if there are more stones to be cleared, more walls are built and the fields are smaller.
How the Walls Are Built
To build these walls boulders are piled on top of each other, with the largest stones at the base and the boulders getting smaller towards the top, though sometimes this is a subtle thing at best and the stones seem much the same size throughout.
These walls are built without any tools and with no mortar – the stone is not cut, though it may be broken – whatever stones are available are made to fit as well as possible.
The walls are often quite low and not very stable – they constantly need to be repaired by replacing fallen stones, a task which farmers still undertake regularly.
However paradoxically it is their very instability that makes them good barriers, as livestock who are reared in the area are wary of trying to cross them having learned from experience that they collapse rather easily.
Some of the fields surrounded by these walls have no gates – the wall is simply disassembled to allow entry or exit and then rebuilt.
This type of wall was and is generally built by farmers who work the land where the stones are found and are not particularly skilled at stone work, though of course the skills needed are passed on from generation to generation. However pretty much anyone with the strength can make this type of wall.
Stone Mason & Walls
The other sort of stone wall, where sometimes mortar is used and there is a vertical coping at the top, was almost invariably built by skilled stone masons.
These are found more often in the East and North, though there are some pretty much everywhere nowadays. These are also often built of local stone, not usually from clearing fields but more often from stone quarried locally.
This is a style of wall also common in the north of England and in parts of France which gives a hint to its origin – they were mostly built by English or Norman settlers or on the instruction of English landlords, though later the practice was adopted generally in the areas where they made sense. This sort of construction originally came to Ireland with the Normans and is unsurprisingly more common in the areas where they tended to settle.
How These Walls are Built
The stone typically used, usually limestone with granite also common, is more angular in shape than the farmer built walls and thus it is possible to make a more stable wall by carefully choosing the right stones and cutting or chipping them to size while the wall is being built.
There is considerable skill in making a good stable stone wall of this type. The reason for the vertical coping on the top is primarily for stability but it also made them uncomfortable to climb and thus more secure. These walls rely on strength and height for their effectiveness as a barrier.
Stone masons will tell you that a properly made vertical coping of this kind creates a wall that is very stable indeed. As they worked those building the walls tended to set aside stones suitable for the top coping. They still do this today.
Sometimes the top layer is of very narrow stones flat stones, In the areas where you see this type of wall there is invariably local stone which either naturally occurs as or breaks easily into shale and flags. These stones are also commonly used as flooring in houses or on pathways and availability is the main reason it is used in walls.
However they are built, over time enough organic material will build up between the stones to allow plants to take root, giving the walls the appearance of being almost living things.
Why are Walls common only in Parts of Ireland?
Dry stone walls as field division are rarely seen in areas where the soil is not so poor – so you will not see them in East Cork or South Tipperary or Co Meath for example, where ditches or dykes and hedges were and are the common way of dividing the much larger fields.
In these areas they are only found as walls around houses or at the boundaries of estates, where their function is largely aesthetic and the stone used brought from local, or sometimes even distant, quarries. These ones tend to be ‘prettier’.
In the Burren in Co Clare people often comment on long stone walls which run from the bottom to the top of a mountain and appear to divide nothing from nothing!
They are known as ‘famine walls’ and were created by men employed on Work Schemes – usually run by church groups or by landlords – whose main purpose was to create employment for and provide income to the impoverished, often starving, local communities at the time of the potato famine.
The walls do indeed divide nothing much from nothing much – but their purpose, aside from income provision, was to clear the land of stones, the wall just being a place to put them more than anything else.
In fact clearing these mountains of stone would be impossible, as is clear from the image above, so it was a pretty thankless task.
The Great Wall of Mourne
The so-called “Great Wall of Mourne” is often mistaken for a famine wall, but is much later, although the local employment it gave during construction was welcome.
On average 1.5 meteras high and about one meter thick and built from local granite it winds over 35 kilometres, crossing fifteen mountains. It took more than 18 years to complete, from1904 to 1922.
Although it appears to have no purpose it was intended to enclose a water catchement area and prevent sheep and cattle grazing the mountain having access to it.