Stone walls are among the most striking and picturesque features of the Irish landscape. Yet, their charm is only incidental since their purpose is utilitarian. These walls vary in age from the ancient ones of abbeys and tower castles to recent ones marking boundaries of small farms. And from county to county, they vary in type and materials.
The ancient walls, some built as early as the 6th century and many during the 11th and 12th centuries, are among the most surprising, for after all these intervening years, they still stand, staunchly testifying to the solidity of their building and the integrity of the builders.
Walls rise on the horizon of every distant vista to mark the ruins of once-proud castles, long-neglected abbeys, and abandoned churches. Though roofs and interior timbers have long since vanished, the walls stand firm.
Those of the keep may measure as much as 11′ feet in thickness. Solid and deep as well are the round towers favored by ancient churches as safe depositories in times of strife for gold and silver plate and priceless jeweled chalices.
Dry Rock Walls
Dry rock walls of all descriptions are among the oldest in the land. The older the wall, the less likely it is that mortar was used in its construction. Several of the oldest ruins, however, show traces of surface mortar where the repair has been done by the antiquarian society of the country.
In the original masonry, the dry stones were precisely cut, dressed and fitted, and painstakingly joined to form an even, smooth outer surface, while from within, the chinks and crevices were carefully filled with smaller stones and chips.
Round towers and curved walls show an amazing skill in their construction, having a solid, smoothly curving surface.
Well preserved and in use today are numerous 17th-century boundary and garden walls, each one individual in design and height.
Those serving to bound the more pretentious holdings, on which the owners still live, may be as much as 12′ or 14′ feet high and are built flush with the highways except at the entrance, where the curve in toward stone entrance posts, variously capped, and double iron gates across driveways.
The gates are almost always closed and locked. But on at least one estate, the gates are left slightly ajar so the leprechauns can pass through.
It seems that the owner built on land belonging to the “little people,” and their pathway led through the main gate. Should the owner close the gate, he would risk the anger of these small creatures who might cast an evil spell on the place.
Here and there, along the surface of the old walls, small ferns, rock plants, and wildflowers have found a foothold among old mortar or crumbled stone. One wall may support a fig tree or a plum espaliered against the warmth of its sunny side, while pink and white valerians bloom joyously along the top.
Low Stone Walls
Low walls of stone with sod on top are characteristic of many of the more modest properties. Some of the walls may have a variety of shrubs, ferns, and flowers growing on top.
The growth varies with the road and county and may consist of a mass of one kind of plant or a combination of several. Scarlet and purple fuchsias vie with fresh mint-green holly leaves on a wall along a lake’s edge. While near the sea, the orange-gold of gorse is bright against the somber green of bracken.
Over another wall, pink honeysuckle mingles in a sweet tangle with wild Irish roses in pink and creamy white. In the open country at the base of walls grow buttercups, daisies, and pink clover among the lush green grass.
Stone Masonry An Art Form
The art of stone masonry is still practiced today in Ireland. The trade is learned under the apprentice system. During the years following the tragic potato crop failure and resulting famine of 1845, the masonry trade was responsible for keeping thousands from starvation.
Stone walls surround and enclose with warmth and beauty the fields and gardens of southern Ireland – the same warmth with which the Irish surround and enfold beloved friends.
FGR-1158 by M Seckman