Stonemason keeps alive a rural tradition

Dominic Keogh is a master stone mason keen to preserve the craft of dry-stone walling, once the knowledge of every farmer in Mayo.

On the way to meet him recently in Spell’s Bar in Ballaghadreen I pass mansion sized houses with limestone cladding facades and sandstone pillars, suggesting stonework as a local marker of aspiration or a mark of respect to past tradition. After all Mayo is host to the oldest known stone-walled fields in the world, at the neolithic Céide Fields site on the county’s northern shore. 

There is plenty of other evidence however of scant respect locally for stone-built heritage, I suggest, as we discuss one of several ‘building stone for sale’ adverts on Facebook Marketplace. In the advert a large orange mechanical digger sat atop a pile of stones, the sundered remains of a late 18th century dwelling in rush-peppered farmland adjacent to a coniferous forest near Ballaghadreen in Co Roscommon.

An ironic testament to the quality of what’s being sold, photos of the structure prior to its destruction show a finely crafted stone wall, stones carefully chosen and jointed, without the use of mortar in testament to the fine craftmanship of the builders. The fact that such a carefully built wall that stood 200 years can be swept away in an hour by a Komatsu tracked digger demonstrates a startling lack of respect for vernacular architecture, suggested Keogh.

“There is very little respect or protection of vernacular stone buildings in Ireland,” he said. “Yes, there is some protection of old Georgian and other listed buildings built by the British but not for old stone cottages and outhouses.”

Keogh, who speaks with an accent coloured from childhood years spent in Kildare and Birmingham, is known to many who attend his dry-stone walling workshops in Kilmovee each summer. He was 18 when the family left England for Kilmovee, the east Mayo village built on a bedrock of sandstone, making it an outlier in a county where limestone is the dominant geology.

“It was the amount of dry-stone walling in Kilmovee that got me interested,” recalls the master stone mason. In the fields and farmyards of the locality the more geometric shaped of sandstone lending themselves to wall building in a way the less regularly shaped limestone rocks don’t.

He would spend years in Clonakilty and Ennystimon learning the trade. Among those who taught him was a master mason from Germany working in west Cork. “I met him at an event organised by the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland, I was three years with him learning architectural and monumental masonry,” he recalls. “I learned how to carve in stone…I was doing more traditional and dry-stone walls but was keen to learn more about architectural stonework.”

The possibility of cutting letters in stone continues to intrigue Keogh and his precise craft is in demand with a clientele which varies from local authorities to private landowners, heritage sites and businesses. His current project is the repair of a dry stone wall built several hundred years ago around a landlord’s demesne in County Clare.

While lack of protection for vernacular buildings leads to structures appearing on Facebook Marketplace as trailer loads of stone, there are however signs of a revival in appreciation of dry stone walling, the traditional method of walling which instead of relying on mortar requires tight, sturdy jointing and facing of stones. 

Keogh sees this in the enthusiastic attendance at his annual dry stone walling workshop in Kilmovee and thinks it’s part of a resurgent interest in accessible handicrafts or “things people can do without having to serve an apprenticeship.”

Renewed interest in dry stone walling, which he describes as a “vernacular craft that’s accessible,” has also been helped by renovations on older homes in a tight housing market. “There are a lot of people buying old properties, often with stone walls. They’re an iconic part of the landscape, you don’t need mortar and you don’t necessarily need a set of tools to repair them.”

Keogh’s observations on the historical-cultural context of local stonework are fascinating and his observation about the source of the apparent disregard for our historical stone structures is typical: The use of stone as a building material became, like small cottages, associated with poorer times as modern Ireland dashed to catch up with other parts of the western world, he believes.

“These are memories that people were trying to move away from…In other parts of Britain and Europe they are far enough removed from rural life to romanticise, they can look back with rose tinted glasses whereas in Ireland people are only two generations removed from what some see as the hardships of that rural life.”

Similarly, field walls didn’t always survive the new modernism. “As with a lot of our heritage and culture the stone wall got a little stigma, being from the countryside, when the modern world crashed into Ireland and into the traditions that became associated with what people were trying to move away from. You could just run wire and fence posts instead of maintaining stone walls.”

Disavowal of stone for concrete and blocks broke the continuity of a generational craft. “Knowledge was lost,” said Keogh, who is however keen to stress he’s “not telling people they are wrong for seeking easier methods” like electric fences which have replaced walls buried in a rush to enlarge fields.

The disappearance of dry stone walls from farmlands – often cleared over recent decades with state agricultural grant aid for farm enlargement – has been accelerated by the expansion of dairy farms seeking the perceived efficiencies of large paddocks fenced with moveable electrical wire.

With a sociologists’ eye for detail, Keogh notes the expansion of farms as a cause and function of farmer depopulation. “We see people look at the Irish landscape was densely populated by strong people and now one farmer with big machines is looking after a couple of hundred acres that might have been four farms. Stone walls are labour intensive and modern farming seeks to reduce labour.”

Even amid the grim demolition of so much hand-built reminders of an earlier age, however there is some hope as the farm subsidy regime has been adjusted somewhat in recent years, with environmental schemes paying farmers to preserve hedgerows and dry stone walls.

“A bit of appreciation is coming back,” says Keogh who counts local farmers among the participants in the course he runs in Kilmovee.  “Farmers getting an appreciation now for the landscape.” Others who come are drawn by the camaraderie and satisfaction of building something. “You’re using your two hands and a bit of knowledge, the stretch of wall is very satisfying.”

When he put the course together several years ago with the local community centre and the Education Training Board (ETB) Keogh wanted to prevent the disappearance of a local craft. “It started small, we were building a few feature walls around, each year we expanded and now we have a heritage trail in the village and we are trying to link them up with the various pieces of wall.”

The first workshop after the Covid lockdown drew participants from both ends of the island, car loads of hobbyists travelling from Cork and from Northern Ireland. “We built a big gorgeous dry-stone wall along the walking trail to Carrowbackney,” explains Keogh.

During the two days Keogh introduced techniques and demonstrates techniques to keep the wall straight and pleasing to the eye. “It’s only a taster but I try to teach best practise… we run a line and put up profiles and I demonstrate how to use a chisel and how to dress a corner.” The line is to keep the wall straight, the profiles are wooden or steel measures to ensure the walls curves inwards as it rises, for strength.

The east Mayo territory encompassing Kilmovee is unusual in a geological context, with pockets of different types of sandstone, but surrounded by limestone. It’s a legacy of the Ice Age when moving glaciers carried rocks which were then deposited as the glaciers melted. One stretch of sandstone runs from Kiltimagh to Kilkelly and just before Knock it stops, explains Keogh.

“There are big hills around Kilkelly which are glacial till, when the glaciers moved on and melted the sandstone was left. The colours are buff with green and grey and flecks of pink too, it’s really hard stuff!”

This geological peculiarity is also borne out in building styles unique to towns like Kilkelly where locals mined the sandstone bedrock – which peels off as geometrically shaped flag stones – for a very important source of building materials and a vernacular style of house building unique to the area.

“At the eaves of the cottages still standing in Kikelly there is a line of flag stones where the thatch would come down so water can’t run down the walls,” explains Keogh. In cottages at the time there were no gutters, hence you often saw green walls from the water running on them. But in Kilkelly and Kilmovee there the abundance of sandstone flags so the water ran off and shoots off, and the flags on the ground ran the water off too.”

The abundance of the flag stones also allowed the proliferation of small lean-to structures in Kilkelly that roofed with sandstone flags instead of thatch. “Flags were also used on the barns…they had no insulation value, unlike thatch,” explains Keogh.

In certain parts of Kilmovee there is a variation in the stone, he adds. “In different townlands there could be tiny differences in the stone… in one part of Kilmovee it’s very thin and then you go up Brusna and it’s more lumpy and craggy. They’ve got narrow stone walls there like in Galway.”

In the townland of Cashelahenney, there is an abundance of every rock type and Keogh points to what’s termed a consumption wall, built by farmers to consumer or clear the land of stones. “You could have a wall five or six feet thick to consume all the stuff they ploughed up every year.”

The stone walls are also illustrative of the history of the area, according to Keogh. “Stonework didn’t stand alone, it was part of the culture. How quick you could build was a measure of masculinity! There were families of masons.”

As a stone mason Keogh disavows stone cladding, an often kitschy appearance on modern bungalows, as “tiling with notions, it bears no relevance to stone walling…I won’t look at it.”

He’s also uninterested by more modern masonry techniques which rely completely on mortar adhesives, the stone up on its edge, higher than it’s wide.

Keogh looks to fundamental rules for the structural integrity which have been used for thousands of years. “You should still build according to principles…the eye is drawn to symmetry…that’s why when you look at older buildings sometimes even though you may not understand it looks pleasing to the eye. These are rules used for buildings which have stood for thousands of years.”

While the tradition of stone walling stretches back six thousand years to Neolithic fields on the Ballycastle shore, stone walls are also markers of the dark episodes in Irish history, like the stretches of wall built as relief works during the famine. “You can spot famine relief walls today, they’re built to a height and there are definitive lines in the wall. This allowed more people to be employed with groups put on a stretch.”

A wall from the period is located in Raherolish on the Kilmovee to Ballaghdereen back road. Like many it requires knowledgeable maintenance. Keogh identifies two structural weakeners of these old stone walls: “ivy is good for nature but if it gets a knuckle between stones it expands and busts the wall. Similarly the iron fixings expand with rust and dismantle the wall.”

Keogh has been working for a client in Co Clare on the restoration of walls bounding an old landlord estate. “The top had been removed and the ivy had gotten in. it was suggested to rebuild in block with stone cladding. I said no. the wall had some particularly nice stone work. I had thought it late 1800s but something about it very special. It was built with Burren karst limestone. It’s seabed stone, with fossils and smells sulphurous when cut. It’s very glassy and sharp, very dense compared to Kilmovee. You can split a sandstone bed, it’s like grains of wood, laid in layers.”

Keogh, who has recently moved to Manorhamilton, will be back in Kilmovee for his workshop later this year. Signals to our history, the stone structures which line and dot the Mayo landscape will hopefully be granted a greater respect. “Unfortunately it gets lost, you don’t notice it dying as long as someone speaks a bit. Those people are getting older, then you have the last old person in village, county and country. It doesn’t take long for the knowledge to be forgotten.”

Stonemason Dominic Keogh Western People

The article appeared in the Western People on March 28th, 2023.

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