POSTCARD FROM IRELAND
TRAVELLING BY ROAD IN WEST CLARE PROVIDES PHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF DRY STONE WALLS .JULY, 2018
''We build too many walls and not enough bridges'
- Isaac Newton -
In July, 2018, we had travelled to Ireland to attend a family wedding. Since our last visit was 32 years ago, we have grand plans to 'circumnavigate' the tiny island. The reality is that we do not venture too far from Tom's home town in West Clare.
Initially, I had been frustrated with the decision not to travel further afield, but I quickly realised that within the West Clare region, there are many places of interest, not to mention the Irish history centred in this region.
Then there are the walls. Built without mortar, the Irish drystone walls are of historical significance, particularly in this region. They are everywhere. Every chance I get, I stop and look and touch these unique and sometimes very old structures. Today I realise that slow-travel is every bit as important as the whistle-stop tour.
Highlights: The Burren, Inisheer, local farms and wherever drystone walls are seen
Total distance: 180 kms
Accommodation: Private home near Kilkee, Co. Clare
References: The Journal
The roadside hedges sway in the gentle breeze. Through the open window of the car, I hear the deep buzzing sound of the hundreds of bees hovering above the opening buds of honeysuckle and pink willowherb. The early-morning scent of the abundant blooms is heady and sweet. Emerging out of nature's tunnel at the crest of a hill, the vista before me unfolds; the pale blue sky and the sparkling sea on the horizon provide light and life. Huge rolls of hay in lush, green fields appear to sit on the edge of a cliff whilst the barren, stony landscape to my right side is bleak and mysterious.
I pull off the road, as far to the left as possible. Looking behind me, I'm relieved to see that it is empty of cars. There is absolutely no space for passing traffic on this single-lane country road. Keeping my fingers crossed that no vehicle should suddenly appear, I jump out of the car and stand in the centre of the road to snap some photos.
I plan to explore a small part of the expansive Burren region of West Clare, and despite having a list of villages, ancient ruins, cemeteries, and geological features to visit, my attention suddenly focuses on the patchwork of fields in the distance. Each 'patch' is surrounded by a distinct hand-built stone wall. In fact, the closer I get to the village of Doolin, the more I realise how the landscape is dominated by dry stone walls, which although may not be unique to Ireland, are as important to the landscape as any other man-made structure.
At a T-intersection, I join the main road. By that I mean that there are two distinct lanes, one going in each direction. There is little space between the bitumen and the stone walls that separate farm from public land, so to find somewhere to pull off the road for a close-up look at one of the walls is a challenge to say the least.
Dry stone walls have been built in Ireland for at least 5,000 years. The oldest stone walls are in nearby County Mayo at the Ceidi Fields. Each region in Ireland has its own style of dry stone walling, which is determined by the local geology; here in West Clare's stony Burren, there is an abundance of carboniferous limestone.
Dry stone walls are constructed without mortar. They are inexpensive as they use the local stone and are quick to build, as they don't require foundations. The secret to their strength is the careful selection of the available stones; larger ones at the base, whilst smaller stones are jammed into the gaps.
Triona Byrne of The Journal says,
'There is a rule in dry stone walling that you should never touch a stone twice; you should pick it up and intuitively know where to place it down, finding a spot for it to sit snugly between its neighbours.'
In other words, each stone's capacity to remain tightly wedged in its position gives the wall not only its ability to remain standing, but its strength.
I find another safe place to pull off the road next to a wonderful wall. At first sight, it appears to be fairly recently built; the grey elongated stones are laid in a zigzag-type pattern. I notice fine lacy fronds of orange and white algae spreading over the stones whilst blackberry bushes weave their invasive tendrils in and out of the spaces between the rocks. The wall is about one metre high and as I bend down, I capture tiny snippets of views through the gaps; the ocean in the distance and the stubble of the newly-harvested field in the foreground. I see a row of trees along the far perimeter of a field, stunted and bent impossibly at an almost 45 degree angle from being constantly beaten by the strong wind blowing from the Atlantic Ocean.
A wind break that has failed miserably in this bare and bleak part of the landscape. If wind can deform a tree in this manner, perhaps a zigzag wall is better suited to this location. Allowing strong winds to blow through the gaps may protect the walls from damage during the regular winter storms.
Behind me, a tractor idles as a farmer alights from his monstrous vehicle. He greets me with a friendly wave. I cannot speak highly enough of the hospitality extended to strangers by the Irish people. The farmer probably thinks I'm lost, but I see this as a perfect opportunity to ask him about the walls. Despite the long list of summer tasks the farmer has to achieve in a day, he seems to have plenty of time for a chat, and is more than willing, perhaps pleased, to talk to me about the walls. I'm not sure whether this is his farm, but he certainly is familiar with the area and his knowledge of the history and relevance of the walls in West Clare is vast. As he talks, I reach out to touch the ancient dark grey stones. I give the wall a gentle push, but the rock is stuck fast and solid. Individual stones used in building walls need to have a rough surface to provide friction, which helps to hold the wedged stones in place. Even the stones along the top of the wall sit tight. Due to the thin soil above the solid limestone base, it is impossible to build walls here with deep foundations, therefore they are built of a single line of stone. Despite the environmental challenges, these walls are strong and will probably remain standing for many years to come.
I notice that the fields nearby appear to be very small. I mention it to the farmer because I have been told that Irish farms are now much larger and more productive than even twenty years ago. He explains that the small fields are primarily a throwback from the old tenant farms. Some may contain relics of historical significance, such as forts and standing stones dating from the Neolithic people, and some are private unconsecrated graveyards. But more importantly, where old stone walls exist, the farmers are reluctant to remove them unless it is absolutely necessary. Perhaps this is a deep-rooted respect for the past struggles of ordinary people in West Clare and it occurs to me that, like the solid rock below the thin layer of soil, Ireland's dark history is not too far beneath the surface.
Leaving the farmer with a new goal and a healthy respect for those who work the land, I continue along the Wild Atlantic Way towards the small village of Fanore, where scenes from the BBC series, Father Ted are sometimes filmed. Fanore has the bizarre reputation for being the longest village in Europe and I can vouch for that, as it seems to trickle along the road for many kilometres until it comes to an abrupt end as the landscape returns to the grey moon-like surface of the Burren.
My farmer had mentioned that I would see walls of historical significance on the other side of Fanore, but I am unprepared for the sight of hand-built stone walls zigzagging across the solid rock of the Burren. Walls that start from the cliffs by the ocean and extend up the steep hills and over and beyond, past where the eye can see. Walls that are there for no good reason. As if the landscape isn't bleak enough, it is impossible to understand why walls that start from nowhere and end somewhere in the distance had been built. There is no way that this land could be completely cleared of stones. It is not arable, so dividing this land into fields or paddocks is pointless.
Nowhere in Ireland is the devastating effect of the Potato Famine of 1845-1849 more evident than here in West Clare. Whilst enormous shiploads of food had been exported from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland, including the nearby towns of Kilrush and Sligo, many farmers had been unceremoniously evicted from their tenant farms by wealthy landlords. To add insult to injury, battering rams had been used to destroy the miserable cottages in which these unfortunate tenants had lived. They had been turfed out of their homes with the clothes on their backs. No time to collect their meagre possessions, some may have resorted to the entering local workhouses, whilst others took to the road.
It is estimated that more than a million people had died of starvation in Ireland, whilst over a million more migrated to America, Canada, and Australia. Despite charities from across the world raising money to help the hungry Irish people, there had not been enough to distribute to everyone, especially if they were Catholic, poor, and living in the west of Ireland. To this end, local churches set up private charities to help the starving people. Not willing to distribute food for nothing, the charities had provided a daily bowl of porridge in return for back-breaking work. The only employment that had been offered in this impoverished area was the clearance of stones from the land, using them to build walls. Walls that extended across the hills and that served no other purpose than to provide a tiny bowl of gruel each day, a treasure to be shared later with a wife, children and perhaps even parents, brothers, aunts, and uncles.
I walk along the rocky terrain, carefully picking my way toward a line of walls built over 170 years ago. Despite the desolate and unforgiving environment, tiny ferns grow between the crevices; a sign of life that is totally unexpected. I reach out and touch the capping stone closest to me. From rock that had been formed millions of years ago by glaciers to those handled by the desperate and the starving, Ireland's history and its spirituality is interwoven into these walls under which my hands are resting. I feel that I have a better understanding of why the famine is, to this day, an integral part of Irish history, its stories, folklore, music and the very soul of the country and its people.
But my day isn't over.
I slip between Counties Clare and Galway with little fanfare and hardly a sign to show that I had crossed the county border. But the lack of border signs is quickly forgotten as a proliferation of protest signs is displayed on the other side of the village of Kinvara.
The question I had forgotten to ask the farmer about whether the walls come under a heritage order is perhaps answered here. These walls are apparently not heritage-listed, yet by their very existence, they are part of Irish heritage. The owners of the homes along the main road are obviously protesting against a proposal to replace the walls along the road with fences with a view to widen part of the main thoroughfare to Galway.
Having driven along the Irish roads for the past weeks, I understand why there is a need to improve some of the main routes, which will provide better and more seamless access between towns. This road is, after all, a main thoroughfare for public transport, private vehicles, and trucks, not to mention tractors and other farm equipment between market towns in County Clare and Galway city . On the other hand, I'm secretly pleased that the residents and those living along the road wish to protect their walls from destruction and replacement with post and wire fencing. From a tourist's perspective, the roads are quaint, and despite the inability to travel great distances in a day, the constantly-changing landscapes compensate for protracted, sometimes frustratingly slow journeys to reach intended destinations.
This is the charm of Ireland. This is what I have come to see, along with millions of other tourists. Villages, like Doolin may be jam-packed with tour coaches, cars, bikes, and foot traffic at this time of the year, but after a driving couple of kilometres along the road, the traffic dissipates and one is returned to the laid-back scenery that is typical of this county. I make a mental note to follow up on the 'wall protest' later.
Footnote: A resolution was eventually agreed upon. The original walls were removed, the road widened and new stone walls were constructed. Although not the outcome many of the residents wanted, a compromise has been reached.