Last weekend I attended my first dry stone walling workshop on Inis Oírr Island. And I am already looking forward to going back next year. For those of you who don’t know where Inis Oírr (Inisheer) is, it is the smallest of the three islands that make up the Aran Islands in Galway Bay.
As a location for a dry stone walling workshop, I could not imagine a better place, as Inis Oírr has some of the finest examples of drystone walls in the country. Altogether the Aran Islands have roughly 1,500 kilometers of drystone walls over an area of just over 11000 acres (just under 18 square miles)
The workshop is an action of Galway County Heritage plan and is run by the country’s most knowledgeable and experienced drystone waller Patrick McAfee. Pat has also written a number of books on Irish stone walling and restoration and is also a dry stone walling instructor in Dublin.
This years workshop also saw guest instructors and speakers Nick Aitken and Gavin Rose. Nick is a member of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain and is a qualified Master Craftsman instructor and examiner. Gavin Rose is a drystone waller and trail builder working in the stunning Lake District National Park in England.
The dry stone workshop on Inis Oírr has been running since 2006. It is attended by a wide range of people, experienced wallers, stonemasons, archaeologists, geologists, self builders and anyone with an interest in heritage and stone. This year saw the largest amount of participants to date, and I suspect it will grow by next year. One of the positives I have seen to emerge from the recession we are in is that more and more people are taking an interest in our heritage and looking to learn more about the many traditional skills and crafts that the people depended heavily on back in rural impoverished Ireland, skills that are sadly being lost.
One of the most unusual and beautiful walls to be found on the island is a type of wall known as a ‘feidín wall’ (same type of wall we built during the workshop this year). What is unusual about this type of wall is that unlike most other dry stone walls, a ‘feidín wall’ has the smaller stones on the bottom with the big stones on top. This type of wall is made up of a double sided wall on the bottom with a large single stone wall on top. The double sided wall at the bottom is made up of a series of large upright stones called mother stones, that run the full depth of the wall. The space between them is built up with smaller stones known as daughter stones. The upper part of the wall is then built using large stones only a single stone wide. The result is a extremely strong wall with a dense base to shelter animals and protect the soil from the strong prevailing winds, while the cracks and holes in the top of the wall let wind filter through. The light that shines through the cracks makes the wall look unstable, deterring animals from jumping on it.
Lots more photos of the 2011 Workshop in the slide show below
Slide show of 2011 Inis Oírr Dry Stone Walling Workshop
Another walling feature I was very taken by is what is known as an ‘Aran gap’ or ‘Bearna’. There are not a lot of roads around the island so much of the access to the fields is through other fields. However you will quickly notice that there do not seem to be any gates in the walls. This is because gaps are left in the wall where a single lace type wall is stacked in the gap, which can then be easily stacked up and taken down as needed for access for animals.
Inis Oírr as an island is quite a spectacular place. This year was not only my first time at the workshop, but it was also my first time visiting the island, and I must say I really was taken by the place. The island is an Irish speaking community with a population of about 250 people. And from what I can tell all 250 of them are about the warmest, friendliest people you will ever meet.
Inis Oírr island is basically an extension of the Burren landscape . The large limestone pavements that make up the land are made up of crisscrossing cracks known as ‘grikes’, that leave isolated rocks called ‘clints’. The limestone dates from the Visean period, formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago, and compressed into horizontal strata with fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites. Glaciation following the Namurian phase facilitated greater denudation. The result is that Inis Oírr is one of the finest examples of a Glacio-Karst landscape in the world.
It is an amazing feat of determination and triumph over hardship, how the locals turned this once unusable limestone pavement landscape into an island of lush green fields. They did this by removing the rough stone to fill the cracks or ‘grikes’ in the limestone pavement, leaving a flat surface. They also used the rough stone to build the walls that would later protect the fields from the wind. They then drew sand and seaweed up from the beach to create the soil, from which they would then be able to grow crops to feed their families, and grass to graze their animals.
For such a small island there are also many spectacular buildings and historical sites to visit as well (and I don’t just mean the great pubs) You could spend days just wandering around the island looking at them. The island also has a famous shipwreck, better known from the opening credits of the TV series Father Ted.
There are many more amazing things to discover on the island, but as this is just a blog post and not a book, I will leave it at that. I would recommend everyone, both in Ireland and abroad to take a trip to Inis Oírr. I would also recommend that anyone with an interest in stone do one of the Dry Stone Walling Workshops out there. There are also other great ways of experiencing life on the island, as Inis Oírr also host some great Irish language courses, where you can learn the language by working and living on the island. They also have an arts center with an ‘artist in residence’ program where artists can take up residence and work on the island for a period of just a few weeks right up to three months.
There are lots more photos of the wonderful stone walls and landscape of Inis Oírr in the slide show below.
Slide show of the walls and landscape of Inis Oírr
If you are interested in going to next years workshop, keep an eye out on my facebook page as I will keep you all updated from there when the dates for next years event are confirmed.
If you are a stone waller or a stonemason in Ireland I recommend checking out and joining the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland www.dswai.ie
I would also recommend to anyone involved with stone to check out and become a member of the international Stone Foundation http://www.stonefoundation.org/
For more information on the Aran Islands checkout http://www.aranisland.info/