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Pondering the Stone Walls of Ireland

Stone wall and fern in Ireland

In the fall of 2017 and 2019, April and I traveled to Ireland. Throughout both trips we found ourselves walking along ancient stone walls and agricultural fields.

As an Irish-American who has tended land for most of his life and who has also spent considerable time exploring his family history, these experiences humbled me as I felt not only a physical connection to the kind of effort it took to build these features but also a cellular connection knowing that my ancestors were involved in this work.   

Stone walls and farmlands near the Poulnabrone Neolithic (New Stone Age) portal tomb in the Burren. Field walls still standing near the tomb were constructed by the tomb’s builders during a time when agriculture was first established in Ireland 5,000 years ago.  

Today, an Irish stone wall or farm field may seem like a stagnant and unassuming presence, however, imagine for a moment the countless hands and labor hours it took over hundreds of years to construct and care for these structures.

An Irish stone wall with lichen. Lichen are a composite organism formed from a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a photosynthetic algae. They can take decades to grow illustrating the age of this wall. Ponder for a minute the people who hands stacked these stones. What were their lives like?

For example, on the Aran Islands of Inishmore (Inis Mór), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), and Inisheer (Inis Oírr)- “Inish” is the Irish Gaelic word for “Island,” people have lived, farmed and fished on the islands for thousands of years.

The ruins of O’Brien’s Castle, Inisheer surrounded by stone walls and pastures.  This tower house refuge was built in 1400 CE and was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1652 CE.

Evidence of this long standing relationship between people and the islands can be seen in the islands’ archaeology. The site of Dun Aengus on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, is a stone fortress built by Iron Age farmers some 4,000 years ago above a two-hundred-foot cliff towering over the Atlantic Ocean.  Today, the islands are part of the Gaeltacht region where locals still speak Irish Gaelic inherited from their Celtic ancestors. 

The emerald fields of Inisheer have provided food and economic livelihood for generations of islanders.

On our trip, we caught the early ferry from the town of Doolin to Inisheer.  Like the other Aran Islands, the small land mass is a checker board of windswept emerald fields divided by miles of “drystone” walls. Constructed without mortar, the Aran “gap” style consists of angled upright stones that were stacked to build walls several feet high. Smaller stones were then used to fill in the empty space between the larger ones. This method continues to allow farmers to quickly move their livestock between pastures by temporarily dismantling a section to make a gate. The “gap” style also enables harsh winter winds to blow though the walls without knocking them down and slows soil erosion.

Pastures and fields on Inisheer showing the Aran Island “gap” style of mortar less stone wall construction. Note the stones removed to make a temporary gate to move livestock from pasture to pasture. 

Inside the Aran Island’s pastures and fields, the topsoil is only about six inches deep. Remarkably though, the soil was entirely handmade by Aran islanders over countless centuries. Farmers created the soil by layering on the bare limestone rock sand, animal manure, and locally collected seaweed from the islands’ beaches. Seaweed is one of the best organic fertilizers as it not only provides nitrogen, phosphates and high levels of potassium but also magnesium and other trace elements that stimulate balanced plant growth. Through the decomposition process so familiar to us organic gardeners, the soil was literally built over time providing places to grow crops and lush pasture for livestock.

Farmers have been “land making” on the Aran Islands for countless generations building soil for crops and pastures by layering seaweed, sand and manure on the bare limestone rock.  

Only a few decades ago, Aran Island farmers were still planting several fields of vegetables including potatoes to feed their families.  Although people often think of potatoes as quintessential Irish cuisine, the potato was first domesticated by indigenous peoples of the Andes Mountains and not introduced into Ireland and Europe until the mid-sixteenth century. Potatoes proved to be an ideal crop for Ireland as it thrived in the temperate climate and soils.  

Stone “stairs” built into a wall on Inisheer.  Stiles allow people to pass through fields while keeping livestock in. 

At first potatoes were grown and eaten only by the wealthy yet by 1800 CE most of Ireland’s small farmers and cottiers (landless laborers), had switched from oatmeal to potatoes as their staple food. Unlike other starchy foods, potatoes could sustain people as they are nutritionally more complete providing water, carbohydrates, protein and minerals. Plants are also very productive (in good years) and the tubers store well over a long period. As other agricultural commodities were sold to markets, some Irish families in western Ireland were still eating potatoes for several meals a day well into the early parts of the 20th century.

A water harvesting cattle tank in a pasture on Inisheer. On an island with limited fresh water, the sloped concrete slab allows rain water to flow into the tank where it can be stored and used by livestock. What a brilliant and simple innovation!   

Potatoes were traditionally grown in what is called “lazy beds”- a misnomer for sure as the farmers who created the beds were far from lazy. The labor intensive process began by using a spade to mark out a straight bed line. Beside the line, large amounts of manure and seaweed were spread. Then sods of soil were spaded from the furrow/path and folded onto this “fertilizer” mixture. Afterwards, additional soil from the furrow was added to the top until a smooth bed of heaped earth was created about three feet wide running from one end of the field to the other. Potatoes and other vegetables were then planted in the mounded soil (for potato planting tips in your garden see our blog post here). Archaeologists have found that Irish farmers have been growing crops in lazy beds for over 5,000 years long before potatoes were a staple crop.

April posing with traditional Irish farm tools at the Blasket Island Centre on the Dingle Peninsula. Tools include a seaweed rake, donkey bit, handmade wicker baskets, seaweed sickle, driftwood hand saw, and spades. 

Throughout Ireland the stone walls also play an important ecological function as their microclimates provide unique habitat for a number of plants and animals. In fact, some local field guides consider the walls as a distinct ecozone.

A hawthorn tree growing near a stone wall in the Burren, County Clare.  A sacred tree in Irish folklore, it is believed that they guard the entrance to the faerie realm and thus, it is considered bad luck to harm one or remove them from fields. Sprigs of blooming branches are still collected during the month of May, decorated and placed around the home to encourage good fortunate. 

In a treeless landscape, the walls cast shade allowing shelter for plants that otherwise could not thrive in the full sun. At the same time, drought tolerant plants happily establish themselves on the starkly soiled pockets between the stones.

Fuchsia was introduced to Ireland in the mid-19th century from Chile and Argentina. This plant is now wide spread growing along stone walls and hedgerows throughout western Ireland.

In addition to mosses and lichens, other species of plants found growing on the walls include polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare), rusty-back fern (Ceterach officinarum), maidenhair spleenwort  (Asplenium trichomanes), ivy-leaf toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), red valerian (Centranthus ruber), stonecrop (Sedum anglicum), fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica), wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) and ivy (Hedera helix). Frogs, shrews, spiders, and field mice also make their home in the crevices of stone while hedgehogs and newts may hibernate within the wall’s protection in the fall and winter months.

Ivy-leaf toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) originally from Italy and the Southern Alps now grows all over Ireland on the stone walls.
Polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare), maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) and red valerian (Centranthus ruber) growing on an Irish stone wall.
Ivy- a plant that in some parts of the United States is considered invasive, is native to Ireland where it is one of the few autumn flowering plants.  On sunny days the domed shaped flowers are covered with pollinators feeding on the last bit of nectar before cold weather sets in. 

Thinking back to our time on Inisheer, after a jaunt along the stone walls and fields, we stopped off for a pint at the Tigh Ned Pub that has been operated by Ó Conghaile family since 1897 CE. As I slowly sipped my Tullamore D.E.W. on the rocks and gazed out on the beauty of Galway Bay, my mind pondered how the 250,000 miles of stone wells around Ireland have played a central role in the survival of humans and nature for generations.

Contemplating the stone walls and fields of Inisheer with a pint and views of Galway Bay at the Tigh Ned Pub.
Heather in bloom along a tranquil stream and sheep pasture enclosed with stone walls below Croagh Patrick-one of Ireland’s holiest mountains. Every year on the last Sunday in July pilgrims climb the mountain to honor Ireland’s patron saint St. Patrick who is believed to have fasted on the summit for 40 days in 441 AD during his conversion of the Irish from paganism to Christianity.    

If you enjoyed this post on Ireland, click here for our visit to a medieval garden recently restored in Kilkenny, Ireland.

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