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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.