As well as the delightful natural-stone, thatched-roofed cottages littering the Irish countryside here in the West of Éire, we kept remarking on the profusion of dry-stane dykes, as we’d call them back home in Scotland, walls built of the local stone without cement or mortar of any kind. We’re well used to seeing them in Scotland and I know from talking to a farmer who builds them, they take a lot of time and hard labour to construct.
So, when we looked at the local landscape here in the southern part of County Galway and into County Clare, we were struck with a tremendous sense of history. Some of these dry walls must be generations old, centuries old. We could picture the generations of farmers and their sons, selecting suitable stones, hewing them out, gathering them, carting them home to build their cottages and section their land with dry-stane dykes.
And there are SO many of them. SO many.
We began to feel there must be a huge quarry or something somewhere nearby. Sure enough, as we drove into County Clare, into an area called The Burren, it wasn’t a quarry we found, but fields of stones, hillsides of stones, many of them looking ready hewn for building with.
When I Googled the term, having found a place where I could get a signal, I found The Burren (Irish: Boireann, meaning “great rock”) is a karst landscape in County Clare, Ireland. It measures approximately 250 square kilometres and is enclosed roughly within the circle made by the villages of Ballyvaughan, Kinvara, Tubber, Corofin, Kilfenora and Lisdoonvarna.
According to the information I found on Wikipedia, the development of karst occurs whenever acidic water starts to break down the surface of bedrock near its cracks, or bedding planes. As the bedrock (like limestone or dolostone) continues to break down, its cracks tend to get bigger. As time goes on, these fractures will become wider, and eventually, a drainage system of some sort may start to form underneath. Farming in karst areas must take into account the lack of surface water. The soils may be fertile enough, and rainfall may be adequate, but rainwater quickly moves through the crevices into the ground, sometimes leaving the surface soil parched between rains.
We did find a quarry too, but there are so many miles of stones just lying on the surface, it isn’t hard to imagine them being collected for use in building the walls and cottages so prolific in the area.
I suppose the stones are quarried and moved by the truckload nowadays, but the picture that comes to my mind is of those bygone days when men would wield a pickaxe, break the stones down to manageable size, dig them out, load the heavy stones into wheelbarrows or sacks and wheel or lug them to the horse and cart waiting nearby, to be carted to their destination, another field, another cottage.
The countryside was still and silent, as were we, in awe of creation, creator and the hard labour of the generations of men who have worked this land.