Dry Stone Walls and the Great Cattle Drive of Kilronan

“Art grows out of good work done by men who enjoy it. It is the wealth, surely, of any country.”—From “Stone Mad” by Seamus Murphy.

My wife is a gifted artist; she sketches, draws, paints, sculpts and even makes jewellery. I myself, on the other hand, can barely write legibally. Despite all that, I love art when I see it, and I see it all around me, all the time, in all it’s forms.

That is, when I’m paying attention.

I’ve lived around dry stone walls my entire life, not only in Ireland but in America as well. And when I was younger, I never gave much thought to them as being art; they were simply a part of the landscape. Until I was asked a favour.

I knew a man on Inis Mór who owned a few pieces of property. One was his home; the other two were small pastures, enclosed by dry stone walls. He had a few cows, and when the cattle had eaten the grass, he moved them from one spot to another. The cows were doing just fine on their feed at the time, but he’d received an offer from a woman to place her caravan in the lot on the far side of Kilronan, for a decent sum of money. The problem was, he was too old to remove the stone walls or rebuild them, much less move the cattle across the island. He knew that I had some experience with cattle and so asked for my help, and I couldn’t refuse even if I’d wanted to, because I owed this man a great deal in the way of education. Cattle experience aside, I knew next to nothing about working with stone. And so I enlisted the help of a few friends, as well as my girlfriend and their girlfriends. Luckily for all concerned, one of my friends had considerable knowledge of Irish stone walls.

Taking down the first portion of the wall (just large enough to get the cows through) was easy. I felt a bit bad about it, though, as in doing so I realised, for the first time, the artistic merit of dry-stone work; but my friend assured me that this was a common occurrence on the island, and that art in any form, especially this one, can be changed, re-arranged, possibly improved upon, and well, we had a job to do.

And then there was the cattle drive. There were only a few cows, all quite docile. It was only a manner of moving them along to the other pasture, blocking the lanes by standing in front of them with our arms out-stretched so they wouldn’t go off course. After we’d gotten them to their new residence, we had to rebuild the stone wall which had previously been taken down by my stone-savvy friend. At this point, he merely gave us all basic instructions, and once the “fence” was secure, we headed back to the other plot of land.

By this point, I was badly in need of a pint; but my stone-friendly companion wouldn’t have it.

And so we returned to the original plot, removed a larger section of the stone wall (and found an old brass doorknob in the process), and moved the caravan into it’s place.

Then it was time to rebuild the wall.

I took some solace in the fact that all of my other companions were as ignorant as I was in this sort of thing; except of course for my experienced friend. He was calm and patient, and as he guided us all through restoring the wall, (albeit in a slightly different configuration), I asked him a question.

“Who taught you how to do this?”

“The stone.”

That statement, in that moment, is quite probably the closest I will ever come to enlightenment, at least in this life.

Stone is not only the foundation of our architecture, but the first and foremost of our tools as human beings that allowed us to advance from extremely primitive life-forms into the somewhat less primitive life-forms we are today. So listen and look, not only to stone, so common but so precious, but every element; for they all contain art.

Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder; it is an entity all it’s own. Simple things, such as cows and stone walls and good friends are a treasure beyond price. I hope that you will treasure them as I do.

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