The tradition of building dry stone walls in Ireland is synonymous with our rural and green landscape and dates back thousands of years as far as the Neolithic period.

It is estimated that there are about 400,000km of dry stone walls across the country, 25% more than the next nearest countries in Europe in terms of stone wall coverage.

The popularity of dry stone walls seems to be resurging again as many people reconnect with their rural upbringing and may be building new developments where they wish to incorporate the traditional feature.

The skills needed for dry stone wall building are still being taught and promoted by a small number of stonemasons across the country.

One of these stonemasons is Dominic Keogh of Memento Mori Stonework based in Carrick on Shannon, Co. Leitrim.

He explained that Ireland has one of the oldest examples of dry stone wall enclosures in the world at the Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, which dates back 5,500 years.

“It’s a big legacy we have in the landscape and a lot to live up to,” Dominic told Agriland while visiting a dry stone wall on the farm of Johnny Duffy at Carrownalacka, Kilmovee, Co. Mayo.

The wall on this working farm was constructed as part of a stone wall building workshop.

Dry stone walls in agriculture

Dominic explained that dry stone walls really came into their own in Ireland with the introduction and surge of agriculture as a way of delineating land.

“It’s so deeply connected to farming and agriculture,” he said.

“They are a hugely important part of our landscape and our agriculture and our ‘farmscapes’. They provide vital habitats for all types of species of flora and fauna.

“They were boundaries are were ways of people marking out where their land boundaries were and in later times then, with landlords and the division, it was a way of quantifying the land as well.”

Dominic said that its a “testament” to the people who built these dry stone walls that they are still in existence and still playing a vital role on farms.

He explained that they are as important as hedgerows on farms in providing greenway corridors for animals and biodiverse life in the landscape.

Types of stone walls

According to Teagasc, there are a number of different types of stone walls.

Single dry stone walls – this is where every stone spans the full width of the wall. They do not have a core.

These walls are often built at a great pace and with a strong understanding of how the stone will sit well together.

The largest stones are always at the base of the wall because, as well as being too heavy to lift and manoeuvre, using them higher up would destabilise the wall greatly, so stones get gradually smaller as the wall goes up.

Double dry stone wall – this has what are called two faces, one each side of the wall. The centre of the wall is filled with a ‘hearting’ of small stones.

Where available, ‘through stones’ will be placed at half way up the wall to add to stability and lifespan.

Teagasc explains that walls can be finished with an upright (soldier or cow and calf), slanted or flat row of cap stones or copes.

Combination walls – these walls combine the single and double technique. One example would be a Feidín wall, common on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland and parts of east and south Galway and Roscommon.

These walls consist of a double wall of small stones, under a single wall of much larger stones.

This wall type allows the best use of the material, as the ratio of small to large stone changes along the length of a wall, and is reputed to have been developed by professional Scottish wall builders when building dry stone walls along long stretches.

Stone earthen bank – a bank of soil or ditch faced with stone on one or both sides.

Often the top is planted with native hedgerow plants like hawthorn, ash, elm, alder and furze. They can be constructed with alternate layers of turf and stone.

Wedged dry stone wall – this is a form of dry stone wall or stone earthen bank that comes in single or double form and the stone is laid vertically and wedged into place, i.e., the long side of the bed runs upwards.

Skills and training

Dominic explained that not much equipment is needed if someone is planning on building or restoring a dry stone wall.

“You need nothing apart from stone to build them,” he continued.

“They’re self-supporting, they don’t need any additional cements or anything like that to hold them up. You’re relying on gravity and friction as the mortar to hold the stone together.

“The components of a stone wall are that you use your bigger stones at the bottom as your foundation layers… roll them in,” he outlined.

By doing this, it ensures the most practical use of the big stones because they are heavy and sturdy as a foundation but by doing this, it prevents any strain or injury to the body, especially the back, as you won’t have to lift those stones up when the wall starts gaining height.

The main body of a dry stone wall is made up general-sized stones and about half way up the wall, there is a vital element needed.

“A vital component of the stone wall is a thing called a ‘through stone” which goes right the way through the stone from face to face,” Dominic explained.

“That ties the two faces of the wall together and that’s a really important part of your wall.”

As the wall continues upward, all of the gaps are filled with stones called ‘hearting’ which lock bigger stones in place and prevent any movement.

“Then as you come up to the top of the wall, you would sometimes have a top layer of stone known as a ‘capping’ stone or a ‘coping’ stone,” Dominic added.

“They can be a particular style in a particular area; maybe they’re big flat flagstones or maybe there’s none at all. A lot of rural agricultural walls don’t have any capping on them at all.”

Dominic added that it’s important to build the wall so that it is sloping slightly inward as it gains in height so the wall is then leaning in on itself and there is no risk of it falling down.

He said that people from all walks of life are interested in such stone work, whether it’s restoring walls on farm, building a wall around a refurbished older dwelling or incorporating aspects of dry stone wall into a new housing development.

He regularly hosts workshops on dry stone wall building around the country as does the the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland (DSWAI) and the National Organic Training Skillnet (NOTS).