We’re stone mad about our craft

Some of the world’s best dry stone-wallers and carvers will gather in West Cork this weekend, to celebrate the craft. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the creative director Victor Daly about the importance of keeping ancient skills and traditions alive into the future.
We’re stone mad about our craft
Creative director of the West Cork Stone Symposium, Victor Daly.

“ONCE you buy a hammer and a chisel, you can start a new hobby,” says Victor Daly, stone carver, sculptor and creative director of the first West Cork Stone Symposium which takes place in the picturesque Sheep’s Head from today until Sunday,.

Some of the world’s best dry stone-wallers and stone carvers will gather on the Sheep’s Head peninsula (a European destination of excellence in recognition of its sustainable tourism) to take part in a celebration of stone craft and creativity.

Over three days, the peninsula and its nearby islands will be home to workshops, a photography course, walks and exhibitions, including a rock art exhibition.

Supported by the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland, the symposium’s workshops on dry stone walling and stone carving are open to people of all abilities. It’s hoped the symposium will become a regular feature on the Sheep’s Head calendar of events.

Ahakista-based Victor, who served an apprenticeship in stone work in Midleton where he’s originally from, is keen that traditional skills are passed on.

“Dry stone walling and stone carving are ancient crafts and the work we do is so much part of the landscape of the west of Ireland that people almost see it as a part of nature.”

He adds that these crafts, going back millennia, have helped to shape the identity of the Wild Atlantic Way and the character and creativity of our communities too.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming people to our gathering so that they can immerse themselves in West Cork life and play a part in carrying ancient skills and traditions into the future.”

There will be 20 instructors facilitating workshops at the symposium, evenly divided between dry stone wallers and stone carvers. They’re coming from as far away as Toronto and there will also be instructors from Scotland where stone craft is really valued.

“I worked in Scotland on St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh so I’ve seen firsthand how much tourism stone craft brings in. It’s mind-blowing the amount of people that come there. To me, it’s a no brainer. I know it involves money and time but I don’t think we’re trying hard enough (in Ireland.)”

Dry stone walling is done without cement.

“There is a series of different techniques that can be learned. Instead of having just plastic fencing, you can look at a beautiful dry stone wall. What a stone wall looks like depends on what part of the country you’re in. It can be jagged or smooth. There’s different styles of laying dry stone walls. We have a lot of vertical ones in West Cork. Some are horizontal and some look like a herring bone.”

Victor, who has been in the stone trade since 1979, had the idea of a stone symposium five years ago. “It was always a closed trade so the general public didn’t get to see how anything was done. We want to show everybody how we do things and how things were done before this modern era of machines and sandblasting which nearly killed our trade. There are a certain few of us left around the world.”

Patience is a prerequisite for dry stone-walling, says Victor. He says that through practice, speed will follow.

“By showing the public how we work, they get a sense of the craftsmanship involved in stone work when they order something from us.”

Trying to keep the tradition alive is not easy.

Victor Daly
Victor Daly

“In Ireland, we’re not taking on enough apprentices and we’re not restoring enough buildings. You can compare that to Scotland where they do up all the castles and country manors. They keep young people in the trade and everything is a plus in terms of tourism and jobs.

“In Ireland, we have American, Japanese and every kind of tourist coming here. They don’t want to see a pile of stones in a field.”

Victor is pleased to report that there seems to be a lot of interest now in dry stone-walling.

“It’s really coming back. It’s a beautiful sight and it’s very good for nature. Birds and hedgehogs and all sorts of animals will live in dry stone walls. Once you put one up, it’s going to be there forever. You’ll see dry stone walls at the Chelsea Flower Show.”

Tourism is strong on the west coast and particularly in West Cork.

“People are not coming here for the sunshine. They’re coming to learn and to get stuck into a new project in a hands-on way. We want to be able to provide that for them.”

The renowned Cork-born sculptor, Seamus Murphy’s book, ‘Stone Mad’ is “our bible” says Victor. Decades ago, Seamus Murphy could see that machinery was going to take over from hand crafting stone.

“We all saw that coming. But we didn’t think it would nearly wipe us out. Now, you can buy a piece of stone that’s hand cut. It’s the same price as a piece done by machinery. But we’re at the stage where it’s hard for us to get Irish stone because it’s all being exported. It’s easier for us to get it imported which, to me, is ridiculous. It comes from everywhere; India and China. There’s plenty of stone here but the demand is out foreign. That’s where the money is.” Through the Dry Stone Walling Association, people can take courses up to different levels, allowing them to qualify as dry stone wallers.

“Some learn it from their parents. A lot of girls are interested in doing it. The bookings for the symposium are 50/50 male and female,” says Victor. Maybe it’s time to carve out a whole new hobby!

For more see www.livingthesheepsheadway.com.

More in this section

Sponsored Content