CURRENT ISSUE:  August 2023

Stone Mad: Exploring Achill, Part II

Stone Mad: Exploring Achill Part II
By John Digney

As a follow up to the March article, Still Stone Mad: A Conversation with Dry Stone Wall Genius Ken Curran, this is a story of discovery a little closer to home. While visiting with Ken on Achill Island, we decided to take a slight detour from the Deserted Village at Slievemore to explore a vacated homestead in the small village of Dooega. This old house holds childhood memories for a family in the West Park community and fuels my enthusiasm for sharing knowledge of how our ancestors may have lived and some of the stories hidden in the stones left behind.  

With not much to go on but our own curiosity, Lavelle’s as a gatepost and a few local names to drop, we headed out to the seashore to find the house on the hill that was once the home of Joseph and Margaret Gallagher. The Gallaghers lived in the home along with their nine children with descendants now here in the States.

Typical of small villages where everyone knows each other, Dooega was no different; we were assured that upon our arrival, Michael or Kevin at the bar could point us in the right direction. As with any adventure and the best laid plans, sometimes things can go a wee bit astray.

However, in Ireland we’ve discovered that going astray can be a good thing, as long as you keep a sense of humor and adventure close at hand. We arrived at Lavelle’s ready for a pint and a chat with the locals, and much to our surprise, the pub was closed due to COVID. Luckily, we had one last bit of instruction to make the connection to the homestead by the sea: call this number and ask for Michael.

So, without hesitation, we pulled out our cell phone to ring the number with hopes that the person on the other end will understand our quest and provide us with sufficient directions to get to the destination. A pleasant voice answered our call, and it most certainly wasn’t Michael. Michael’s wife Breda was more than happy to connect us with her husband. Not only did we get to spend time chatting with both of our new found friends, but we also received a personal escort to that lovely house on the hill, overlooking the bay. Looking at the deserted house, it was easy to imagine life in such a setting. I could picture the chimney rising up through the roofline and imagine many warm fires on the shores of beautiful Achill Bay.

Now at our destination, our hope was to explore the grounds, take a few pictures and see if we could learn anything about the structure itself. It didn’t take long for Ken, our expert tour guide, to begin to discover and share some interesting finds about the structure. Although in disrepair, the exposed walls and ceiling revealed the type of construction that was typical of early to mid-19th century homes.

Irish Construction
Wooden purlins spanned the roof, making it easy to observe the slate tiles that would have protected the family from the harsh winters on the island. In addition to the exposed ceiling, we could see how the walls, chimney and home were placed as a basis of lifestyle.

The home was constructed with three distinct rooms, with entry from outside through a small vestibule that protected the family from the cold ocean winds. Once inside, there was a sitting room to the left, kitchen in the center where Joseph and Margaret would have slept, and the last room to the right, would have been the bedroom for the children. One of the main features of any dwelling in Ireland is the fireplace and as expected the fireplace was located in the kitchen, where everything from dinner prep to storytelling, laundry and child rearing all took place under the watchful eyes of the parents.

Moving outside and around the building, the years of wear had exposed much of the underlying stonework. The white lime wash that is commonly seen across Ireland, had all but disappeared. With help from Ken and his in-depth knowledge of the region, he was able to identify the type of stone used to construct the walls and surrounding structures.

Quartzite, Gneiss Schist

Most of the stone that exists on Achill is primarily quartzite, gneiss and schist, which is where you will generally see the grey-green, orange, white and purple colors which are evident throughout the exterior walls of the Gallagher home. What makes an adventure like this so rewarding is not only the discoveries we make, the friends we meet, or the surrounding natural beauty, but to also identify the unique nuances of the structures and be able to share this with the families.

When you take time to look closely at the construction, the stories emerge in your imagination, and you see in your mind’s eye the history in the stones themselves. Although similar to other abandoned home sites, each one is unique and has its own story and history hidden in the walls. The specific way each wall is built can be found nowhere else but where the stones are forever placed.

That is the beauty of stone construction, the techniques are derived from centuries of history, yet each build is unique to the stones that are used at the site. Having the opportunity to provide photographs of this site to the family will forever be a snapshot of their ancestors’ home. The patterns and colors of the stone provide a fingerprint to the past that can live together with their childhood memories of summer at the sea with grandparents, cousins and other relatives.

We will continue to work with DSWAI to bring you content, stories and information published here in iIrish as well as on the internet at

*John Digney is an Artist /Designer who received his BFA in Industrial Design from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was raised in the Cleveland neighborhood of Westpark near Kamm’s Corner. John and his wife Kathleen now reside in Greenville, SC. He can be reached at jd*******@gm***.com.

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