Stone Mad: Walls That Are Built on Stories

Stone Mad
by John Digney

A dry-stone wall is the cleanest and greenest way to work with stone. Pure and simple, it involves only the individual and one single material, the stone, as found. Sometimes built collectively, we connect with the material in a direct and personal way when we handle it and weave it into something unique, a reflection of the self. Nothing exists that is tangible between those stones. However, in the intangible realm of culture and essence lies the community, the collective; us. We occupy the ‘space between the stones’. Our Irishness shines through in our dry-stone structures and the variety of local and even individual styles to be seen all around the land and even across the world, where our ancestors have spread their Irish wings.”

John Digney

– Ken Curran (Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland)

Like many Irish Americans, I long to return to the land of my forefathers and try to imagine what life may have been like back then. Recently, I had that opportunity, and connected with relatives while learned a lot about my Irish history. Besides learning what life was like for my ancestors, my family and I rented a car and drove through much of the countryside.

I was not expecting to be so moved by the beauty, magnitude, and historical significance of the stone walls throughout the country. One doesn’t have to travel far in Ireland to encounter the miles and miles of these structures.

To sit and ponder why these exist, how they got built, and the hardships associated with their construction is awe inspiring. To me, it became overwhelming and rather emotional to consider the families, men, women, and children who undoubtedly played a part in placing each and every one of these stones as a means of survival.

They placed the walls around their plots and cultivated the land with hopes of building a life for their families. I found it interesting to consider the almost haphazard way the stones are placed and yet, these walls have stood for centuries, created boundaries, and protected crops from the great Atlantic winds.

More importantly, these walls supported a community commitment to neighbors and family as they toiled alongside one another to create small plots on which to survive. During these challenging times of Covid, I often reflect on these walls as synonymous to life. We are currently experiencing isolation, separation from our loved ones, friends, and community.

However, this is not how we are designed. We need and depend on one another. The stones, much like community and family, are large and small, rugged and smooth, and hold the rest of the wall together.

I am an artist; for the past few years, this reflection on my heritage and that of the Irish people have inspired me to development drawings that continue to foster a passion within to help in some way to protect and preserve the fingerprints of our past. This desire to make a difference, to help conserve these stone walls and enrich my own understanding about them beyond just my artwork, drives me to make connections and collaborate with Irish historical experts and Irish stone wallers.  I hope to help in the education, knowledge sharing and collective advocacy for the conservation and preservation of stone walls throughout Ireland.

Stone Walls Working Together
Our collective vision for this project going forward is to bring awareness of the history, significance and beauty of these treasured structures to communities in the US. By collaborating with the Dry-Stone Wall Association of Ireland (DSWAI), as well as the Ohio Irish American News, and the Irish American Archive Association, we will build a working relationship marked by fellowship and knowledge sharing so that we can work towards our collective goals. The work has just begun, but I look forward to seeing what we can do together.

Stone Walls Moving Forward
Given the constraints Covid has placed across the globe, we are beginning our journey by first introducing our initiative through the Ohio Irish American News. Planned articles and online communications to heighten awareness, while bringing understanding and visual images of the uniqueness and beauty of the walls throughout Ireland will follow.

In addition, we will be working to provide instructional links and videos from the DSWAI, so all can see the great work that has been done and continues to be fostered throughout the isle. In addition to print and online communications, we plan to visit Co. Mayo’s Achill Island and Inis Oírr of the Aran Islands for the Féile na gCloch stone festival this fall, pending Covid restrictions.

The stone festival brings stone wall experts and instruction to hundreds of people from across the globe each year. Our hope is to build a community, share stories and bring back knowledge, images, videos and interviews to share with the entire Irish American community stateside.

So, as we continue to plan and build the foundation for this collaborative effort, consider your own history, ancestry and stories. If you know your ancestral roots and the location from which your ancestors emigrated, we would love to hear from you.

In addition to knowledge sharing, we would hope to put a “face to a name” and identify old walls from family plots, thereby placing a “name to the stone walls.” As difficult as this may seem, it is a wonderful opportunity to preserve our heritage and create a real, tangible link to our history.

Stone Walls Getting Involved
Thank you for taking the time to read about, support and promote awareness of these stone walls, and the conservation and preservation of the existing walls throughout Ireland. We hope you find this a worthwhile endeavor and charitable cause, worthy of your contributions as we look ahead to the preservation of our cultural heritage. All monetary contributions will be collected through the OhioIANews, and will be distributed directly to DSWAI.

The Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland is a registered charity in Ireland, Charity number 20206056. In the DSWAI, our aim is to create an awareness of the need for preserving the craft of ‘dry’ stone building in Ireland. In doing so, the association hopes to advance the education of the public in the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the craft of building and repairing traditional dry stone walls in Ireland.
For more information, please visit the website 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 West Park near Kamm’s Corner. He and his wife Kathleen and daughters Eileen and Megan now reside in Greenville, SC. John looks forward to the day when he can devote more time to his family, art and passions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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