Stone Mad: We Made It!!
By John Digney
With all the anticipation of a child at Christmas, and the ups and downs of the fiercest roller coaster imaginable, our planning was complete, all COVID protocols met and with an honest dose of trepidation, we boarded our plane and made our trip to Ireland to continue our collaboration with the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland (DSWAI). I have to admit, over the last few months, Covid and the Delta variant threw us plenty of curve balls and created a fair amount of anxiety as we came down to the wire in making the decision to travel.
We were not disappointed and very glad we made the effort to connect and work directly with some of the DSWAI members. Upon arrival at Dublin’s airport, it became immediately apparent that things were just a little different from our previous visit in 2019. The reduced crowds, heightened awareness of protocol and stringent adherence to the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) requirements, quickly eased our minds and allowed us to settle into enjoying the adventures ahead.
Given all the communication with the folks from DSWAI leading up to the trip, we were more than ready to get going. From classic mountain hikes, hidden monastic sites and ancient sacred ruins our trip had all the historical content, stone structures and beautiful views that make Ireland so magical. While all the postcard images and sunset videos are worth noting, I am forever grateful for the people I’ve met, friendships we’ve formed and the time spent learning about our history, sharing stories of the past and gaining a deeper understanding of our rich Irish heritage.
In addition, having the opportunity to learn more about the relationship the Irish people have to stone and stone structures and bring knowledge back to share it with other Irish Americans, makes this adventure all worthwhile.
Without chronicling every location visited, or attempting to summarize each little lesson learned, there was an interesting word we encountered that had more to do with a mindset and commitment to each other, that is truly at the heart of this collaborative effort we are building with the DSWAI. While visiting the rural areas of Donegal, we had the opportunity to tour ancient ruins with a friend, stone waller and certified Irish historian.
Our day was filled with the expected rain showers and beautiful scenery, as well as awe inspiring stone structures, artifacts, and Ancient Irish history. In between our short jaunts from location to location and moments of pause to let the rain pass, we shared our own experiences and interests in Irish history, and in doing so, we were introduced to a word that embodies the soul of the Irish people: meitheal (pronounced méh-hill, which means team, or working group).
Meitheal is an Irish word; like many words in the Irish language, IT does not translate exactly into English. However, it does have a place in our post Covid world and warrants a moment of consideration.
Meitheal is the collective cooperation of a group or gang for the benefit of all. This is essential not only in the building of stone walls in farmers’ fields where neighbors would join together to help get the job done, but is essential in the building of families, communities and relationships. Not surprisingly, it did not just pertain to stone walls and creating structures, but was also part of the daily lives of our ancestors.
The cooperative unit, be it family, community or group is meithael. The shared history and experiences of meithael as seen from the remains of holy wells and ancient burial grounds, to mass rocks, and medieval structures, all have one thing in common; they were built by hand, built with stone, with the collective efforts of people working together for the benefit of all.
Whether it was time to harvest or time to sow, it was an assurance that if someone needed a hand, there was always one there to offer. It provided comfort in difficult times, support for the weary and strength when the world seemed to turn its back on the Irish people. It existed early in Irish history from medieval times to the famine walls, in the potato fields and most certainly on the pier as families said goodbye to loved ones for the last time.
It is a powerful reminder today that we are all in this together as we awake from the pandemic and look forward to a brighter future. Our willingness to get involved, make a difference and help one another is what we do and who we are as Irish people. In visiting with many people and talking with wallers from various parts of the country, they all emphasized the community involvement of stone walling and the benefits felt in their soul when working closely with so many people from around the globe to build something from the earth.
Each felt the connection to the stone was very real and the energy, in some way, was therapeutic and somehow connected them to an ancient link to the past. It didn’t take long for me to realize the cultural depth stone represents for the people that work with it every day and the importance of working together, collaborating side by side and living the meithael life. It is why they love what they do as it is the communal experience and shared enthusiasm that is evident in the bonds that are formed and relationships built through the process.
Many of our friends spoke of the impact the pandemic has had and what a reminder it is of how quickly things can change. As we were reminded while in Donegal, “It is a short road to the famine” and as the world prepares to reopen and escape the grip the pandemic has had on us all, with a helping hand and an attitude of meithael, we can all experience a future of hope, enthusiasm and shared prosperity. There are brighter days ahead.
Thank you for taking the time to read about our adventures, and I hope that you find the information encouraging. We will continue to work with the DSWAI to bring you content, stories and instructional videos to broaden your understanding of stone walling and the importance of stone in our Irish heritage. Look for more information and videos from our recent trip that will be published here in iIrish as well as on www.iIrish.us
*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, and 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. John can be reached at jd*******@gm***.com