“A Bhoireann” A Place of Stone: A Historical Portal of Then & Now

Words: Dawn Carroll

Words: Dawn Carroll and Colin Grant
Photos: Dawn Carroll, e55evu

The seasons are shifting and it is busy under the Irish dirt. Sleepy flora begins to stir and the dormant begin to pulse. Just a few increased degrees will cause this new inquisitive spring to become symphonic with their secret messages. Here, Ireland’s Limestone, plays a starring role in nourishing the diverse landscape; as it thaws, the moisture rich with minerals spills to the ground, kissing the sleeping beauties.

Ireland is a stone designer’s dream with unpredictable beauty. New caresses old, antique structures adorn every country road, the evidence of yesterday struggling under modern day strain. I can’t help but wonder whose hands set all these stones.

Miles of stone walls stretch across the land in sensible geometric patterns that identify ownership. Ownership that has transferred many times, proving it is the island and only the island, that truly owns. A quick google search would tell you that the first stone wall was in Carlow and was the blood sweat and tears of the Watson Family way back the 1600’s. You can also read that these hand crafted walls feature such unique artistic flair that they can be can be seen through the artist's eye.

According to Wikipedia, the Burren (Irish: Boireann, meaning "great rock") is a region of environmental interest located in northwestern County Clare, Ireland, dominated by glaciated karst landscape. 

…the oldest rocks visible on the Burren’s surface were formed during the Carboniferous period. These limestone rocks formed in shallow, warm, tropical seas 10 degrees South of the equator.

It took approximately 20 million years for the limestone to form.

Remains of marine organisms floated down to the seafloor and their softer body parts decayed. The hard skeletons of these organisms became embedded in layers of calcium carbonate that were deposited out of the sea water. These layers compact to form limestone over time. The skeletons of the organisms became fossilised within these rocks.

After these rocks were formed the entire continent collided with what is now Europe, this caused the rocks, which were originally horizontal, to become gently folded, in fact all the rocks of the Burren are tilted slightly to the south. The enormous forces that caused the folding are also responsible for the many cracks and fissures that run through the limestone now. Changes in sea levels exposed the limestone. These rocks were weathered and dissolved by rainwater to form ancient Karst landscapes.

The Burren, is a mysterious and sacred stone resting place, adorned by early artistic and symbolic efforts using massive slabs of ancient stone. While observing, you interrogate the land begging to know who these people were and how and why they designed these unusual stone spaces. 

Poulnabrone; Wedge Tombs offer curious and mystical wisdom. These memorials were placed with a significant strategy and deep meaning; some, placed to witness the start of a new day, others to say farewell and witness its end . You watch and wait for a reaction. But the stoic is still – the mystery remains mysterious and the souls under this land keep their secrets.

The stone structures of Ireland offer honest truth, historic scars and offer a spiritual sincerity. If Ireland were our teacher, its lesson is growth, endurance, promise and also teaches how to be strong and move on. Hope sprinkles the entire land and the scars of yesterday are reconstructed and fuse in this newly designed and restored world; 

County Clare was one of the counties most affected by the Famine. According to the census of 1841 the population of the county stood at 260,000 people.

The Burren region in North Clare witnessed huge suffering as the vast majority of its population was rural poor. The same 1841 census recorded that 85% of the houses in the Burren were fourth-class defined as “all mud cabins having only one room”.

Only one person per square mile lived in the rocky uplands of north Co Clare. Ironically pre-famine dwellings survive in greater numbers in the hills today as they tended to be built of the more durable material of stone.

Other physical evidence of the tragedy is the abandoned potato cultivation ridges known also as “lazy beds”. Potatoes were cultivated by laying them on the surface (bed) and covering them with earth from a trench on either side of the bed. The trenches served as excellent drainage.

A number of Famine relief roads also survive in the Burren in the townlands of Poulaphuca, Glencolmcille and Cooloorta. 

Starving people worked on public projects such as roadbuilding. Their wages would then allow them to buy food. The scheme was a failure for a myriad of reasons. The relief roads in the region are monuments to the administration’s abject response to the crisis.

The poor in the Burren had a double blow in the 19th century as they experienced a “fuel famine" as well. The limestone region was largely devoid of turf whilst any wood available would have been mercilessly exploited. Desperate peasants resorted to drying cow pats and even woody stems of plants in order to survive. Fuel was needed for cooking so it was very much a survival resource.

In fact the home fire in the primitive dwelling of the 19th century rural poor would have served four functions – cooking, light, heat and most intriguingly of all the hearth was a part of the spiritual identity of the people. They believed that, on falling asleep, the spirits of the ancestors and even fairies would congregate around the fire to chat. The religion of the pre-famine rural poor was a fascinating cocktail of pagan custom allied with only a casual adherence to Catholicism.

Thuiles were used to dry cow pats in the Burren hills. They are ingenious dry-stone constructions within which the pats were placed. The thuiles would permit the drying effects of the wind whilst excluding most of the rain. Many examples of this vernacular monument can still be found in the Burren uplands.

The “lazy beds”, pre-famine dwellings, relief roads and thuiles make the Burren a fascinating Famine landscape. They serve as potent reminders of our greatest social calamity.

Lavish Cathedrals and Castles that once housed the royals and prominent, have also been abandoned, and I am eager to know, where did their occupants go? How did these private spaces land in such distress it is fascinating exploring the rooms that had run out of luck, good fortune. This rocky land offers endless powerful beauty, rich history comes alive and even if you are not a person of faith, the earth pulls you down and brings you to your knees. Your brain tries to process it all, Crumbling foundations and nature reclaiming yesterday’s frustrations but there is hope for the magnificent stone structures and you will find it here. This road will lead you to FRANCIS MCCORMACK and his company Irish Natural Stone- where you will find, The Stone Whisperer!

Tucked in the emerald hills of County Clare there is a stone carver with that charming wit and famed Irish twinkle we all hear about and is part of Irish yore. Francis McCormack has honed his skills over the past 45 years and has secured Global prestige with the help of his devoted family.

He has worked on every form of project from Irish Limestone memorials to large conservation projects. He keeps with tradition in design and carving Celtic Crosses and headstones.

Commission in Phoenix, Arizona.

Francis’ artistic touch can be found all over Europe and has even crossed the Atlantic. Here in America you can see his art in various private and public spaces.

Norman McClelland of Phoenix, Arizona called to Irish Natural Stone and requested that Francis produce a replica of the St Bridgit’s Doorway which is on Holy Island, Lough Derg, Co Clare. This doorway was measured and templated and from there was cut and carved to fit the new library in Phoenix, McClelland Library below. 

The doorway was constructed in 5 layers (as was the original), using Irish Limestone and every detail was replicated. Francis and his crew went to Phoenix to erect the doorway ensuring that it was completed to the original design. The three-story building houses 8,000 books from Irish authors, poets, and genealogical sources. The library houses a permanent exhibit on The Book of Kells, several reading rooms, and computer access to various disciplines of Irish and Celtic studies including genealogy. The library is the largest library of its kind in the Western United States.

 1916 memorial in New York

The Suffolk County Easter Rising Committee in Long Island in New York State are impressively proud of their Irish heritage.To commemorate the centenary of the 1916b rising in Ireland they’ve commissioned this enormous memorial from the stoneworkers of Irish Natural Stone in Co Clare.

Taking in such 1916 staples as the Proclamation of Independence, the GPO and the Harp, it stands at four metres tall and was hand-carved from scratch.

It’s taken about five months to complete. When the giant project was finally finished it was dispatched to the United States in four pieces (two base sections, a main section and a capstone).

MENTORING is the only way that stone art can continue to flourish and Francis has been my stone mentor for close to 20 years. At his studio, apprenticeship training is the heart and soul of the studio. Here artists sculpt modern pieces that reinforce the vulnerable, here Francis guides his team to keep the historic crafts of yesterday and give it destiny.

He is committed to using traditional skills and tools to ensure that the finished work is authentic and rings true with the stonework that was put in place when each building was first constructed.

 Four Courts, Dublin 

An example of this commitment is seen in his replication of the capitals in the Four Courts in Dublin, Ireland. These were made using Portland Stone from the south of England. Francis has sourced the quarry, picked suitable blocks and brought them to his workshop for the carving of the two units which make up each capital.Below you will see a full Capital carved in our workshop by our stonemasons. This project is ongoing and where the spirit of mentoring flourishes. 

Francis often finds stone structures clinging to life. He and his team specialize in restoring the antique, for the world in which it now belongs. As restoration specialists they preserve the past with perfection and return this art for its place in the future by fusing modern day knowledge with ancient techniques. 

Restoration Project in County Longford, Ireland

On Christmas Day 2009, St. Mel’s cathedral in Longford was destroyed by a fire in the early hours of the morning. The Cathedral was completely destroyed by the fire, it was described as "just a shell" and "burned out from end to end" 

Francis McCormack was commissioned with his company, Irish Natural Stone to replace 26 gigantic limestone pillars that lined the central aisles of the old cathedral. Each pillar had to be painstakingly removed and replaced with new stone replicas of the original. Each of those stone columns stood eight metres high, each one consisting of a decorative capital, a fillet stone, four intermediate drums and a base. The column weighed approximately five tonnes."

Each piece was carved in the workshop in Co Clare using Irish Limestone supplied from a Kilkenny quarry. This was a perfect opportunity for Francis to upskill and train apprentices in stone.

Capital which sits on the top of each pillar

The restored cathedral re-opened in December 2014.

St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford; Irish Natural Stone reproduced the pillars and carved the pedestals and capitals to replace all the damaged stone work in St Mel’s Cathedral. This project was a great training experience for our young and older carvers. 

The following are examples of restoration carried out by Irish Natural Stone

Ennis Cathedral, Co Clare     St John’s Cathedral, Limerick

Water has always carved and influenced the stone, but now rain is drenched with pollutants and there is a race against time for all our ancient stone structures. Working with these issues Francis has noted that proper management can greatly help to reduce the decay of the stone. A scientifically designed cleaning can inhibit the formation of crusts and the accumulation of efflorescences. The absence of the crusts and efflorescence and application of appropriate impregnants, which consolidate yet maintain the "breathability" of stone, may prolong the life of historic structures. 

I am often asked how I got into the stone industry and the simple answer is “I love stone”. Natural stone has taken me on world tours and my excitement to dig in the dirt brings me back to the real start of my stone career when I was a child still in my single digits, collecting minerals and tossing them into a rock tumbler. While they tumbled I would try to crack open the round ones, hoping to be rewarded with glistening purples. 

 My career in stone brought me to Ireland where I met with Francis McCormack who while teaching me about the beauty of Irish Limestone he brought me to a quarry in Kilkenny where I found my career compass. I discovered stone might just be in my DNA, my family is from Kilkenny, I felt the link. 

When I am ready to meet my maker and return to the earth, I know my last stone as part of my collection will be. An Irish Limestone carving, of course.

LUXURY RESIDENCES;

 Believing that no home is complete without a gem from the Irish earth, unique pieces that customize beautiful homes is also part of this business and where Francis became one of my stone mentors. This magical stone sprinkled with fossils is a delightful addition to my collection. 

White Fossil within the Irish Limestone

4 Lions commissioned by private collector.

Aided by 

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Francis’ dream is to encourage the love of stone and stonework. He has apprentices who work in the company and many of these young persons have moved on to work in their own manner with stone. A young man who wanted to work in stone came to Francis many years ago. His name is Colin Grehan and he moved on to become a stone artist and himself teaches the art of stone. 

Frank is excited to talk about a new departure in his business in a collaboration with artist and designer Colin Grehan, there are plans for a new design led bespoke manufacturing arm to his enterprise, with an emphasis on furniture, lighting interior design features, art and commissioned work.

Frank and Colin feel that few places in the world like the Burren offer a greater palate of materials and ideas in the service of design and art. They hope to craft products which will translate and distil the fabric and texture of this remarkable and unique place. With native stone as their principle medium combined with wood, metal, glass and ceramics they hope to translate and communicate the essence of this place, the action of water and wind and erosion, the flora and fauna and of the human and cultural stories which have been embedded here.

Both men have worked with stone and when combined with other natural materials in the service of quality design there is enormous potential. They are also acutely aware of the spiritual and transcendent perspective which natural materials can communicate, this will also be key to the production and processes involved. Creativity, skill and spirit are innate in the Irish and will all combine to infuse the work. There are so many parallels here between the natural processes which surround them and the products there are planning to create.

There is an understanding that these materials are a repository for ideas of time, geological, biological and human. Taking time to re-evaluate the materials which both have worked with for so long and see them afresh will be a critical part of this fascinating new departure. 

Dawn Carroll is a designer  who specializes in Exotic stones.   You can find her rockhounding on instagram @dawnmichellecarroll 

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