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Ireland (Part 2), Land of Stone Walls

September 20, 2012

As I drove through narrow, curvy, often dangerously steep roads in Ireland with a friend, my eyes delighted in views of sweeping seascapes, cliffs standing tall and magnificent, faraway islands shrouded in mist, animals grazing on the hills, and more. But none of these vistas drew me as powerfully as the stone walls.

They say that there are over a quarter of a million miles of stone walls in Ireland. I was touched by stone walls built after the great famine in the 1840s. I was impressed by the wall in the Memorial Park at Islandbridge in Dublin and stone walls in New Ireland.

But the ones I fell in love with were old dry stone walls. The stone walls where there is no mortar to bind the stones together, but strong hands of farmers or mountain men–those who apparently knew intuitively which ones would fit each other–set each stone with its neighbor to make them stand strong. These stone walls came into existence for simple and practical reasons. Irish farmers had to cope with the land which was naturally rocky. They had to clear stones for their farming. But how? With this question, coupled with the need to create divisions of land, they built stone walls. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!

Stone wall on the road to Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland

As I traveled through Donegal, Kerry County and the Dingle Peninsula, I saw so many of these stone walls. They felt like silent witness of hundreds of years of Irish history.

Not only that–when I could stop and actually look at the stones, black stones clinging to each other–each stone felt as if it were breathing, bearing the secret of the universe and history. Further, stones often become perfect nests for living, growing things. In the summer, the walls apparently come alive with fuchsia, montbretia and other wildflowers.

Stone wall en route to Poulnabrone (“the hole of the sorrows”)

To me, dry stone walls were not merely piles of stones.  Assembled with all sizes of stones, those walls were a perfect example of unity without uniformity, as we humans should be in our increasingly diverse world coming together. They breathed individuality of those who built them. Most of all, those stones invited me to feel what it meant to live forever, maturing into more beauty with the passage of time. The bodies of those who built them died, but the walls remain alive with their souls.

Each time I stood in front of those stone walls, I felt Don coming alive through the cracks where the green moss grew. I heard him: “Dai Sil, I am not dead. If you can feel life from these stones, surely you can feel my soul alive. My body is dead as those people who built them, but I am alive like those stones.”

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