Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The birth of a new Stone Festival in Donegal

Best Blogger Tips
Last Thursday I packed my bags and pointed my car north for Donegal. I have been wanting to get to Donegal for some time but for some reason Donegal always seems so far away. But now I had a good excuse to free up some time (as if you need a good reason to go to Donegal)  
Mountcharles Sandstone Pier, Mountcharles, Co. Donegal
Turns out the trip up is not so bad at all, I even had time to stop off along the way at Loughcrew in County Meath to find the ancient stone seat known as The Hag's Chair a massive engraved kerbstone on the north side of Cairn T, at Loughcrew. I have mentioned this seat in a blog post before which you can read here
The Hag's Chair, Loughcrew, Co. Meath
After a good stretch of the legs and a crawl into the centre of Cairn T (a similar structure to Newgrange)  I got back in the car to finish my journey to Donegal. There were many other stone sites along my route which I wanted to visit, but I knew that this was going to be the first of what will become an annual pilgrimage to Donegal, and there would be plenty of opportunities to see these great sites down the line.
"So how's about getting to the point and tell us why you're going to Donegal" you are surely saying by now. 
Well as the title of the post suggests, my trip to Donegal was to be part of an exciting new stone festival that is to be an annual event in Donegal.
Organised by the Donegal branch of The Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland  (DSWAI) with the support of the Donegal County Council and the ETB  the festival included dry stone wall building, stone letter cutting and carving, talks by master masons and sculptors and topped off with a tour of the local sandstone mine.

Dry Stone Walling 
The dry stone project was set in a picturesque setting along the Donegal coastline on the Wild Atlantic Way by the historic sandstone pier of Mountcharles. This area's rich stone heritage is ever evident, from the walls that line the coastline to the huge local sandstone blocks that form the beautiful Mountcharles Pier, from where the stone from the local quarries was shipped off to build many grand halls and churches around the country and abroad.
Mountcharles Pier
The task for the dry stone walling project was to rebuild a large section of wall that was washed away during a massive storm which left stones scattered over a large area of land it had once protected.

The footprint of the original wall
A pep talk by Rónán Crehan gets the building under way
Scottish Master Craftsman Nick Aitken keeping an eye over the footings  
A dry stone waller in the making
Stonemason Michael Mc Groarty splits and shapes stone to create gate posts
Stones plunged and feathered 
Placing the gate posts
Master Craftsman Sean Adcock from the North Wales branch of DSWA UK keeps local man Donagh O Callaghan and Canadian Jacob Murray on their toes  
The wall builders of day one

Nick Aitken and DSWAI treasurer Louise Price set copping stones 
An old Irish penny from 1941 found in the wall
There is an age old tradition of putting a time capsule in a wall as you build. This is often in the form of a bottle or a coin. I found this old penny from 1941 in between the stones of the original wall footings. I too regularly throw a few coins into a wall (the amount depending on how plush I am feeling at the time) I made sure to throw a few euros into this wall as well for some other mason to find down the line in another 100 years or so.
Rónán Crehan posing in 'stile'
Built using stone from the original wall and recycled stone from a old cottage, all of the stone used is the local sandstone. Over the course of two days over 45 yards of wall was built by a team of about 40 participants per day.  
The finished wall

Stone Carving and Letter cutting Workshop with Brendan McGloin
Located just 500 meters from Mountcharles pier is the lovely Salthill Gardens, the courtyard of which was the location of our stone carving workshops. As you walk towards the gardens from the pier, the soft tapping sounds of hammer on chisel can be heard coming over the high stone walls of the gardens that protect the lush and delicate garden inside from the harsh salty sea air.
Carving at Salthill Gardens
Up to 12 students per day got to try their hand at letter cutting and stone carving

 Kieran Keeney sharpening chisels
Landscape architect Dave Ryan feels at home, surrounded by plants and stone as he carves

The carving workshops were run by sculptor Brendan Mc Gloin who has been working with stone for over 25 years. His legacy to date includes an incredible full scale replica of the high cross of the scriptures at Clonmacnoise. The cross took almost three years to complete and is an incredible site to behold. The finished cross now sits on the summit of Mt Calvary, Portland Oregon, USA. Brendan also gave a fascinating talk and media presentation over the weekend that gave a wonderful insight into the enormity of the project. Click here to see a short 6min film about this work.    
Brendan and his recreation of the cross (Image copyright of Brendan Mc Gloin)
Nick and Louise look in wonder at Brendan McGloin's model of the Clonmacnoise High Cross of which Brendan carved a stunning full scale replica over a 3 year period. 
One of Brendan's carvings on display at Salthill Gardens

A trip to the mines
One of the highlights of the festival was a tour of the sandstone mines of Drumkeelan just a mile northwest of Mountcharles. 

The entrance to the mine
Rónán giving a description on the surface quarry.
Arriving at the quarry entrance
We are met at the entrance of the mine by local historian Eamonn Monaghan, who also gave a fascinating talk at the festival the day before about the history of the stone industry in the area.
Around 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous period Donegal Bay was much larger than in the present day.  It stretched from Killybegs in the west, through Lough Eske in the centre, to Laghy in the east. The Carboniferous rivers were eroding the same hills as we see today (although these would have been much higher and less rounded) carrying sediment into the bay to form the sandstones which occur around Drumkeelan and upon which the stonemasonry industry in the area is based.
In the townland of Drumkeelan, northwest of Mountcharles, is a rock outcrop known as Drumkeelan mine. This site has a very long history of stone mining, back to at least the late 12th century. It provided high quality stone suitable for monumental work and masonry. Some important public buildings, such as the National Museum of Ireland, the National Library, Leinster House (the Dail) and Sligo Town Hall used Drumkeelan stone in their construction. The mine was active up till the 1950's

The effort put into the tour was outstanding. The entire mine shaft was lit up using candles and lamps, just like it would have been during the times it was in use.

One of the original miners oil lamps
Peter, Deirdre and family explore the mines
Sandstone is much softer when it is first taken out of the ground, as it is exposed to the elements the silts wash out of it and it becomes much harder to work. For this reason it was more economical to mine the stone rather than opencast it.
In the mine a weak layer of silt material above the sandstone was removed first making a small space, allowing blocks of stone to be wedged up from their beds and removed. They would then be moved through the mines shaft with the aid of rollers and bars.  As the stone was extracted,  the roof would be supported mainly by a pack of waste stone stacked to the sides like dense dry stone walls. The Abbey Assaroe was built in 1180, so it is known that quarrying started around this time. A carved sandstone lamp found in the mine suggests mining could have already started in the middle ages. Locally the stone was used to build the Killybegs Coastguard Station, the Provincial Bank in Ballyshannon, the Town Hall in Sligo and St Eunan and St Columba Cathedral in Letterkenny
Arriving at a larger chamber, Eamonn stops to sing us a song he wrote about the mine to commemorate the miners who worked there. Click on the video below to hear his song.
For those of you who want to sing along here are the words.

'The Ballad of the Drumkeelan Mines' by local historian Eamonn Monaghan which commemorates the miners:

Deep underneath Drumkeelan, there in the freestone mines each day,
With miners' lamps to light us, we work the hours away,
We punch the holes along the line, in each we place a wedge,
And when they're right & ready, we give each one the sledge,
So swing the hammers high and swing the hammers low,
We must get these blocks out, today before we go,
The stone cutters are all waiting, for these are busy times,
In the Valley of Drumkeelan, where we're working in the Mines.

The stone it is above us, the stone is all around,
Our block is on the rollers, our crowbars on the ground,
We lever it so slowly, along the smooth mine floor,
And when we have it outside, sure we must go back for more,

There's a big Cathedral rising in Letterkenny Town,
They need stone for schools & halls, from here to Co. Down,
For Halls in Derry City and Sligo banks as well,
Sure, we cannot mine it fast enough, the truth to you I'll tell,

Mulreany comes from Drumnalost, here to his work each day,
The Brogans & the Harkins from Drumconnor make their way,
The Hegartys & Harveys & the Bogles come along,
With Wards from Drumagearah they make a jolly throng,

They walk it every morning, from miles & miles around,
To share their skills & ancient crafts and toil beneath the ground,
Like the monks of good St Bernard in far off distant times,
Who worked & prayed for God & Man within these very Mines,

Hearing this song sung deep in the mines was quite special. Encouraged by our applause, Eamonn went on to recite a poem he also wrote about the mines (see video below) 
When researching the mines, Eamonn wanted to get a real sense what it would have been like in there for the workers. He once spent a full week in the mines sleeping on the mine floor absorbing the complete stillness within the shafts. 
The great thing about this mine is that unlike limestone caves and mines, it is not exposed to the same kind of erosion. There are no stalactites to obscure the views. These sandstone mines are completely sterile and are exactly the same as they were in the 1950’s. Down here, I am reminded of my trip to the salt mines in Poland (read about that trip here)
Returning to the surface, evidence can be seen of how modern quarrying is destroying the mines. In the picture below, old mine shafts are hidden behind the heaps of rubble. The rock that would have been the mine roof is broken down into smaller building stone mainly used for building walls and cladding houses. (a 20 ton truck load of this stone was also donated to The Gathering of Stones project as you might remember) 
Today there is only two of the mine shafts remaining. There is talk of preserving the last two so that the history of these mines will live on and that more people will be able to come and experience these wonderful tours. Let us hope the powers that be step up and help preserve this unique piece of our heritage before it is too late. One ponders on what a wonderful unique tourist attraction this could make!    
Rónán and Jacob modelling the festival Tshirts. You can order your festival Tshirt through the DSWAI website here  

And so with the end of the tour, so too came an end to our festival. And with one last step through the 'stile' I said my farewells to Donegal and its fine people, hoping to return again soon. Now in the knowledge that I am only a comfortable 3 hour drive away I am sure I will be back a lot sooner than the next Tirconnell Stone Festival. 

From left DSWAI Chairman Sunny Wieler, festival organiser Louise Price, Canadian Jacob Murray and festival organiser Rónán Crehan  

Finnaly I would like to say a big thanks to everyone involved in making this event happen. From the quarry men to the admin people, to the tea lady and stone gatherers and of course the different organisations and local councillors who helped make it happen. 
Here in Donegal I felt a great sense of pride of county and of its stone heritage that I have not experienced to the same level in other counties. This festival is a credit to the craft and the people of Donegal. Let the dry stone revolution continue.....  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

StoneFest 2014 and the Irish connection

Best Blogger Tips
So after a number of years of procrastination and dreaming about going to StoneFest, this year I finally made it over to Seattle to attend the event. Procrastination was of course not the only factor in making the 14,623 km round trip to the event, finances and situation also played a big factor. If it were not for Alexandra and Scott of StoneFest and the work they are doing with the 'OnTrack' scholarship, dreams and procrastination would still be my only memories of StoneFest.

About StoneFest

StoneFest came to be after Scott Hackney (partner of Marenakos Rock Center), Alexandra Morosco (sculptor, and Trow & Holden Field Representative at the time) and Randy Potter (Trow and Holden Tool Co.) had a short tool demo day at Marenakos. It was such a great experience they visualized, bringing together carvers and masons and working together for several days. As director, Morosco planned a four day event in 2004 through the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association which was a total success! Sculptors were exposed to the vibrant stone mason, Bobby Watt and learned about function, gravity and basic building principles. Masons got to blow off all their corners and make a square stone round or curvy. They had so much fun, It was clear this needed to happen again.

Marenakos Rock Center adopted the role of sponsoring this most extraordinary event in the Pacific Northwest and called it StoneFest. StoneFest is now the annual gathering for those who LOVE STONE. This educational event offers something that is a unique experience for the stonemason, the carver, architect, landscape designer, or simply those who want to further their connection with stone.

The story of this years StoneFest however, starts much closer to home at a stone festival far more familiar to me, Feile na gCloch on Inis Oirr. I have written about it many times, and it is a place special to many of us here in the stone world in Ireland. It has also become precious to Scott and Alexandra who have been coming to Inis Oirr for the past few years and will be back again this year.
Inspired by their recent experiences in Ireland as well as the large number of Irish and Scots attending, Scott and Alexandra went with a very strong Irish theme for StoneFest 2014.

Renowned Irish stonemason / author Patrick McAfee is a regular instructor at StoneFest and has brought a regular Irish influence into the projects at StoneFest (note the Clochán in the photo at the top of this post that they built during the 2010 StoneFest)
For this years festival Patrick designed two very special Irish inspired structures.

The Early Irish Christian Church 

This replica of an Early Irish Christian Church was built using local granite rubble and earth mortar and is only slightly smaller than the similar ones found in Ireland.
Tomas Lipps cuts quoins for the church as building continues in the background
Stone busting under the watchful eyes of instructors Pat McAfee and Bobby Watt 
The church site-a hive of activity.
The church rises out of the ground.
Stonework nearing completion. 
Pat McAfee having a well earned drink upon completion of the stonework. 
Stonework complete and ready for its timber roof. 
The dry stone 'Krak'

Newtown Castle
The dry stone project was inspired by the unique Newtown castle in Co. Clare (Unique because unlike most other tower houses in Ireland, Newtown Castle is round but rises from a square pyramidal base).
Inspired by this Pat designed a scaled down version of a 13th century defensive structure known as a 'Krak'.
This type of defensive structure has the same type of complex shapes as Newtown Castle, with round turrets emerging from the steep sloping defensive walls. The turrets were used to provide a projecting defensive position for archers, allowing covering fire to the adjacent wall. The steep slope (or batter) of the wall prevents attackers hiding at the base of the wall but also allowed people inside the fort to throw rocks and other projectiles down that would bounce off the sloping wall and into the faces of the attackers. (as demonstrated by Nick and myself below)
Defending the keep with arrow and stone.
The Krak was built last week under the instruction of Nick Aitken, with the help of Ken Curran, Sunny Wieler, Eric Landman, Russ Beardsley, and Alan Ash to name but a few. 
This scaled down Krak is a complex looking structure, but when broken down into individual elements it was essentially an L shaped wall (plum on one side, 1: 2 batter on the other) with round pillars on the corners.
Building of the Krak begins
The part that had everyone stumped for a while was the quoin stones, and how to get the cylindrical shape to emerge from the pyramidal shape wall. After much head scratching they managed to carve the cylindrical shape into the unforgiving Pennsylvania blue stone. This stone only wants to break perpendicular to the grain so trying to achieve  a 1:2 batter into a 6" bed took up a lot of time.
Some much needed shade in an unusually sunny week in Seattle 
 Fortunately the guys at Marenakos guillotined the limestone blocks into pie shapes for the turrets and so sped up the process and got everyone back on track.
The turrets begin to rise
Ken Curran breaking stones
Alan Ash enjoying some stone pies
Ken and Russ's lovely round caps are placed under the watchful eye of Nick 
The builders had hoped to go higher with the towers but the lack of time and stone gave everyone an excuse to come back. All said and done, it did make for an attractive structure. It was also great for wallers from Ireland, America, Canada and Scotland to come together to play with stones.
Fortress completed

Ken Curran and Rory Noone enjoy some fortification inside the Krak
Sunny propping up the outer turret 
King of the castle. Scott Hackney enjoys the new addition to the stone village at Marenakos yard

Under the instruction of some of the finest stone carvers and letter cutters around (including Nicholas Fairplay, Keith Phillips, Karin Sprague, Tracy Mahaffey and Richard Rhodes)
The theme for this years workshops was Milestones.

 Most commonly, Milestones are known as a stone by the side of a road that shows the distance in miles to a specified place. Metaphorically, they have also become known as an important point in the progress or development of something, a very important event or advance. Students were given the opportunity to explore all the venues of StoneFest: Build a milestone into a wall, carve one for a personal achievement or celebration in ones life and bring it home.
Karin Sprague surrounded by eager students.
Learning from each other. President of the Northwest Stone Sculptors Association Carl Nelson takes some pointers from instructor Tracy Mahaffey
Randy Potter in the Trow and Holden tool shop
Rory Noone
Instructor Nicholas Fairplay giving some guidance
Neil Rippingale of The Dry Stone Conservancy getting a taste for letter carving
One of the things I love about events like this is seeing people getting their first taste of stone and instantly becoming hooked. Whether its someone like Neil above who has decades of experience working with dry stone, who has only now discovered his passion and talent for letter carving, or someone like Daniel Poisson (below) who before StoneFest had never touched chisel and stone before.
Daniel Poisson and his first ever stone carving
Daniel Poisson is a graphic artist but this was his first ever carving. I am also delighted to hear that not only has he sold his first stone sculpture, he has already begun work on his first commissioned piece. You can read about Daniel's experience at StoneFest on his blog here
It is a wonderful feeling making that first connection with stone and thinking 'HELL YAAA' and being hooked evermore. 

Mike Schroeder works with a group using Portland cement based masonry
This is one of the things I love about StoneFest, it is a convergence of all the disciplines of stone. There is no cliquey groups here, no hierarchy or prejudice, just people brought together in a collective celebration of all things STONE.

     Another highlight of the week was the big StoneFest Feast on the Thursday. The spectacle put on by the hosts in honour of the Celtic themed festival was nothing short of jaw dropping, with a night filled with festivity, music, food and a few pints!
The opening of the StoneFest Feast (Photo Tomas Lipps of The Stone Foundation)
  It is important to note that the StoneFest Feast was also a fundraiser for the wonderful 'OnTrack' Scholarship which made it possible for people like myself, Ken Curran and Rory Noone to attend. You can read more about this Scholarship program here as well as information about becoming a sponsor of this wonderful program. 
The Lords of StoneFest Scott Hackney (in the white blazer) and to his right Alexandra Morosco (Photo Tomas Lipps of The Stone Foundation)
And so ended StoneFest 2014. With a heavy heart I packed my bags and started the long trek back home. Arriving back home in Ireland I felt jet-lagged but yet strangely invigorated at the same time. Convergences like this are important, I feel, the energy and enthusiasm here is infectious. Just as important is the exchange of stories, knowledge, and the lessons learned with people in the same industry, which is hugely beneficial. 
I cannot thank Alexandra and Scott enough for what they are doing on both a personal and professional level. It was so wonderful to see people connect with stone and indeed explore stone in new ways.
To my knowledge there is nothing else like Stonefest that brings together all the disciplines of stone and celebrates them equally together. There is a great scene of passion and inclusiveness here that was evident in all the smiling faces I saw there all week.  
I must admit that the past few months leading up to Stonefest I had been doubting my future with stone due to the sheer lack of opportunities here in Ireland. But as I had hoped it would, spending some time with like- minded people during and around StoneFest has given me the inspiration and focus to carry on.