A woman in a male-dominated profession, Julia Gebel, stone cutter, is literally at the cutting edge.
Her cast-iron credentials in stone conservation work have taken her from Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel to, most recently, a prime piece of architectural heritage in the form of St Patrick’s Bridge in Cork city centre.
“I’m looking at the bridge differently now. I’m proud to have been involved. We spent so much time on it, there was so much detail to tend to. I had to work according to the tides and being from the continent, I was a total newbie to tidal science,” says Julia.
While Cumnor Construction cleaned and re-pointed the bridge, Gebel and Helling Conservation repaired faulty stonework using two different approaches.
Where there was a fault in a stone, the fault was cut out and new stone inserted.
“The indents had to fit by the millimetre so it was very accurate work. There were nearly 200 of those,” says Julia.
Another 400 stones required mortar repairs.
“Where material was missing, we replaced it with repair mortar to reinstate the aesthetics of the bridge.”
While Julia did most of her work on the bridge — Cumnor Construction facilitated her with a pontoon and scaffolding for riverside work —the pre-cut work to fill indents was done at the company workshop in Kilumney, Ovens, Co Cork.
There were days when they had to work roadside because the tide was too high and days when even high tide was too low to reach a part of the bridge, riverside. Julia is by now well-acquainted with the Port of Cork website link to weather and tides.
Julia and her co-workers also recut and repainted the lettering on the panels on the piers of the bridge. They completed their work just this week.
As part of the overall works, the bridge’s footpaths and carriageway surfacing were replaced and new road markings put in place.
Existing traffic lights, elevation and architectural lighting, and directional signage were also upgraded, while four of the bridge’s lamp columns were sent to Italy for specialist repair and restoration.
Julia, a German living in Tipperary, was drawn to the trade through an interest in historic buildings, and has an impressive CV, with, inter alia, qualifications in stonecutting and sculpture, some acquired in Ireland.
Conservation work is her main focus.
“It’s where the traditional trade gets its best expression,” she says.
She would like to see more women in the job.
It’s very physically demanding, but so is nursing. It can also be quite tricky at times, but the possibilities are enormous.
There is such a gender imbalance in the construction industry, we could definitely do with more women. They bring a different dynamic and can be more communicative and inclusive.
“It’s a very competitive environment. It could be softened a bit.
“Other industries have gone through this development and construction seems to be the last outpost where it hasn’t happened yet. But it is happening,” she says.
“It will be beneficial. It’s never beneficial when something is too one-sided.”
St Patrick’s Bridge officially reopens tomorrow under the weight of 158 chosen “Paddies” — the result of a Cork City Council shout-out to anyone with a name derived from that of our patron saint.
The 158 chosen — one for each year in the life of the bridge — will line up for a commemorative picture at 12.45pm.
At 2pm, the trowel used to lay the original foundation will also lay the last piece of stonework.
Lord Mayor Mick Finn and senior management from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, who funded the project in conjunction with Cork City Council, will be in attendance.
Julia herself will not.
“I was thinking about it, but I think it’s time for a Mammy’s Day out.
“At this stage my children, aged seven and three, know the project intimately and I don’t think they are interested in attending the ceremony.”