American tourists park their hired cars in the strangest of places and focus their cameras on the fields, wondering aloud where all the stones that make up the walls came from. And they also muse on how much time it must have taken the farmers of past centuries to painstakingly put them all together.
You think of screen icons like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, and films such as The Quiet Man that portray a picture postcard image of an Ireland that has largely disappeared. Stonewalling has a totally different meaning in today’s scandal-ridden Ireland! But, in substantial part, the dry stone walls have survived the ravages of ‘development’ and mechanised farming practices, especially in the Aran Islands.
In counties Clare and Galway, you’ll see textbook examples of modern bungalows, sometimes incongruously painted pink or purple, built in stone-walled fields. But at least the owners had the sense of place to leave the old walls intact.
We still have a landscape of outstanding cultural and heritage value, in spite of the fact that the conservation emphasis has, in recent years, been on the buildings, towns and cities.
One of our richest heritage landscapes is to be found on the Aran Islands which boast a stone wall field boundary system entirely created by humans. It’s a landscape that offers a remarkable link with the past, stretching back thousands of years to early Celtic times right up to famine times and evictions.
It’s also a landscape that has inspired writers and poets, including Liam O’Flaherty, Tim Robinson and Máirtín O Direáin, but it will survive only if it continues to be farmed.
If farming ever ceases on the islands, then the land will almost certainly become a wilderness, with the fields, pathways and the stone walls becoming overgrown and the lay-out no longer visible.
A new book by Mary Laheen explores this landscape, setting out its history and place in today’s world. Like many others, she is also in awe of the Aran islanders’ ability to create soil from rock, though they were not the only people to do so.
Agriculture, however, is becoming less and less important to our economy and old ways of working the land.
Ms Laheen, who teaches architectural design in UCD, poses an apt question: “What will become of the cultural landscapes of Ireland if the activity that created and supported them – traditional agriculture – is no longer practised?”
What has been happening in the past 30 to 40 years does not give much hope. Many of the agriculture landscapes have been destroyed to make away for houses, roads and huge expansion of towns and cities. More discouraging is the fact that people often feel powerless to do anything to stop this wanton destruction.
The Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) is important for conservation, recognising the role of farmers as guardians of the landscape and encouraging activities that protect habitat and wildlife. Most Aran landowners are in REPS. “REPS has a particular role in areas such as Aran where conservation of the natural environment and of the heritage of traditional farming has outstripped the importance of agriculture,” writes Ms Laheen.
While it is a stopgap conservation measure, the scheme has, luckily enough, been in place at a time when many of the stone walls could have been removed. Worryingly, however, the closing of entry to the new REPS means there is no guarantee the scheme will continue into the future.
The Aran Islands retain the ancient land division system that was part of Celtic society. Even in a European context, it is import to conserve such landscapes because they reflect a world that has been lost in many other places, Ms Laheen stresses.
In her highly valuable study, she warns that the stone wall field system will disappear without traditional farming and a community to support it. It could also end up as a museum landscape without a living community.
She concludes: “The task is not simply to conserve the landscape, but to find new ways of living in and caring for the land, not only learning from the traditional and sustainable practices of the past but also embracing the knowledge gleaned from the now accessible wider world experiencing similar dilemmas.”
* Drystone Walls of the Aran Islands: exploring the cultural landscape, by Mary Laheen, Collins Press. €19.99.