THE WALDEMAR WOWER BURSARY AWARDEES 2022 Recipients Theo Burke and Jen Corrgian share their stories
Culture, clochaireacht and craft beer with Dry Stone Canada
Words and photos by Theo Burke
I was lucky enough to receive the Waldemar Wower (WW) bursary this year - an exchange with Dry Stone Canada (DSC), where a waller from here and one from there swap countries for two weeks. Waldemar was one of the founders of DSWAI and forged a lot of links with the community in Canada. He was sadly lost to cancer in 2018 before he was able to visit. The bursary was named in his memory in 2021. Jen Corrigan came to Ireland and worked with several Irish masons, while I travelled to Ontario, Canada to do the same, before attending the DSC Symposium on Amherst Island, Lake Ontario.
Like most wallers, I am self-employed and rarely (never!) get the time to work with others in the trade. The bursary was a unique chance to spend time on other people’s job sites and learn.
After marvelling at the enormous forests and arrow-straight roads of Newfoundland and Quebec from the plane window, I landed in Toronto to be picked up by Renée Nadeau, Co-President of DSC. Along with booking me accommodation in Guelph, Renée had lined up four masons for me to work with over nine days all around the Greater Toronto Area.
Sean Donnelly picked me up from the rental house on the Tuesday morning to help him build a fieldstone wall around a large domestic propane tank. Sinking the Stihl saw deep into a lump on a big foundation garbhóg, I thought ‘Huh, Sean must have a good blade on, it cuts like butter!’.
I will explain here that my only material for the last two years’ walling has been hard, awkward, angular, sharp silurian greywacke and its relations. I live in the middle of what my geologist sister would call the Longford-Southern Uplands terrane, and have to travel far to find any other stone. I have built paths in the Mourne Mountains with granite, which is even harder.
What the blade had landed in was, of course, just a soft sandstone. Picking up the chisel, I then spent the day cutting far more than was necessary, just for the joy of working with a stone that did what it was asked to (mostly!). Another joy was of course the wildlife - black squirrels, blue jays, vultures, woodpeckers and mobs of wild turkey!
On the way home, we visited a DSC sculpture park in Alton which included a moongate, fountain, tower (Alton Towers? Of course, none of the locals got that one), and some sedum-topped wedged walls by our own Ken Curran. Sean Donnelly’s ‘Stone Wave’ was also there, which really blew me away.
That evening, my next host, Doug Bell, took me to see downtown Guelph’s old sandstone buildings. From the veranda of a local restaurant, I saw my first and only skunk, foraging across the road.
On Wednesday we drove to Doug’s site to build a retaining wall in a private garden. There I met a racoon and a chipmunk. More nice sedimentary stones here, with the odd bit of hard glassy limestone from further north. That evening we went to watch a ‘beer league’ ice hockey match where Doug’s team were unfortunately defeated by the visitors.
Doug took me to André Lemieux’s job the next day - an enormous project for a high-profile Canadian. I am not free to disclose details, but suffice to say that it’s a private estate with some very large, creative, stone installations. What I learned there was that
it was time to buy some real chisels! I had been bluffing my way until then with cheap concrete breakers, brick bolsters and cold chisels. We were cutting semi circular copes with carbide-tipped pitchers and points, and I bought myself one of each from McConnell’s of Kilkeel within a week of coming home! Spending over £100 on a 6” piece of steel doesn’t feel right, but I can vouch that it is most definitely worth it!
I stayed at Eric Landman’s 600 goat dairy farm that weekend. It isn’t far from Dundalk - not where I went to school, but another one! I was amused to find that Dundalk, Canada is the butt of many jokes in the surrounding area. C’mon the town!
We saw several of Eric’s projects in the area - the Hebridean ‘blackhouse’ at his own property (which featured Pat McAfee and some other Irish wallers), a blackhouse for a private client, a long, winding sedum-topped wall and some more wedged walling from Ken, who this time had had Sunny Wieler with him!
Monday was a long drive east to Brockville. On the way I saw an amazing butterfly wall in a hospital garden by Eric, and his now-famous dry stone tree, in memory of his late wife. We stopped to meet John Shaw-Rimington (JSR) in Port Hope and saw his ‘boat house’ and a very fine pitched driveway.
I spent the week in Brockville building granite retaining walls on a steep granite slope down to the St. Lawrence river. As wide as Carlingford Lough, the St. Lawrence forms the border with the U.S.A. and connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean - so several ocean liners would pass each day. I did swim, but only on the Canadian side. I have watched enough daytime television not to get in trouble with the U.S. Border Patrol!
Eric and I then travelled to Amherst Island for the DSC Symposium which ran over a long weekend. Up to 40 wallers stripped out and rebuilt a long boundary wall. This was similar limestone to that found on the Aran Islands. Amherst sits in Lake Ontario and was settled by people from the Ards peninsula in the mid-19th century. My wife is from the Ards, and I was pleased to see some imported Scrabo sandstone set into a feidín wall at a previous DSC festival site there. On the Saturday we viewed the sun-gate constructed by Ken and Sunny (Leaving their mark again!). The sun shone through the high wall and illuminated a carved Claddagh ring further down the field.
An important take-home lesson from the trip was seeing how each of my hosts operated. Being relatively new to the trade and self-employment, I often wonder if I should be buying machinery, buying a bigger van, hiring people or towing my own sand and stone, and I learned that there is no right way. One of my hosts ran everything from an old people-carrier and would allow clients to help on the job to bring their costs down, while others had their own plant machinery and much bigger trucks.
The WW bursary award gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn from some very talented craftspeople, and to appreciate the community aspect of dry stone walling. Having moved back to Ireland and joined DSWAI mid-pandemic, I had not yet had the chance to meet any of our wallers. The constant chorus of ‘oh, do you know Ken/Sunny/Phaid/Louise/Dom?’ has inspired me to take a more active role in the stonework community in Ireland. I look forward to working with you all.
Féile na gCloch 2022 musings
Words and photos by JEN CORRIGAN
The first surprise came with the news I was chosen as the Canadian Waldemar Wower Bursary award recipient. Time to start planning for a trip to a place I've never been, to work with people I've never met, to build something extraordinary with the encouragement and support from Dry Stone Canada and the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland. 5000 km and one stop-over later, I arrived in Dublin and made my way to Belfast to my intrepid tour guide and host John Lyness. For my first two days in Ireland, we explored the neolithic Giant's Ring, and two 12th century Norman built castles, Carrick Fergus and Dundrum. Our next stop was the Mourne Wall - a granite dry stone wall that took stonemasons 18 years to build, passing over 15 of the highest Mourne Mountains, an incredible sight. Lastly, the 5th century Nendrum Monastic site on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough - the site has 3 concentric enclosures of dry stone walling, an early medieval vertical sundial, a ruined church, a graveyard and the oldest excavated tide mill in the world. We were tripping over fascinating history and awe-inspiring beauty everywhere!
Soon my tour in Belfast was over, time to trek to Inis Oirr (Inisheer) through all the Garth Brooks fans jamming up transit. From the Irish Customs Agent at the airport, to the Americans I met on the train, to the Irish woman I met on the street in Dublin, to the bed and breakfast host in Galway City, nobody had heard of the Féile na gCloch (Festival of Stone) on Inis Oirr, but all were equally intrigued. And why shouldn't they be? Like-minded people from Austria, America, Australia, Canada, England, South Korea, Scotland and Ireland came together on this tiny Atlantic Ocean island to celebrate all manner of stone.
Sunken church Inis Oirr You don't have to look far to find stone in Ireland, and it's even more apparent on Inis Oirr. The island is criss-crossed with the ancient building tradition of dry stone walls to provide shelter and pens for cows and horses, to create mini ecosystems, topsoil building and protection for food production, to denote property lines, and at least to me, and I'd hazard a guess that everyone else that came out to the festival, sheer joy to the eye. The ground is made up of dramatically exposed limestone karst that has been eroded over time, the half-buried church is built from it, the headstones are carved from it, the beaches are partially covered with it and massive stone boulders are washed up on the shore. Although, there's more to Inis Oirr than just stone, the Irish speaking inhabitants of the island are friendly, the few pubs are lively, the crows with their strange voices are abundant, the midges too when the wind died down. There was even a late night sighting of a silhouetted fox, one that I was warned about through the Scot, Steven Rowe, translating for the Cork character, Jim Fahy.
The clochán (beehive hut) build brought an enthusiastic community of dry stone wallers together, led by the welcoming and ever-beaming Rónán Crehan, to create something meaningful and everlasting, a place to connect and reflect with one's self or a couple of friends, away from the distractions of modern life. The stone festival brought further dry stone wallers that came to share their love of the craft, their knowledge of an ancient tradition, to teach others how to build the deeply satisfying and beautiful, utilitarian art form of a dry stone wall. It brought the skills and creativity of stone carvers, sculptors, and letter cutters to adorn and inspire, to mark time, to teach their craft, and memorialize their contributions to this special place. It brought artists that recorded the island with their pencils, paint and cameras; stonemasons that had a keen interest in the ins and outs of hot lime mortar mixing; and talented musicians to entertain and commemorate the clochán and festival.
The last surprise came when I was taken into the fold by everyone around me, witness to their camaraderie through walling, Guinness and song, salt of the earth kind of people, the kind you don't ever forget. Slán go fóill, tabhair aire.