How this Galway farmer is keeping the tradition of stone shoring alive

Spadework: John Connelly dug the 500-yard ‘shore’ himself on his land in Co Galway
Spadework: John Connelly dug the 500-yard ‘shore’ himself on his land in Co Galway
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

The first time John Connelly saw a stone shore (ditch) being put into his family farm in Co Galway was September 1971.

He remembers it vividly, although he acknowledges that it's a long-forgotten skill in many parts of the country now.

In the 1950s there was a land project office set up in Tuam and it was all about draining.

"In January 1955, my father got a small grant to dig the stone shores and drain the land. The pipes were not used until the late '60s in this area," John says.

The ditch is 2.5ft deep and 14-16ins wide
The ditch is 2.5ft deep and 14-16ins wide

The tradition of stone shoring, he says, has continued in the area. John and his wife Patricia farm 60 acres with sheep - Texel, Suffolk and Charollais.

They had been milking cows until 2005. The land is a mixture of highland and lowland, John says, and it's the latter that has to be drained or shored, as he calls it.

He recently took to rebuilding a stone shore in a field, a job that took some time as he did it all himself with no mechanical help this time.

"In recent years the field was bubbling water as the stone shore in it, which was dug in September 1971, was beginning to fill up, so I decided to put in another shore," he explains.

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"The water is coming from a spring in the field. We stopped using the spring well when we got piped water in 1962. The other shore was dug out by a local drains contractor called Johnny Collins.

"It was a long shore, and we were doing other bits of shoring. But, over the last five or six years it was not able to take the water and the water would bubble up through the land.

The ditch is 2.5ft deep and 14-16ins wide
The ditch is 2.5ft deep and 14-16ins wide

"The contractor had machinery to do the work but I did it with a shovel and spade myself this time."

To dig a shore, John says, you must first mark out the shore with a line; he used a spade.

"Then I dig out a scraw about 4-5ins thick and around 1.5ft long and 15ins.

"Then you dig down the depth of the shore, about 2.5ft, and the width of the shore is about 14-16ins."

"You have to have stones nearby and you put down a stone each side and you cross it with a flagstone."

Ideally, each stone is about 8ins high and 5ins wide.

"Then on top of the flag, you put down smaller stones," John continues. "Then, the top scraw, with the grassy top, goes back over the stones."

In this field, there are a couple of shores, about 12 yards apart, but opening one up to redo it wasn't an option.

"This time I decided not to pick up an old stone shore; I decided to dig a new one. It's 400-500 yards long."

John drew in the stones last autumn and worked on 15-20 yards of the shore every day.

"When I got the stones down and top scraw down, I did the next stage with a spade and shovel," he says.

"I Did it all myself. I drew the stones, 10 transport boxes of stones last autumn. Dug it with a spade and shovel and as I got closer to the well, I had to use the pick axe, there was solid ground."

His neighbour, Seamus Dooley, captured the pictures of the work.

If you asked Susan O'Sullivan eight years ago how to make sourdough bread, pesto and chutney, she probably would have laughed.

"I hadn't a clue starting out," she said of her inexperience in the early days of even serving coffee and scones to customers from the corner of her husband Donal's safety equipment shop on the Long Mile Road.

"Back in 2013 Donal got an idea of setting up a small café in the corner of his shop in a bid to drum up business," Susan said.

"We had to do something - we had five children to look after - so I started making scones at home and got advice on how to serve proper coffee. It just took off from there and soon we were serving lunch."

Six years on and she had learnt a lot. Together with her top team in the kitchen, ideas for new dishes now come naturally, as does her attention to detail which was deservedly recognised in January when The Farmhouse Café won the coveted John and Sally McKenna Guide 'Café of the Year'.

It's not the most obvious spot for a farmhouse café, and there's nothing 'country' about the area, but as one of the busiest routes in and out of Dublin, the Long Mile Road has proven to be an absolute goldmine of a location to serve up the best of meat, herbs and vegetables from their organic farm outside Enfield.

From those small beginnings with just six tables and no staff, the café now employs 14 people and serves up to 200 customers a day, with several high-profile businesses in the area, including Glanbia, also availing of their corporate service, especially at breakfast time.

Spring lamb, slow-cooked gammon and a delicious beef pot are just some of the many healthy dishes on the menu.

Originally from Clontarf in Dublin, Susan is not your typical farmer. In fact her very first experience of living in the country only came when they moved to Enfield in 2003. "We wanted to move out of the city but I had no idea about living in the country."

Donal, on the other hand, came from a farming family in Kerry, so had some experience when they purchased their first sheep.

Susan was later gifted some piglets, and a few pet ducks arrived soon after.

From there they expanded to rearing cattle, and now the majority of the meat served at the café comes from the farm.

"We only keep a small number of cattle as we don't have the space but we have enough for what we want. The Highland produces delicious meat and this forms a beef pot that we serve."

They also keep some Belted Galloway and Dexter, although their numbers of Dexter have reduced in recent years.

"They produce lovely meat too, but we found them rather difficult to farm, so only have one at the moment."

They also keep a small flock of sheep to provide spring lamb, and are currently in the process of redeveloping their facilities to keep some new rare breed pigs. They have kept Gloucester Old Spot in the past.

Bees and herbs

In addition Donal has recently started keeping bees, with a view to producing their own honey to sell.

Above all, Susan is hugely proud of her herb and vegetable garden that grew from just a few leaves all those years ago. "I really had no experience of growing vegetables but I read a lot of books."

Initially starting out with rocket and other salad leaves, the walled garden now includes dozens of varieties including beetroot, kale and garlic.

"We want to serve fresh food using fresh ingredients so I grow as much here as I can. Plus we have more control over flavours when we are growing our own," she said.

"We serve what is in season, and if not we will source it elsewhere. We don't grow our own carrots, for example, as we don't use much in the café and they are so plentiful in the shops."

Susan's motto is to serve healthy food, although some old favourites still feature on the menu.

"We've tried to steer people away from the 'full Irish' by offering alternatives but it didn't really work. It's hard to change the Irish mindset but we have plenty of customers who love the likes of our cheesy spinach on sourdough."

The cafe is open from 8am each morning and by 9am the café is usually bustling with both regular and passing trade. "It's a busy spot, especially at lunchtime, and it's full-on until the time we close at 3.30pm."

"We may not be the trendiest place in town but we cook everything from scratch and ensure the best of fresh food every time."

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