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Saturday 16 December 2017

Stone masters - how traditional stone building is being revived

Traditional stone building skills are being revived at a new craft academy in Tipperary

Stonemason Seamus Feehan from Roscrea is one of the tutors on the course
Stonemason Seamus Feehan from Roscrea is one of the tutors on the course
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

One of the oldest thoroughfares in Ireland is the 'Slí Dála.' Translated as 'the way of the meeting' or 'the way to the meeting' the road formed the ancient route linking Munster to Tara.

Nowhere is it more remembered and honoured than in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. It has passed through the town, the second oldest in Ireland, since the dawn of civilisation and locals are proud of it as a key feature of their locality.

Indeed the development of a ring-road in the 80s and the opening of the M7 motorway in the 2000s was much lamented by some who were saddened to see that, for the first time in more than 1,000 years, Roscrea would no longer be on the main road linking Munster to the seats of power in the north and east.

As the Slí Dála meanders through Roscrea, it passes some of the finest examples of early stonework in the country. The beautiful carved arch and the round tower at the 12th Century St Cronan's Church have seen travellers pass this way for almost a millennium. While generations of visitors move on, the crafted stones remain, examples of one of the oldest skills practiced by mankind.

In recent years the stone cutting trade has been in decline with many of its associated skills and techniques in danger of being lost. David Kinsella, a rural entrepreneur based in Roscrea, and an innovator in the stone business, has set about doing his bit to revive the craft with the establishment of a Stone Mastery Academy.

A revivalist and an innovator he established one of the first online businesses in the country in the 1990s when he transformed the family quarrying enterprise on the Offaly-Tipperary border into a company called WeSellStone.com.

The boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the company go from strength to strength, but as soon as the downturn happened it took a massive hit.

"Since things got quieter," says David, smiling at his own understatement, "I've had a lot of time to think and reflect. As a company we had no choice but to scale down and look at niche markets and more specialised stuff. This brought me to a realisation that stonework as a craft is under threat so I made contact with two master craftsmen with a view to establishing the Stone Mastery Academy to train a new generation in stone."

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The academy is based at the unassuming We Sell Stone premises on the old Dublin Road at Roscrea. The first day-long module of a four-module course was held in January, with another taking place last weekend.

Tutor and stone carver Mick McCarthy teaches stone carving and decorative stonework. Originally from Kinsale and now living near Roscrea, he explains how he began working with stone: "I was taken on as a young apprentice by the OPW and served my time at Charlesfort in Kinsale. The OPW gave me a great grounding and an appreciation of stone. But there is now a great shortage of stonemasons. Those practicing the craft have an average age of 55, most training stopped in 2006, that's 11 years ago."

Today, Mick makes a living as a stone carver doing decorative work while also carving and repairing headstones and memorials.

"I carve the lettering by hand, but a lot of it is done nowadays by sandblasting. However, this lettering fades quickly under the weather whereas the handcrafted thing lasts," he explains.

According to David Kinsella stone carving and stone masonry represent the two key elements of the craft, the 'ying and yang.'

Seamus Feehan, a stonemason from Roscrea, teaches the building portion of the course. Passionate about working with stone, Seamus is delighted to have the opportunity to pass this on to the course participants. "The person who knows stone, knows building, and knows how to build. I hope I teach people how to visualise what they want to build, and how to build it."

All agree that there is plenty of work for good stonemasons,

"We have a huge amount of traditional stone structures that need repair and maintenance," says David.

"Also many people building new structures are looking to incorporate traditional stonework into their buildings. The people renovating Barberstown Castle recently approached me looking for 10 stone arches," he says.

"There are examples of tremendous stone structures all over the country," David points out - and Roscrea has its own share of that built heritage.

"St Cronan's Arch is a brilliant example of early mediaeval stonework and a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, as is the round tower beside it. They are both about 900 years old. Just outside the town, between Fancroft and Liffey Mills there are the remains of five old mills, all in stone."

The Stone Mastery Course is open to all comers David explains.

"It is for those who want a career in stonework, retired people who want to try something new, or farmers who want to look after the stone walls or buildings on their farm. It's for anyone really, even disgruntled journalists," he insists.

The first course is taking place over four Saturdays and participants can do a one-day programme or attend the four sessions.

The first module held in January dealt with general stone masonry skills, the February module took place last Saturday and looked specifically at building a stone entrance.

The third session, on Saturday March 4, will concentrate on building a stone arch; while the final one, on Saturday April 22, will cover the use of natural stone in hard landscaping.

David hopes the academy will ultimately become 'the Ballymaloe of stonework.'

"If we can give people these skills it will lead to a huge enhancement of their lives and the skill-base in the community," he maintains.

Places are still available on the March and April modules. It costs €100 + VAT for a day and bookings can be made at by phoning 087 6567238 or by emailing sales@wesellstone.com


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