Sunday 22 April 2018

A timeless skill still in demand

Time was when stonemasons were plentiful. Squads of 40 masons (or more) were called up to work on major sites such as St. Peter's College in Wexford or the Catholic parish church in New Ross. Here was a skill in wide demand up to the Great War, before advances in building technology consigned the trade to the redundant ranks shared with the ploughman and cattle drover... Or did it?

That very modern gentleman, Martin Codd from Rathnure, makes a decent living from stonemasonry and sees no reason why the demand will not continue far into the 21st century.

He has adapted his technique to take account of new millennium architecture, blending his timeless rocks with the glass and steel of up-to-date design.

And he is also on call to offer a hand in conserving our national stock of old buildings. He is brought in to assist with heritage sites of all kinds, from the run down mediaeval backwater of St. Patrick's Church in Wexford town to the splendours of Leinster House at the heart of the capital. It all adds up to a nicely varied work schedule.

He is one of the lucky ones who successfully identified his vocation early in life. Martin recalls that, as a youngster, he sat beside well known financier Dermot Desmond in school at the Good Counsel in New Ross.

Their paths later headed off in very different directions as the young Codd realised that he was not cut out for an office job.

He progressed to the local Vocational College to learn about carpentry and metalwork. Then, when the form was circulated asking students to give an indication of their preferred trade, he was the only one to write 'mason'. The choice of an apparently declining profession by young Codd may have raised a few eyebrows in the school's career guidance department in the 1960s.

Or perhaps the teachers recognised that folk around Rathnure had been tapping away at stray lumps of granite for generations. Martin, however, did not come from any long line of chisellers. He simply drew inspiration from mason Tom Dempsey, who had carried out some maintenance work on the family home. Tom had lost an arm early in his life but managed to split large boulders with precision using just one hand. No wonder the watching boy was fascinated.

The 'Tech' and training agency AnCO set Martin up with a master of the craft, one John 'Bono' Cullen from New Ross, who took on his apprentice at the less than princely wage of £3/3 (about €4) per week. Martin recalls with a laugh that he could earn as much in one night singing and strumming guitar at that time. His new boss on the day job was a remarkable character who, unlike his assistant, sprang from a long line of stone workers.

He presided on sites around the Waterford area with a firmness that brooked no argument from a skinny apprentice. He also provided an invaluable old style grounding in the business, a grounding which has stood to Martin Codd ever since. Assignments around that time included work on Newtown College, the Quaker school.

The standard mortar used by Bono Cullen was made in traditional style with a lime base. Lime was a substance which left many a mason with dermatitis or even blindness as they handled it with insufficient care. Another occupational hazard used to be the deafness induced by the continuous din of metal on stone.

Lime mortar is lately back in vogue since it has dawned on those conserving old buildings that the concrete substitute is a surefire recipe for dampness when applied to vintage structures. Martin has been using the stuff for decades - though thank goodness he retains sharp sight (and hearing) into middle age.

He took some time out during the seventies to head off and work in England, adding experience with brickwork to his CV. While in London, he avoided routine jobs as much as possible, preferring to take on assignments in the tunnels of the Underground or the linings of large industrial furnaces, than on humdrum housing estates. The time in the UK helped to make him a problem solver supreme.

He has been solving problems ever since, whether working to make Enniscorthy's 200-plus year old bridge fit for modern traffic or dancing to the whims of Celtic Tiger indulgence. Many of the once millionaires among his clientele, who wanted his authentic stonework in their boom time palaces, are no longer on anyone's rich list, though some survive the crash. He lets it slip that John Cullen is not the only Bono he has known.

He has also shared wisdom with many conservation architects or archaeologists and their expertise has rubbed off on him. He points knowledgeably at the tumbledown walls of the ancient St. Patrick's Church in Wexford with their 'double belfries' - spaces at the top of the gable where two bells used to hang.

His work undertaken here in the middle of the town at the behest of the local council has been largely a form of conservation first aid. He simply puts mortar in the gaps between the stones of the old structure to ensure that they do not fall down on the visitors who come to potter around the graveyard. A comprehensive plan for full restoration would be very expensive and remains on the long finger.

He is quietly authoritative about the sources of various stones. The ruined St. Patrick's, for instance, is presumably constructed from chunks of pink tinged stone dragged down by horse and cart from Forth Mountain. The county is also noted for a cement-like 'conglomerate' found in a band running eastward from The Hook. Meanwhile, his beloved Blackstairs remain littered with granite blocks which might once have made agricultural rollers. The work on St. Senan's bridge in Enniscorthy was conducted with material hauled from a quarry at Glasslacken near Bunclody.

Such lore helps to put him spiritually in touch with his predecessors who used to split rocks manually, who were natural engineers, and who often sorted through huge mounds of stones to find the one which was just precisely right for whatever space or task was required. He has a fellow feeling with those who needed little more than a hammer, a trowel and a chisel.

Life becomes more complicated. On the one hand, the business of shaping rocks is made easier by high powered cutting machinery. On the other hand, the traditional manual tools are of less relevance nowadays than the computer needed to draw up the 'data sheets' and 'method statements' when dealing with architects and quantity surveyors.

He must also be mindful of health and safety standards which dictate that the winch he has used for 40 years may haul no more than a tonne, when he knows that it is capable of hefting a load of three tonnes. And official conservation sites are subject to meticulous supervision by archaeologists who require that nothing may be moved without their say so. Fair enough.

At the moment he is likely to be found five storeys up above Dublin's Grafton Street, refitting an old stone parapet which had been letting damp into the building occupied by McDonald's. He has also had the privilege of getting up close to James Gandon's Georgian masterpiece, the Custom House.

Anyone wishing to see examples of Martin Codd's output closer to home may take a close look in New Ross at the new swimming pool or the limestone trim to the boardwalk on the quays. His gifted hand may also be discerned in the visitor centre recently added to the Kennedy farmstead at Dunganstown or in the ultra modern golf Seafield clubhouse in Ballymoney.

He reckons that the conservation/new build balance in his workload is around 50:50 at the moment - and that suits him fine.

- By David Medcalf

Wexford People

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