How to make a drystone wall: Don’t cheat with cement – and remember to keep crossing your joints

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

Drystone walls, an iconic feature of rural Ireland, are surprisingly satisfying to make.

Isn’t that all ancient history, just one stone after another?

Yes, and wonderfully so, says the stonemason and conservation worker Dominic Keogh. It’s a tradition that goes back about 5,000 years, and Keogh is teaching the art of the craft at Common Knowledge, the Co Clare-based epicentre of the sustainable and traditional, where rediscovering lost skills is all in a day’s work.

Is it uniquely Irish?

Not at all. A dive into the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland website reveals sister associations in Britain, Canada, France, Croatia and Australia. You can also find links to drystone-wall bloggers, although (whisper it) some of them appear to use cement.

Never! So how hard is it to learn?

It’s one of those crafts that can be picked up quickly but take a lifetime to master. Keogh “got absolutely fascinated with them” after moving to east Co Mayo. “The best thing about drystone work is, of course, that it’s very forgiving to work on. You can take the wall down and put it up again until you get it a bit right,” he says, so you’re not wasting any materials in the process. If only all life were so forgiving.


Why do it, though?

At Teagasc they reckon there’s strong demand for drystone-wall work, and as there are more than 400,000km of them in Ireland, some are also bound to need repair. Despite this, Keogh says, “it never really was a formal trade in Ireland. It was much more of a hands-on rural craft that was done by farmers as part of their everyday farming, especially in areas with an abundance of stone, where they couldn’t farm unless they found something to do with the stone.” It is also very inexpensive to get going: all you need are stones, string (for the line) and a decent hammer.

Are all stones the same?

Divil a bit. According to Keogh, once your eye gets in, you can know where you are from the look of the stones. The differences in stone means there are variations not only between counties but also between parishes. It is, says Keogh, “as much a part of our cultural heritage as our language, our music and our dance”.

Gorgeous, but what about the fun factor?

It’s a very satisfying task. “It is a strange thing to do if you’ve never done it before,” says Keogh. But it is quickly addictive. “You’re trying to build something solid, just from stone that you find on the ground. You need a good eye for a stone, and you also have to train your eye for symmetry,” he says. You also have to get to grips with the structure of the wall, so you don’t create internal weaknesses. “That’s the thing: you’re building in three dimensions, so it’s not just the face of the wall that you see. You need to keep crossing your joints, and there are all these little tricks that kind of unfold as you get more experienced.”

Our Common Knowledge’s next Dry Stone Walling for Beginners weekend workshop is on September 16th and 17th. Dominic Keogh’s website is More drystone-walling information and resources at and