In honor of St. Patrick ‘s Day and my Irish heritage, I’ve decided to spend the month of March blogging about the contributions Irish immigrants have made to Santa Barbara landscapes. This week’s topic: Irish rock walls in Santa Barbara.
History of the Irish Rock Wall
The Irish rock wall, also called the dry stone wall, is an ancient landscaping form used across Europe and the Western Mediterranean region. Rock walls of this sort are found in any region where materials are plentiful. The word “dry” refers to the construction of a rock wall without the presence of mortar. This tradition employs a method of building a wall by fitting each piece of stone against the next until the wall resembles a perfectly constructed puzzle. These rock walls are particularly abundant in the West of Ireland, especially Connemara.
The Ceide Fields stones in Co. Mayo, for example, are nearly four thousand years old. In Co. Kerry, where many of my ancestors came from, many beautiful examples of the Irish rock wall are present. Many of these walls date to the constructions of the early Christian church in Ireland sometime between the 6th and 9th century.
What makes the Irish rock walls unique?
Rock walls without mortar are prevalent in landscapes all over the world. Therefore the answer is found, in part, in the material used in the construction of Irish rock walls. In Ireland, rock walls are built out of their native limestone. This material is a particularly hard type of stone. During the last ice age, sheets of ice grew up around the soil in Ireland, compacting and compressing it as it formed hundred of square miles of ice fields. When the ice melted, the incredibly rigid and brittle limestone that the ice created began to splinter off in flat sheets, making the rock the Irish mined relatively flat compared to the stone material in other parts of the world. This material gave rise to the Irish style of wall building.
Irish Rock Walls in Santa Barbara Landscapes
A cursory drive around viewing Santa Barbara landscaping reveals the presence of many rock walls in the area, both mortared and dry built. The history of these walls dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the immigration of many Irish and Italians to Santa Barbara. These immigrants found material for rock walls abundant in this area.
This material, known as sandstone, was very different from the limestone of Ireland and the granite of Italy. Sandstone tends to be rounder and softer than either limestone or granite. Italian rock walls, however, are often built with mortar. This made the use of sandstone relatively easy for the Italian immigrants to adapt to, and they continued to build their walls much like they did in Italy.
The Irish, however, had to adapt their building style to the available materials. They used metal wedges to split and cut the sandstone into slivers that resembled the native limestone of Ireland. Some of the Irish adapted by learning the craft of building mortar walls from Italian immigrants. This adaptation process went both ways—the Irish and Italians learned from each other. That symbiotic relationship was the catalyst for the rock walls we still enjoy today in the Mission and Riviera areas of Santa Barbara.
The basics of building an Irish Rock Wall in Santa Barbara
- Build a footing. Rock walls utilize compacted sand and gravel layer after layer to withstand the weight of the wall
- Cantilever, or anchor, the bottom of the wall
- Use wider stone at the bottom
- Build up with smaller rock as the wall builds up
- Interlock each piece to desired height
- Santa Barbara Irish style walls are generally no higher than 3 or 4 feet.
As a child, I watched my great uncle, Nick Tompkins, and my father, Arthur Koehler, practice this craft of rock splitting and stone wall building. Although it is laborious and difficult, the end result is a beautiful and functional wall that will last. This is my heritage, and the root of our love for and expertise of this specialty landscaping practice.
Give me a call. I would love to install a rock wall for you!
Here are some examples of our rock walls in Santa Barbara.