Last Thursday I drove to Johnnie Fox’s pub in Wicklow to meet a man named Gerry Mulvey who wanted to take me to his friend, the legendary Wicklow stonemason John Roe. You see, dear reader, believe it or not, I have a huge interest in stone. But I’ll come back to that later.
The laughter that came from the room guessed that this was Gerry. He spoke to Shannon, one of the pub’s owners, who insisted on giving me hot chocolate and shortbread on the house.
“Every friend of Gerry’s is a friend of mine,” he says, laughing, “don’t forget to mention that Gerry organizes the Men’s Shed at Glencullen and is a second tenor with the Dublin Welsh Male Voice Choir.”
“Ah shstop, stop,” says Gerry. “We’re going to John’s now.”
We found John the old mason sitting by his turf fire waiting for us, his collie dog Coco at his feet.
“How long have you lived here, John?” I say.
“Ah, I’ve been here since 1625,” he says. “It’s no use looking for a building permit, is it? Gerry, will you get the apple pie and tea for Biddy while I tell her my story?” he calls.
“Well, I come from generations of stonemasons. In my day, every other house had at least one, if not two, stonemasons. No more. The stonemasonry industry is as good as dead.”
I told the guys about a fascinating study called Splitting rocks in the Dublin Mountains, by the late Ivor Kenny. Kenny has written brilliantly about the close connection between skilled people and place and resources that has largely disappeared today. Unfortunately, native Irish stone and all the skills that go with it have been replaced by concrete or imported stone.
“The Dublin Corporation ended the stonemason’s life by closing the quarries. It’s all Chinese and Indian granite now. Truckloads of it come in,” says John. “They no longer train stonemasons, they take people to masonry courses.
“Would you believe that? We used to have so many young lads here in Glencullen getting an education. Now there are none. They don’t even have anyone raising or replacing the old flags. It is shocking.”
Before I knew it, we were talking about limestone knobs, crazing, hardening troughs, and anything stone related. I was in my element and yet I found visiting the boys so touching. I mean, a whole way of life, a whole community of stonemasons and bricklayers has all but disappeared.
I remember once going to Esker Monastery in Athenry with chisels, rasps and a mallet to take a course in stone carving.
Our teacher was a talented Dutchman named Pieter Koning. I wanted to work with granite. Impossible and Pieter knew it. The nun next to me was shaping a log out of a solid piece of black bog oak. Her name was Sister Camillus.
“I just want my mind to stop racing,” she said. “That’s just the thing.”
Over the next two days you could see that their work was really progressing. She carved a 1 m high tree trunk with about eight branches. I loved it.
On the third day, I came back from a tea break – and found her furiously chopping at her creation. Then, thank God, she pulled out a chainsaw and cut off the branches. It’s not often you see a nun wielding a Dolmar PS 700 chainsaw. She had left what appeared to be a walking stick.
“Jesus, sister,” I said. “What did you do that for? It was a beautiful piece.”
“It was,” she said, “but I feel so damn much better.”
Well, I almost dropped my chisel. I had never heard a nun swear before.
“I really needed to let out some trouble, that’s why I came here. And I have more plans for this stick,” she said, laughing. “I’ll throw it in the River Shannon on the way home.”
On the way home from Wicklow I stopped at Circle K in Kilmacanogue for gas and a coffee. Across from me was a woman chewing awful looking chicken wings from the deli. It was difficult to tell her age. I’m guessing 60 plus. She was dressed very elegantly and her black hair extensions ended up just above her butt.
“Where are the jacks?” she says.
“Over there,” I say. I could tell this was a real salt of the earth dub.
When she returned I noticed that she had red shellac claws that an eagle would envy. As for her fingers, she could barely lift the paper cup with the weight of the jewels. And let me tell you, those were the real things.
“Nice rings,” I say.
“Come until I tell you,” she says, chatting freely in the gas station’s sumptuous rooms. “I’ve suffered for every one of those damn diamonds. Despite the torture, I never take them off. They all got jealous.”
“All?” I say.
“Everyone,” she nodded. “I’ve been married six times to six different Muppets.”
I would not have expected this.
“The first was a poxy motherfucker from Meath. I was screwed after our first date. So I did it.”
Needless to say, I was glued to my seat and my cleats roared to get started.
“The second husband was an alcoholic, I dragged him to AA in Clondalkin. The third was also a dipso. I left him when I saw him pissing on my new sofa.
“I was happy to meet the fourth. He was loaded like me and he’s never had a drink in his life. Believe it or not, he was the worst damn king. I ended up buying him whiskey. The assholes never stopped moaning. One day he had a pain in his leg, then it was his butt, then his heart was racing and he needed a stent. I got him a nurse and put a leg on his leg.
“The fifth died on September 11, he worked in a New York fire station. I thought he was deadly until I got home and he was at the door in my fluffy pink slippers. My mom and dad thought I would support them all for the rest of their frigging lives. I’ve always chosen spendthrift.”
“How do they say in Ireland, what did you bring to the table?” I say.
“Get out of there, that’s a damn cheeky question. Money,” she says without saying where she earned it.
Ahh, I thought, that explains it.
“My audience went nuts. “How much luggage do you need?” they would say. “Stop getting married. It’s an addiction.” I just love being married. If it fails, it fucking fails.”
“Wouldn’t you take a diet from the auld dating?” I say.
“Ah Jaysus, no,” she says. “Like I’ve always said, there’s only one way to get good at something,” she says, “through practice. I’ve had enough of it.”
Suddenly we were interrupted by a short but burly yoke in a chauffeur’s uniform – hat and all the trimmings. His hands were covered with tattoos.
“Michelle, are you coming?” he says. “I’m bloody banjaxed.”
“This is my new guy,” she says. “I love a man in uniform.”
Well honestly to god I thought I was on an episode of love hate.
“Look down,” she says, in stitches. I did. Her husband was plump for Ireland. You could say there was a Glencullen boulder stuck in his pants. He could barely walk to the car.
“We’re going back to my gaff for a kip,” she says, clutching her Dior bag in those big red claws.
She better get out her chisels.
https://www.independent.ie/life/brighids-diary-well-i-nearly-dropped-my-chisel-id-never-heard-a-nun-swear-before-41487561.html Brighid’s Journal: “Well I almost dropped my chisel – I’d never heard a nun swear before”