Drystone Walls & Ditches of South West Ireland

Stone Walls
Stone walls (2)
Modern walls
My walls
About me
Contact Me
A typical ditch in south west Ireland

Note:- In Ireland a 'Ditch' is an earth bank

The South West of Ireland has a landscape of beautiful coastal features, lakes and mountains. Where the land is farmed the predominate boundary between fields is 'The Ditch'. The other major boundary is the drystone wall which is more common in the uplands and rocky places. However many drystone walls are partially composed of 'till' or clay as it is known in England and many Ditches are also composed of stone. Ditches as boundaries are not unique to Ireland and if you travel to the south west of the UK and south Wales you will find similar earth/stone boundaries.

The Irish landscape is dominated by fields and field boundaries unlike the open landscape of much of continental Europe. Agricultural land comprises eighty percent of the country. A hundred years ago or more, much more land was under cultivation and you can often see boundaries on land which is now no longer suitable for cultivation or grazing. The vast majority of these old fields were last used up to the famine of the 1840's. In many of these old fields it is still possible to see the parallel rows of 'lazy beds' which were the cultivation rows for potatoes.

Entrance to Cahir Daniel, Co, Kerry built over 2000 years ago.


Our boundaries mostly date from the Enclosure Acts of the 1700's but there is plenty of evidence of field boundaries much older than that. Unique to Ireland are buried walls which have been exposed by peat cutting and shown to be bronze age, approximately 4000 years old (Ceide fields, Co. Mayo). However these no longer function as boundaries. The oldest boundaries are likely to be original field clearance ditches or walls, constructed out of stone from the fields whilst being cleared and townland or parish boundaries. Both are of many centuries old. Clearance walls are nearly always very wide and enclose small fields with irregular boundaries.

However, good, long lasting stonework is nothing new. The picture above shows the entrance to Cahir Daniel in Co.Kerry. Archaeological evidence dates this as around 500 years BC. These 'forts', of which there are several in the southwest have massively thick walls over 9 feet wide, often with small rooms inside. Although many have been partially rebuilt this entrance is original.


There are two types described here. The earth/soil/stone ditch and the drystone wall - sometimes also called a ditch!


Earth based banks or ditches are the commonest boundary in most areas of Ireland and certainly the commonest in the South West. These ditches are quite variable in their construction and size. Some are totally made from till or clay, Others have one side being stone and with the other being mainly till/clay with a drainage ditch on that side from which the soil was dug from. Others may have both sides of stone and filled with soil and have a drainage ditch on both sides.. The stonework in these ditches can vary from being placed horizontally or vertically or both. Often smaller ditches are composed of a random collection of stones. They often appear much larger than they actually are because of dense growths of vegetation to the sides and top. This may include shrubs such as Hawthorn or even trees. They are generally between three and six feet in height and a similar width.


Irish stone walls vary considerably, even in the same geographical area. Walls here are generally much lower in height than walls in the UK and can be as low as two or three feet. Walls of five or six feet in height are quite uncommon. The width varies from two feet to three feet or more in the case of clearance walls. Unlike most walls in the UK the sides are almost always vertical in cross section and do not have a sloped side or 'batter' like UK walls.

Unique to the south west of Ireland, many walls have their stones placed vertically in the wall as opposed to horizontally as is common in other countries.

Cope stones which are placed on the top of walls to lock the wall and prevent damage from animals are either composed of large slabs covering the full width of the wall or large upright stones. They are almost never placed on a slant and are rarely used on vertically aligned walls.

Lieslibane Co Kerry. This wall is on the flanks of the MacGillycuddy's Reeks

Unfortunately Irish ditches and wall are still being destroyed. They are pulled down by farmers requiring larger fields or replaced by the electric fence. The only protection is for those farmers in REPS (Rural Environmental Protection Scheme. House builders and owners nearly always replace them with modern walls, wooden fences or non-native hedgerows.

David Perry, Lissacaha, Schull, West Cork, Ireland.

00353 (2835650)