We’ve seen a lot of stones in Ireland.
Much of the land is made of giant rocks masquerading as mountains, enormous pieces of ancient earth rising upwards. Somehow, the land feels older here.
I learned about stone walls when we moved to New England. I had not seen them before, other than in pictures or movies. When we lived in Boston, Ginger and I used to drive up to Robert Frost’s farm in southern New Hampshire and follow the path marked by signs telling us which poem to read at a particular spot. Near one stone fence we read “The Mending Wall”—
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . .
Yet I have always found a beauty in them, in part, I think, because I learned that they grew out of a practical need. As farmers cleared the land, they encountered lots of rocks. It was easier to use them as fences than to try and haul them off somewhere. The real beauty of them, however, is in their construction. They are stacked without mortar, placed in such a way that gravity becomes the glue. They fall into to each other, which strengthens the whole wall. They don’t fall apart easily.
Our time in Ireland has helped me realize those first New Englanders did not invent anything, they simply continued practices they learned from those who had come before them. This is a country of stacked stones, walls designed to contain sheep and cows, to control grazing, to divide property, and, I trust, to tell stories.
One of the reasons I notice stacked stones is because of a story from scripture that holds enduring meaning for me. It comes from the book of Joshua. After the Hebrew people had crossed the Jordan River,
Joshua called for the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one man per tribe. Joshua said to them, “Cross over into the middle of the Jordan, up to the Lord your God’s chest. Each of you, lift up a stone on his shoulder to match the number of the tribes of the Israelites. This will be a symbol among you. In the future your children may ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you will tell them that the water of the Jordan was cut off before the Lord’s covenant chest. When it crossed over the Jordan, the water of the Jordan was cut off. These stones will be an enduring memorial for the Israelites.” (Common English Bible)
I rarely see a stack of stones without thinking of the question: What do these stones mean to you?
Making a stone wall is no easy feat, and lifting the stones may be the easiest part. To create the kind of support needed for the wall to endure, each stone has to be placed with intention. Some of them have to have their edges knocked off so they fit just right. None of the walls stand because all of the stones are uniformly cut; they stand because they fall into each other rather than away. They are stacked to stay together.
Not all the stones in the field were stacked into walls. Some were thrown as weapons, intended to do damage or create fear. Some were built into fortresses in response, as dividers and protectors. What our stones mean comes from how we use them.
We spent our afternoon yesterday in the town of Downpatrick, in County Down, learning about St. Patrick, which was another lesson in stacking stones. We went first to the St. Patrick Centre, which says they are the only permanent exhibition about him in the world. The exhibit was a meandering multimedia path through early Irish history, but it began with a guide undoing what we thought we knew:
Patrick didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland–there were never any snakes in Ireland.
Patrick never wore priestly robes.
Patrick never used a shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Patrick was never officially canonized as a saint.
Patrick didn’t wear green.
Patrick didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland; it was already here.
Patrick was not Irish.
I think it is also fair to assume Patrick never intended to be remembered by copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate the day of his death.
The exhibit inside the center also made it clear that we don’t know a lot about him for sure. Only a couple of documents have survived, one being his Confession and the other a letter to a general. How we have stacked the stones says more about who we want him to be rather than who he is, perhaps. But such is the nature of remembering. We stack up our stones so when the children or anyone else asks, “What do these stones mean to you?” we can tell them.
One of the things I learned about Patrick was that he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as an enslaved person when he was a teenager. He was probably from Wales. He escaped and returned to Britain and then came back to Ireland. Much of the exhibit stacked the stones of his story in a way to show how he shaped the nation of Ireland and its faith. It was told as a hero myth, if you will, a story of valor and conquest and conflict, both external and internal. He grew Christianity by trying to drive the “pagans” off the island.
After we came out of the exhibit, I walked a few blocks in downtown Downpatrick, which seems to be a place that is struggling. Many shops were permanently closed. I saw two or three thrift stores and two bookmakers–betting venues, that is. It felt like a place that needed some attention.
From there, we drove out a bit, down roads lined with stone walls, to Saul Church, one of the landmarks in Patrick’s story. We had time to walk through the small church and cemetery, take in the view of the surrounding farms, and hear from Gareth Higgins who offered a different way to stack up the stones.
For him, the power of the story was simple: Patrick was brought to the island as an enslaved person. He escaped and went home and then he chose to come back to Ireland to share the love of God. He didn’t come back for revenge or retribution. He came back for love.
When I asked him how that matched with the story we heard at the Centre, he said, (and I am not using quotes because I don’t remember exactly) That story is there if you want it. I am choosing to find a story of redemption.
So much rides on how we chose to stack up the stones.
What do the stones mean to you?