On Stone Fences to Nowhere


Some cows I met in on my trip to the Cliffs of Moher!

In December, I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Ireland and took advantage of the trip to check off a big Bucket List item: visiting the Cliffs of Moher. I’d wanted to go ever since I was a child. I was pleasantly surprised that our guide gave us a lot of historical information about the region we had to drive through to get there. First Galway Bay, then a rocky, hilly area called the Burren. This landscape featured strange rock formations, large boulders, and fences in all directions leading to nowhere. They cover the hillsides, forming an intricate and puzzling web. What purpose do they serve? The answer is none.


Strange rock formations in the Burren

These fences are a relic of the island’s most infamous disaster, the Irish Potato Famine or Great Famine of 1845, which killed about 1 million people and forced 1 million more to emigrate. In this area of Ireland, like much of the country, many people were landless and made their living by working in the fields of their landlords so that they could grow some crops for themselves, mostly potatoes. When the potato blight arrived, there was literally nothing to eat for about 25% of Ireland’s population.

Help arrived from England for a short time in the form of rations distributed through workhouses. However, one had to put in a full day’s work in order to earn a ration. Once the roads were fixed up and there was nothing else to do, people were forced to build stone fences to up and around the hills in return for a small amount of food. Eventually, with the changing political winds (London decided these programs were too burdensome and since the Irish brought the famine on themselves, they should fix it themselves), even these meager rations ended. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of people faced hunger with no end in sight.

Many of those who remained boarded ships in Galway Bay, often not knowing the destination, and left these fences to nowhere which still stand today. As martial law still existed in those days, anyone caught stealing even a loaf of bread would be sent to prison or labor camps in Australia. Our guide explained that this exodus largely explains why Irish pubs can be found in nearly all corners of the globe.

Dry stone walls, The Burren, Ireland

A stone fence leading up over a hill in the Burren. Photo by Alison Toon

I was absolutely floored by the enormity of the scenery around me, these fences sprawled out all over the hills. I imagined men and women near starvation working tirelessly to build them, an utterly futile effort for a few bites of food. The impact on me was profound. These fences now stand strong as a stoic reminder of the tragedy that created them.

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