Carving a place in history

Posted on: 7th March, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Pictured Above: The West Cork Stone Symposium, a three-day event on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in March spearheaded by Victor Daly, will give people the chance to see the craft firsthand and even try it for themselves.

Around the world longlasting and famous structures like the Taj Mahal, Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and even West Cork’s own unique stone circles give us an idea of just how important the ancient craft of stonework is. Stone is everywhere and using the humble tools of hammer, chisel and mallet, since the beginning of time, stone workers have carved their mark in every village, town and country.

At the top of a hill, overlooking Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head Peninusla, stone carver Victor Daly practices his craft. One of a dying breed of master stone carvers in Ireland, Victor is part of a group working to set up a guild to try and keep the trade alive. “There’s only about a dozen of us left in the country now and we need apprentices or the trade won’t survive,” says Victor passionately.

The West Cork Stone Symposium, a three-day event on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in March spearheaded by Victor, will give people the chance to see the craft firsthand and even try it for themselves.

The packed programme of events includes includes dry stone walling workshops and stone carving workshops, as well as talks, tours, tastings and even photography classes.

Originally from Midleton, Victor has lived in Ahakista for the past eight years, where it turns out, his ancestors, the Daly’s, hail from. A Buddhist, he started coming to West Cork to visit the Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat centre in Beara. He married his wife in a Buddhist ceremony at their home in Ahakista.

The couple live as sustainable life as possible, raising Pygmy goats, lambs, pigs and dogs on their two acres of land and growing vegetables to swap for eggs with their neighbour. As much as possible is recycled or upcycled, with food waste fed to the goat and firewood cut from their land. “I love living this kind of lifestyle,” says Victor, who renovated the cowshed and piggery that is now their home.

Victor was 16 when he started working with stone. “It’s always been a closed trade, passed down from father to son,” says Victor “but my father went to order a headstone for my grandfather and persuaded the man who carved the headstones to give me a chance and take me on. The rest is history.” Victor spent seven years learning his trade. “I loved the fact that one day you were carving and the next out in a graveyard putting up a headstone.” Victor went on to specialise in letter carving, abstract sculpture and restoration work.

His restoration work took him to Scotland, where he carried out extensive stone repair and conservation work at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Here in Ireland, he spent three years engaged in conservation, repair and restoration work at Barryscourt Castle in East Cork. “It breaks my heart to see old buildings here in West Cork falling down,” he says. “I don’t understand why we’re not pumping more money into restoring our heritage.”

With the craft of stone carving almost disappearing due to the computer-aided machinery available nowadays, Victor is passionate about saving his trade. He’s hoping that once people see stone carving at the symposium, it will inspire them to take up the craft and spread the word.

Enthusiasts will be travelling from Canada, Scotland, the UK, Austria and Ireland and with the cream of the crop of stone carvers gathering in Ahakista for the event, the plan is to build a dry stonewall and to carve a sculpture incorporating ‘Ahakista’ and a crest, as a memento for the village.

Last year, Victor represented Cork as the carver of the county’s stone for the ‘Stones of Ireland’ monument commissioned to commemorate the centenary of 1916 and erected in Glencolmcille in Donegal. The monument is a map the size of Ireland made up from individual pieces of stone carved by people from each of the counties of Ireland.

“Stone carving isn’t for everyone, it takes a lot of concentration and time and you have to be able to draw, but there’s so much satisfaction from it, creating something unique out of a natural material,” says Victor. “My workshop would be considered a luxury by most stone carvers,” he laughs. “There’s no water dripping on my head, I have a stove for warmth and I have light and power. In the old days, a lot of our work would have been done out in the graveyard in all weathers with just a plastic sheet for cover.”

The West Cork Stone Symposium takes place from March 24 to 26. For more information or to register go to www.westcorkstonesymposium.com.

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