Stonemason Shane Nolan: ‘My job is the best in the world’

The Specialist: Stonemason Shane Nolan is a building conservationist who is passionate about brick and stonework – and has been for most of his life

“No building is the same and all have their own challenges”: Stonemason Shane Nolan working on an arch at Grangegorman with Dean O’Hagan. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“No building is the same and all have their own challenges”: Stonemason Shane Nolan working on an arch at Grangegorman with Dean O’Hagan. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

If there’s one thing that gets Shane Nolan fired up, it’s the subject of brickwork and pointing. Nolan, a facade conservation stonemason – one of the most respected in the country – has been on a mission to promote lime mortar since founding his business at the age of 19 with his brother Frank 20 years ago.

Spend a morning with Nolan and you begin to notice the details of Dublin buildings in a completely new light. It’s impossible not to be infected by his enthusiasm.

“I am passionate about brick and stonework,” he says, “but when we started using lime [for pointing] there was so much cement that we were told we were crazy and that we should put cement in with the mix. We said no. We knew cement was wrong.”

In Ireland, the use of lime for building lasted for centuries until cement began to dominate the market in the 1920s and 1930s. Nolan explains that “if you don’t get the outside of a building right, you will have problems. The whole breathability of the structure starts from the outside.

“Pointing should be weaker than the surface it’s on, but cement pointing is harder and doesn’t allow for evaporation. Bricks become full of moisture, and when it freezes it expands and starts to break down and the brick starts to spall. It was raining bricks in 2010 because of the damage due to the freeze/thaw action that winter.”

He also describes how, in the 1950s and 1960s, painting bricks became fashionable “because people didn’t know how to clean carbon deposits from smog and, particularly around Ringsend, they loved painting their bricks”.

Seen in the city

Nolan’s work is evident all over Dublin, from a house facade in Stoneybatter exquisitely repointed in the wigging style (a Dublin style of tuck pointing), to the limestone walls in the massive new DIT development in Grange Gorman, the towering redbrick chimneys in McKee barracks.

“Those chimneys were made by master masons,” he says. “They have up to 40 square metres of brickwork and they are so beautiful and well constructed – they are high up in the air and people don’t pay attention to them, and yet the detail is absolutely fabulous.”

Nolan sighs, admiring the terracotta finials, the elaborate hand-carved scrolls and medallions decorating the 19th-century building. Some of those chimneys have as many as 7,000 bricks – more than three times that of a standard house chimney.

“Old houses were built with one solid wall,” he says, “whereas modern houses have cavity walls so moisture can never come through. With the old, the moisture goes in and out, so the wall breathes. You nearly have to treat these as living structures, so that when they become derelict they fall apart very quickly because the life has been taken out of them.”

Nolan points out more examples of his work at the Maldron Hotel: two 18th-century arches that have been painstakingly restored, numbered and reset, stone by stone.

There’s also the old Guinness transport building on Victoria Quay, which is now looking like new.

He has particular praise for architects “who champion you to do it right, like David Slattery, who is a pioneer of conservation and who listens and takes everyone’s view into account. It’s always about the team”.

 

Lime life

As a member of Building Limes Forum in Ireland, set up to promote the proper use of lime in the repair of historic buildings, Nolan is on a mission to keep traditional skills alive.

“It is very difficult. It is hard to find builders with the passion we require, like Burkes of Ballina. My guys have done fantastic work around the city and deserve credit. This is our legacy. But there are people who are trying to imitate with the wrong materials and who don’t care.”

At Grange Gorman, Nolan is making 21 openings on the boundary walls of the 70-acre site, as well as restoring some of the existing buildings of historic value. One of his men, Dean O’Hagan, a second-generation stonemason restoring a limestone arch, is tooling each of the 500 kilo stones of which it is composed, ready for reconstruction.

“Hand is one thing, heart is another,” says O’Hagan. “You have to be passionate about this work. This is what good conservation and restoration is all about. There is nothing easy about this, and the deconstruction is just as important as the reconstruction.” He explains that every single stone is numbered and recorded. Exactitude of measurement to the smallest millimetre is imperative.

“What makes this job interesting is that no building is the same and all have their own challenges, but we won’t compromise on quality. My job is the best in the world,” says Nolan .

“Today we are looking at archways in Grange Gorman and brickwork in McKee barracks, but every day is brand new, with something new to learn. I couldn’t do anything else.”