An Irish stonemason: ‘I want to upskill homeowners to carry out some of the work themselves’

What I Do: Eóin Madigan is a sixth-generation stonemason in Ennistymon, Co Clare

I’m a sixth-generation stonemason. I was fortunate enough to learn from my mother. She was a letter cutter, so from an early age, I was running around graveyards and watching her. I did everything in my power not to go into stonemasonry – 25 years ago, it was seen as a dead trade. There was no respect for it. There were no apprenticeships.

Thankfully, I had learned enough from my family to start my own career. I completed a level six dry stone walling cert with basic carving, then I specialised in historic mortars. I applied for the William Morris Craft Fellowship with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in the UK and I was fortunate enough to win it.

Sadly, our vernacular housing stock in Ireland has been butchered, but in the UK they are very particular about it – it’s more conservation than restoration, and there is a huge difference. Conservation is conserving what you have in front of you, restoring is restoring what you don’t – you have no idea what was there before.

There is a lot more interest in conserving structures in Ireland now. Sadly, there is a lack of understanding of how solid wall structures function in this country. Grant schemes are trying to get top building energy ratings, but that doesn’t happen with historic structures. In my opinion, the schemes are telling people to insulate this and that, or you have to use these expensive insulating plasters and limecrete floors, and it’s all a load of codswallop. Just because these grants are available for old cottages and farmhouses doesn’t mean they are actually worthwhile.


Money from grants is a drop in the ocean compared to what you are going to spend. These buildings function completely differently to modern ones, so we need to be careful of that. I train people in historic mortars and masonry in Ennistymon. I want to upskill homeowners to carry out some of the work themselves and make informed decisions. I hate seeing people waste money.

I have a grá for working on national monuments. It’s unbelievable to think you are repairing something that was built maybe 3,000 years ago. The last people who touched these stones were your ancestors. The energy they used to build these structures, the embodied energy, it’s still there, and we feel it. Doon Fort, a Neolithic stone fort in Donegal, was one of the best. It’s on a small island in the middle of Loughadoon, and it’s magical over there. The walls are four metres thick at the base and about six metres in height. How did they get the stones on to the island? One thing myself and the other masons felt out there was somebody was watching us, making sure we were doing it right, but also kind of helping us find the right stone for the job.

We’ve been working on a 300-year-old mill in Co Cavan. It’s a very rare double mill. You are dealing with the everyday jobs people were doing back then, milling wheat for flour. You are making a connection with your ancestors. We carry out a lot of work on mausoleums. I’ve grown up in graveyards so I’m quite at home in them. I love reading headstones and just seeing who these people were. There are a lot of children from the 1800s and their headstones are broken. We repair some of them off our own bat, they deserve to be remembered.

I do headstones locally. Everyone who comes to us knows who we are and we know them. You are trying to do well for the family. When I’m doing that work, I feel like my grandfather is there. My family were stone cutters and monument makers with their own quarry up in Kilfenora, and when I’m carving, I feel closer to them.

I find I’m very critical of my own work, but when my clients come to site, there is such great feedback. We are made to feel very special

Gusto and grants can be the worst thing to happen to historic structures. There is another approach called “minimal intervention” and it’s, basically, don’t get involved. Let ruins stay as ruins and crumble into the ground, they have had their day. As a trainer, I know there is a possibility of getting people upskilled while working on these structures. Community groups are great, and if I can go in and train them up and let them off a bit wiser to what they are at, I think that will benefit these historic structures. A repair today shouldn’t confuse history tomorrow.

I find I’m very critical of my own work, but when my clients come to site, there is such great feedback. We are made to feel very special. I have an apprentice just qualified and he has surpassed me in skill and the feeling of that is great, to see another guy qualified. It’s getting harder and harder to find people. People don’t seem to want to do this type of work any more. How are we going to build houses if everyone is on computers?

I didn’t finish school, I wish I did, but I’d like to show kids, you can get a trade and earn just as much as anyone else. You can use your hands and leave something behind, and it will probably be there after you.

In conversation with Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance