Sandy O’Byrne, B.A., M.A.G.I.

It began with the entry in the Calendar of Wills connected with research into a south Dublin/north Wicklow family. Something stirred in memory of lines from Samuel Beckett to connect Glencullen and stone-cutting. In his youth, the great man had walked the stoney hills of Glencullen and Kilternan, and years later the monotonous sound of the stone-cutting, or more accurately cleaving, had transformed into the backdrop for the death of Malone.

“No, they are no more than hills, they raise themselves gently, faintly
blue out of the confused plain. It was there somewhere he was born,
in a fine house, of loving parents. Their slopes are covered with ling
and furze, its hot yellow bells, better known as gorse.
The hammers of the stone-cutters ring all day like bells.”
Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, 1956

Beckett had a life-long attachment to stone, the inorganic, enduring and collected special stones from the hills around Glencullen as he walked. It was possibly the unique connection between man and stone in the art of the stone-cutter that effected Beckett’s extraordinary imaginative response to his environment.

The history of the stone-cutters of Glencullen was of families – Byrne, Fitzarchery, Lenahan – who for generations practiced the art of cleaving the great granite boulders in this band of mountainous land between Dublin and Wicklow. Stone that was used to build some of the great buildings and pavements of Dublin.

Stonecutting was a very old craft; transforming stone from its natural state, into manageable blocks for building and construction. In the nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries, the granite of Glencullen was still worked with hand tools, cleaved by different methods, into quarter tonne blocks that could be brought to Dublin on flat horse-drawn carts.

The work was hard and could be dangerous, but it was one of unique skill and had a tie with history which the stone-cutters themselves realised. There was nothing mechanical or predictable in the process. It was the stone-cutter’s knowledge of the rock, of the material of stone, which allowed him to select the right boulders for building material. The granite produced from this particular part of south Dublin was to give the buildings of Dublin their own profile and character originally cast in the rock face of the Glencullen hills.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, stone-cutting was the principal source of earning in Glencullen and Ballybrack. It was often a family occupation passed from father to son and whose names appear on the registers and headstones of the old parish of St Patricks Glencullen which has a memorial to the stone-cutters just still visible in the churchyard.

The importance of stone cutting can be seen in the history of the Operative Stonecutters Society of Stepaside, a union formed about 1860 and from which a minute book covering the period from March 1889 to February 1892 still exists in private hands.
The Society was first registered in 1898 and had a membership of stone workers from the area of Stepaside and its environs. The Society seems to have had links with similar societies in other locations. It met each Monday evening in Reilly’s pub and a committee of four officers and eight other members were elected on Quarter nights for three months. Entry was open to all qualified stone cutters, i.e. those who had completed their apprenticeship, and while not actually obligatory, was strongly encouraged.

There was pride in the skill of stone-cutting and those who left to follow other paths were generally cold-shouldered. The Society also aimed to maintain levels of pay and conditions and generally uphold standards within the craft and control the unfair actions of employers. The Stepaside society seems to have amalgamated with the Operative Stone cutters of Ireland about 1907.