Analysis: Ireland has a rich heritage of stone lifting as a rite of passage, but tracing the stories of these feats of strength is very difficult

By Conor Heffernan, Ulster University

It was a great day in each young man's life when he raised the stone from the ground and 'gave it wind’ as they said. And if he raised it to his knees, he was a champion, the equal of the best. And if he raised it to his chest, he was a hero, a phenomenon of strength and the men talked of him. Whereas, he who failed to lift it from the ground became the butt of everybody’s scorn. It had always been so, from the time of the most remote ancestors of the people…

Written in 1937, Liam O'Flaherty’s short story The Stone tells the story of an old man wandering an island off the coast of Ireland. Reliving his past triumphs and tragedies he stumbles across the ‘manhood stone’ of his youth on the town’s outskirts. Men from the town at weddings, funerals and social events would attempt to lift the heavy stone to prove their manhood.

As O’Flaherty wrote, this was serious business and impacted one’s social standing. In the story, the old man attempts to ‘give wind to the stone’ (lift it from the ground) and, in a Herculean effort, manages to do so but dies in the process. At his funeral, the young men from the town begin to lift the stone in his honour.

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From Rogue Fitness, trailer for Stoneland on stone lifting in the Scottish Highlands

Like Scotland, Iceland, and the Basque region, Ireland has a rich history of heavy stone lifting as a form of passage. Successfully lifting the stone marked one's transition from boy to man. But unlike those other places, Ireland’s history has been largely forgotten.

Stone lifting is a test of strength completely alien from the modern gym movements done by thousands of Irish men and women. The stones are heavy, ranging anywhere from 130 to 200+ kilos. They are also awkward to hold and are typically only lifted once. To lift a heavy stone is to prove one’s manhood and a successful lift meant a lifetime reputation as a strongman.

Peig Sayer's brother Seán was known as the 'Pounder' thanks, in part, to his prowess with the stones. Fans of modern strongman and strongwoman competitions are likely familiar with this practice, given the inclusion of heavy Atlas stones in competitions. Unlike the smooth Atlas stones, true stone lifting is done with asymmetrical, rough, and old stones native to local regions.

Lifting a heavy stone is part show of strength and part ritual

In Iceland and Scotland, stone-lifting has experienced a revival in the past two decades. The practice is celebrated as part of each country's respective cultural heritage and is now even a tourist trade. It is possible to get maps in both countries detailing every stone and their story. Found in graveyards, fields, schoolyards and canals, each stone carries a story of the strongman who lifted it and its significance.

To lift the stone is to join a lineage of strongmen and women dating back centuries. While Scottish stones, such as the Dinnie Stones (named after 19th century athlete Donald Dinnie and weighing 332.49kg), are known throughout the world, Ireland's own stone lifting history has been lost, or kept solely within local memories for many decades.

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Scottish strongwoman Leigh Holland-Keen became the second woman in history to lift the Dinnie Stones in 2018

Part of this forgetting relates to Ireland's own peculiarised rural histories. Stone lifting is done in the islands, the rural parts of the country and fishing communities. It is not a practice found in the cities, nor is it a practise that can be easily transported. A lifting stone must always remain where it lies.

Tracing the history of lifting stones in Ireland is particularly difficult. Knowledge either remains with the locals, passed down through stories or, is found in old place names or snippets from biographies. One of the few concrete resources we have is the National Folklore Collection. Covering the period 1937 to 1939, this was a Government education initiative which saw schoolchildren record memories from their parents and grandparents. Done to capture Ireland’s older stories before they disappeared, the collection covered everything from local legends to herbal medicines and sport.

It is in this collection that Ireland’s stone lifting heritage comes alive. There we find stories of stonemen contests using the stones, farmers exhibiting their strength in the fields and the men who became local legends through their strength. The problem for researchers is equating the stories with modern locations. Reference is often made to the 'old churchyard’ or the ‘hill’ or the ‘school', which has made finding the physical stones nigh impossible.

Jamie Gorrian lifts the Inishmore stone to chest level. Photo: David Keohan

But fortunes have changed recently. In the past year, stone lifter David Keohan has, through a great deal of travel and perseverance, discovered three lifting stones, two in the Aran Islands and one in Co Tipperary. In a graveyard in Clogheen, Co Tipperary lies the stone of Thomas Lonergan, a local strongman who accepted challengers from across the country to lift his 130 kg stone. At Mouilín Port Bhéal an Dún, Inishmore lies a 171kg stone used by locals. Keohan has already posted the stone’s location to Lifting Stones, a site with an interactive map for people interested in travelling to these regions and lifting the stones.

Likewise, we now know of a stonemason’s testing stone, Tástáil na Saor Cloiche, weighing 150 kg in Inishmore. Lifted by the men responsible for building beautiful dry-stone walls across the island, this stone was raised to the height of a wall or chest for bragging rights. Showing the difficulty of uncovering these stones, the stone was part of a local’s dry-stone wall and had to be physically removed before Keohan could lift it. Thankfully, the owner was aware of its heritage and was happy to remove brambles, thorns, and stones to restore its status as a test of strength.

This is a kind of feat that combines mysticism, local heritage and community.

Lifting a heavy stone is part show of strength and part ritual. Lifters now travel to these regions from across the world, test their mettle and celebrate a ritual which connects them to their strength forebearers. As recent documentaries on the practice have revealed, this is a kind of feat that combines mysticism, local heritage and community.

We know from the folk collection that more stones certainly exist in Ireland. The next step is for locals to come forward with their own knowledge and histories about these stones so Ireland's stone lifting heritage can join other nations and become a site of pilgrimage and celebration. If anyone reading this article has any more information on these stones, please do get in touch.

Conor Heffernan is Lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at Ulster University. He also runs Physical Culture Study, a history of fitness website. He is an Irish Research Council awardee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ