Irish Flagstones Revisited - The Argument for Native Paving Stones (April 2009)

By Sean Daly of Irish Stone Gardens

Most gardens need some designated space for hard surfaces. Whether it is pathways for access, patios and terraces for seating, edging around ponds, or steps leading to the house or into the garden, it is the job of the designer to choose the best material. It is the job of the hard-landscaper to execute the design. Please note: We at Howbert and Mays do not sell paving slabs. 

As a hard-landscaper, I have used a wide variety of materials over the last twenty or so years. Initially, these were often manufactured, concrete flagstones, but mostly natural stone, according to what was available at the time. At first, the only natural stone available was irregular in shape and size. ‘Crazy paving’ was all the rage, and there was no shortage of Irish quarries supplying the market - such as it was - with stones from counties Mayo, Leitrim, Clare and Donegal to the forefront.

Most of these quarries were essentially cottage industries in rural Ireland, supplementing farming income in subsistence areas. Larger stones of irregular shape were available, and were regularly used in Clare and Mayo in particular, for flooring and roofing in the local farm houses and cottages. Going further back, there were a number of well organised, commercial quarries: Dalkey in Dublin, and Doolin/Liscannor in Co Clare spring to mind. In these quarries, many hundreds of men produced hand finished, regular dimensioned flags for the Irish and English markets, particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

About fifteen years ago, sawn edged stones began to appear from the western seaboard quarries, prepared by men using con saws. These are hand held, engine driven disc saws, primarily used for cutting concrete window sills, window heads and kerb stones in the building industry. Soon after that, large disc table mounted saws came to be used. Of course, all the while throughout middle Ireland, flagstones from the limestone quarries of Leinster and east Galway were being produced to supply the paving needs, public and private, of the developing provincial towns and the regional cities.

About eight years ago, the Irish boom took hold in earnest, and with it came an increased demand for garden related products. Imported stone began to arrive in Ireland by the container load; at first, sandstone and limestone from India and, in the last few years, cut granite from China. The popularity of these stones really took off, with importers needing immense yards to store them and fleets of trucks to deliver them. One importer in south County Dublin, interviewed for this article, brings in 300 containers a year. His conservative estimate is that there are as many as 5,000 containers imported annually. At over 300 sq. metres per container, that's an awful lot of Croke Parks.

The Indian sandstones in particular had many plus points: they were immediately available; they were competitively priced; they were easy for the landscaper to handle because of their dimensions [one man could easily manage even the biggest of them]; they needed no tweaking and very little cutting; they were of reasonably uniform thickness. Most of all, though, what really sold them to the public was their very pretty appearance. “Aren’t the colours amazing?” was, and still is, the usual comment from customer and landscaper alike. “Really brightens up the garden.” And then: “Maybe we should make the patio bigger.” “The people next door have that mint colour, could we have the desert-sand colour or the camel-brown or the flame-red?” Lovely. If you had a forklift and a bit of space, you could import your own container from India. After all, there are 65 different quarries vying for your business on www.indian-sandstone.com. And with prices constantly coming down, in a few short years every house and garden in Ireland will have its multi-coloured patio.

Maybe it’s that ubiquity, or perhaps it is the eco-ethical madness of bringing something as bulky as stone halfway round the world, when we have at least as good on our own doorstep, or maybe it is the pretty-pretty appearance of the stone that is now turning me against it. In any event, lately I have had clients asking me to take it away and replace it with something less loud, something that will give the planted garden more of a chance to shine.

In the last year, I have again found myself heading west and not east in search of my hard surface material. I am revisiting two or three quarries in particular. For flagstones with real inner beauty and character, and not a little charm, I have gone back to Lacken stone from Mayo. These stones have plenty of colour and more than enough visual interest, yet will not upset the aesthetic balance of any garden. I will not attempt to impose any exotic colour names on them - these stones can speak for themselves. I exhort every garden lover who reads this to head for the north Mayo coast, up past Killala, and pay a visit to the Goldricks, who have been quarrying here since at least the 1920’s. You will then get some sense of the landscape and its interaction with the Atlantic that gives the unique colour, depth of personality and strength to these true flagstones. Photos don’t do them justice. You have to touch and see these stones for yourself.

No longer a cottage industry, Lacken Stone is a thriving business employing 18 people from the locality. The Goldrick family have invested substantially in equipment and product development. Apart from the paving stones, which occur as the upper strata of the quarry, there is a deeper mother stone, which they are able to slice into pieces of any required dimension. With other equipment they are able to put a bull nose effect on the edge of the stone and flame finish the surface. This technology has proven a great boon in the provision, for example, of formal, high quality finished garden steps, removing as it does that too sharp sawn edge which spoils the appearance of most modern outdoor steps.

Returning to the flagstones, there are one or two practical things to bear in mind when using them. Firstly, because of their irregular thickness, it is necessary to saw cut as opposed to guillotine split them. For this reason, some of the 90 degree angles are not exactly that, and the contractor will have to sometimes do a little adjusting, using the con saw. Secondly, the paving stones have that sharp sawn edge previously alluded to, which may require hand dressing - that is, gently tapping away with a lump hammer at the edges to create a slightly softer looking edge. A somewhat similar effect can be obtained by using a grinding stone on a hand held angle grinder. The stones come in equal widths, e.g., two foot [60cms.], but of unequal lengths, so it is more convenient to lay them stretcher bond, with a continuous horizontal line and a broken vertical line. They should be lain on a continuous wet mix of 4 or 5 sand to 1 cement. They will never rock if they are bedded in, as they have just the right porosity to bond with that mix.

Lastly, unlike their companions from the east, these western gems age gracefully. Please note: We at Howbert and Mays do not sell paving slabs. 

Sean Daly, 2006

 

Two gardens using Irish paving materials (Design and Planting by Howbert and Mays / dyg)Mayo sandstone paving around pond, Dalkey

This garden uses Sandstone paving from Co Mayo. This wonderful stone comes in very large slabs and ages gracefully, with none of the algal slime found on Indian sandstone.  When first put down the stones are of various shades, but as the oxidise the colours even out. (Stonework by Irish Stone Gardens)

 

Kilkenny limestone paving, Stillorgan, Co Dublin

This garden: Kilkenny limestone with a sawn finish gives a very clean line which matches well to modern architecture. (Stonework by Irish Stone Gardens)

 

Liscannor limestone paving, Ballyvaughan, The Burren

A garden using plenty of local stone in Balyvaughan, Co Clare.

Please note: We at Howbert and Mays do not sell paving slabs.