A life in stone, part II

A life in stone, part II

(For part one, please go here)

My father worked in the yard, in a draughty courrugated iron shed (terribly hard to heat in winter, even the powerful space heaters he had couldn’t help much). There was a lot of chiselling and grinding and polishing, hard work involving a lot of water and noise and grit. This work had changed even in his lifetime. In the back yard there was a big block of marble which he said was his fathers’. In those days, you really did start from the block of marble. Today, he told me, you couldn’t pay someone to do this kind of work, it would just take too long.

It was his job to cut and polish the kerbs, chisel the incriptions on the uheadstones, transport all the pieces to the cemetery and assemble it. To load and unload his lorry he had just a small yellow folding hydralic crane and a few planks and rollers. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, multiple opportunies to crush a finger or two. Of course, some headstones were more challenging than others. The tall celtic crosses in particular with their heavy plinths and marble crosses were very heavy. Kerbs in particular seem to be an Irish or British concern: the gravestones are never a simple monument but have long stone bars on each of the four sides. Depending on your budget, you could have simple limestone kerbs, or, if you had the money, some nice black granite. The black granite, he told me, came from South Africa, and remember this was the 1980s, which certainly created some contradictions when you consider it was used for some of the more controversial monuments you could find in a northern Irish cemetary.

Most of his monuments were supplied by Feely Stone, just over the border in Athlone, in the “prarie” part of Ireland which no tourists go. Often the big lorries from Feely stone would arrive in our yard, inching slowly through the front gate with only few a millimeters clearance either side, heavily laden with headstones, gravel, kerbs. It would take the good part of a day to unload. Once, the driver was an Italian from Carrera: when I lived in Italy, I once drove through Carrera myself. They have been extracting marble for centuries, from Roman times I think. Michelangelo himself lived there for a while near the quarries to be sure to find exactly the right piece of stone. Driving slowly along the road, I saw monuments and sculptures were lined along both sides. I thought of my father, who had never been to Italy, and never visited Carrera.

I remember one trip to Feely with my mother, after we moved to Stewartstown, to pick up a statue of the Virgin Mary. Well, a man explained to me when we visited, today there is now a new cheap way to make a statues, you just needed marble dust and resin and you can bond everything together in a mold. No need to sit with a chisel for hours in the cold. The talismanic properties our resin-bonded Virgin Mary were minimal, however: on the way back from Feely stone, our car broke down and some students working nearby in the country on an EU-funded project drove us to a nearby garage where the car was repaired.

I went with my father a few times to the cemetary, I helped him out as best I could. He drove with his monuments all over Tyrone, up into the mountains near Gortin even. The days would be long, in the summer he would return to the house often well after seven. He was not a tall man, but he was very solidly built with big hands and strong arms. He almost never used gloves and his hands were thickly callused. At the end of those long days in the cemetary I was completely exhausted, I had never worked like that before or since.  I appreciated what real work was: I can’t imagine what this must have been like for my father: even then, he was no longer a young man.

Well, we moved from the Burn road to Stewarstown, where we built our new house and my father had a new shed. It was not much warmer than the one he had had in Cookstown. Our house was built on land that our Uncle peter had bought twenty years previously with the project of starting a pig farm. That project didn’t work out, and a few years later, Peter left for America, never to return. He gave the land to my mother, his sister, for us to build our house on. I remember visiting the site with my parents just before the construction started: there was just an enormous sea of mud with the outhouse for the pigs in the middle. I felt that if I stepped on the wrong piece of ground I would sink to my neck in mud and drown. There were some problems with drainage, obviously.

Along the way, there were a few technical innovations in the stone-masons’ trade: sandblasting meant that one could put a paper mask over a headstone, cut the inscription on the paper with a stanley knife to expose the stone, and then blast it away with special sand forced on the stone by a powerful air compressor. My father even had a portable version to take to the cemetary: the gain in time was considerable.

He and his assistant Ronnie would cut the paper by hand. But he was an enthusiastic subscriber to “Stone” magazine, a black-and-white trade journal from America which was filled with the latest technical innovations. Apparently the Americans were using Apple II computers to cut stencils and my father talked jokingly about buying one to stay abreast of the latest technological developments. You can imagine how much I thought this was a good idea: this was around 1981 and I had just gotten a ZX81 and was spending a lot of time in our front room on the black-and-white TV writing programs in BASIC and playing games which usually involved being attacked by different letters of the alphabet. (The pope’s visit to Ireland saved me from spending as much time in front room: we bought a second portable TV so that my grandmother, who was bedridden, could follow his Jean-Paul on live TV. This second TV was soon used as a monitor.) I would have loved to have a *real* computer, as I am sure we wouldn’t be spending all the time printing stencils with it. But, alas, an Apple II and a stencil-printing machine were well out of the budget of McCracken Monumental Memorials.

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