Thursday, June 12, 2008


What a way to earn a living

The last few days have been spent back in Ireland, dodging showers and viewing some truly delicious stonework supplied by McMonagle Stone of Mountcharles in Co. Donegal. The real purpose of the journey was to spend a bit of time reviewing their expanding range of stone products and in talking the sales staff through the basics of pavement design, construction and maintenance, but I’ve had five glorious days of travelling the north-west corner of Ireland looking at stone, talking about stone, comparing stone, assessing stone, visiting sites, projects and quarries, meeting designers, contractors and installers, all in the name of “work”.

We started off looking at a couple of problems with colour: an over-exuberant oxidation of a Donegal Quartzite that has seen a limited number of pieces develop an allegedly undesirable rusty-brown, which, as far as I could see, is part of the natural weathering of the stone, and the “curse of the black limestone”, where the popular Chinese flagstone is bleached to a very bright grey by the strong summer sunshine. This is a problem affecting all suppliers of this particular imported limestone, and to date, the best cure I’ve seen is to use a Lithofin MN Colour Impregnator to revitalise the natural dark tones and then to ‘fix’ the renewed sombreness using MN Stain Stop. However, the McMonagle clan have been experimenting back at their Mountcharles HQ, using a whole range of different enhancers, impregnators and sealants to restore the jaded limestone and it has to be acknowledged that, of them all, the Romex Colour Enhancer is the new champion, bringing back the brooding hues, without rendering the stone glossy or waxy. As we’ve come to expect with Romex products, availability of this new jollop is limited but with this trial proving just how effective it can be, there’s bound to be a bit of a push to get it out to the ever-growing band of Romex distributors.

bleached limestone

The problem: Limestone that's lost its colour in the sunlight

treated limestone

The solution: Colour Enhancer - the Romex-treated flags are on the left

Down the coast, past the brooding hulk of Ben Bulben, through Sligo and skirting the plains of Mayo to the county Galway, where Moypave are undertaking the high-quality installation of sandstone and granite paving to a rather swanky private residence. I don’t normally comment publicly on contractor’s work but this has to be an exception. The standard is as good as anything I have ever seen, in both Ireland and Britain, and is leagues ahead of most work. Neville and his team deserve enormous credit for their endeavours. The detailed cutting-in around the sandstone heli-pad, the superb fan radius around the water feature and the near-perfect mitring of bay window angles is a joy to behold and an example to us all of just what is possible with a bit of effort.

circle feature

Gorgeous circle feature

taper cut radius

Perfect cutting to taper-cut ring radius

mitred corner

Lovely cutting-in to mitred bay angle

An evening catching up with kith and kin by the grey lake of Loughrea and then back north to Donegal. The weekend turned out to be that rarest of events in that part of the world: dry and sunny. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen Donegal without it being swathed in mist or oppressed by leaden skies and tipping rain, so it was an opportunity not to be wasted. The Dun Na nGall waterbus is a real treat: 90 minutes put-putting around the Bay for a mere 15 Euro, with history, drama, and wildlife in the form of newly born seal pups and a local “Wild Man” all part of the thrill.

Sunday was, if you’d believe it, even warmer, sunnier and drier. Three hours travelling through the Blue Stack Mountains to visit quartzite quarries around Gleann Cholm Cille, and one of the party suffered sunburn … yes, sunburn in County Donegal!

Quartzite is a hard rock, and a speciality of Donegal. For those not familiar with the material, think of it as a sandstone baked-hard by metamorphic processes. Crushed and heated by the huge tectonic pressures that created the mountains, quartzite is damned hard, but essentially still laminar in nature, making it relatively easy to split into sheets. The thicker sheets are guillotined to make walling block, while thinner sheets are trimmed to create flagstones, setts or tiles, or left in random shapes as the renowned quartzite crazy paving. Donegal quartzite occurs in hues of browns, buffs and greys, with a lightly textured surface that glistens in the sun. Where veins of granite have pierced the country rock, nuggets of pyrites (Fool’s Gold) can be found deposited within the hard-as-steel quartzite layers.

Conveniently, given the ‘soft’ climate of western Ireland, Donegal quartzite is resistant to weathering and is less prone to colonisation by algae and lichens than is much of the sandstone imported from Asia. Consequently, it stays cleaner for longer, and retains its colour without fading or bleaching, making it a superb stone for paving, building or hard-landscaping.

There’s minimal waste in these quarries: the sheets are selected for the most appropriate use, be it walling, paving or tiling. Any offcuts are crushed down to make 20, 14,10 or 6mm chippings, and the finer material is screened to create sands of various grain sizes, from gritty laying course sands to fluffy mortar or jointing sands. With crazy paving being less fashionable than once it was, the possibility of creating setts is being fully explored. Faces are worked according to what colours are required by customers, with blends incorporating more or less of the browns, buffs and greys mixed to order, but I have to admit that the grey with a dash of buffy-brown would be my first choice.

Paving and hard-landscaping displays of exceptional quality have been a feature of the trade in Ireland for far longer than those that have popped up recently in Britain, and even a medium-sized supplier in an out-of-the-way place like Mountcharles can create a stunning showcase for their products. There’s work still to be done at the McMonagle site, but these double-faced walls give just a flavour of the sheer beauty of the stone and the marvellous craftsmanship that is employed in their creation. Well worth a visit if you’re ever fortunate enough to be in that part of the world.

donegal quartzite walls

Brown and Buff Donegal Quartzite walling

irish limestone walls

Pitched Irish Limestone walling

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