When they hear the words 'lifting stone," most people—if they are familiar with the term at all—probably think of strongmen and male bodybuilders struggling to lift small boulders in Iceland or Scotland, perhaps of the famous Dinnie Stones. But the traditional test of strength has a long history in Ireland, as well—and a recent remarkable discovery shows that the feat wasn't just for the men.
Her Sport recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Connor Heffernan, Lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at Ulster University, and David Keohan, stone lifter and finder of Irish lifting stones, about David's recent find of a lifting stone traditionally used by women—the first such discovery not only in Ireland, but in the world.
"Put simply, a lifting stone is a test of strength," explained Dr. Heffernan—one that has a long history and isn't limited to Scotland and Iceland, although that's where the practice is most well-known.
"It is one of the oldest forms of strength and physical activity that we actually have...We have activities related to lifting stones in Ancient Greece, Ancient India, Ancient China. It's something that has endured across centuries and across regions. And the most beautiful thing about lifting stones is that every culture has its own unique lift, in the Basque, in Japan, in Scotland, in China, in Iceland."
Ireland, too, has its own culture of lifting stones; stones were often lifted at gatherings after Mass or funerals, less in formal competition than as a social gathering. Lifting stones was also often linked to social status. Keohan heard from one man whose grandfather was the last man to lift the stone on Inishmaan; he said his grandfather didn't have to buy a pint for six weeks.
"There's a long history that goes way back, but it was hidden for the past hundred, hundred and fifty years," says Keohan. Dr. Heffernan explained that the frustrating thing for a historian was that though stories of Irish lifting stones existed, no one knew where that might be.
So it was fitting that it was a paper of Dr. Heffernan's on Irish lifting stones that brought the puzzle to Keohan's attention, and sparked his curiosity.
"'Jeez,' I just thought, 'There must be something here.' So I started digging."
Keohan started trawling through Dúchas.ie, the website which includes the digitization of the National Folklore Collection. Many of the source documents originated from the Irish Folklore Commission's initiative in the 1930s, when schoolchildren were asked to interview their parents and grandparents and document the traditions and stories of their communities.
"And a lot of this was to do with local heroes," explained Keohan, "and a lot of that was to do with local stone lifting. 'A man lifted a heavy stone at this crossroads,' or 'some man lifted a heavy stone in this graveyard.' So I went to these graveyards and looked around, talked to locals, tramping through wood and graveyards and cutting through hedges, and I've managed to find fifteen [lifting stones] so far, with about twenty more leads."
"So now we've got fifteen tangible pieces of history that you can go out and actually lay your hands on them and get in contact with our mythological past, our strength history, our socioeconomic, and our political past."
But the even more remarkable discovery was a woman's lifting stone found in Fahy graveyard in Co. Clare.
"Stone lifting is more associated with male feats of strength, it's typically seen as a masculinity test. How high or how heavy the object you lift determines your status of masculinity within a community," explains Dr. Heffernan.
"So to find a woman's lifting stone is unprecedented."
The only comparable stone in the world is the Icelandic Húsafell stone, which according to legend was carried by a farmer's daughter—but this is a mythological story, not a historical source.
In contrast, the Fahy woman's stone is side by side with the larger men's stone, apparently equally as accepted. "It's an incredible discovery," said Dr. Heffernan.
It was also one that was a result of Keohan's diligence. He explains that after a year of legwork, he began to be known as a finder of stones, and people aware of stones near them would send him tips.
A stranger from County Clare contacted Keohan about an old book he had by Gerard Madden on the conservation of East Clare, which mentioned two lifting stones in Fahy graveyard, a man's and a woman's.
"And he said, 'I presume they're still there'...So I went up that Saturday!"
After a bit of sleuthing—the graveyard is old enough to not be on Google Maps—Keohan found the farmer whose land the stones were on.
"You know, I'm after driving three and a half hours, I hope he's there and I hope he's okay with this, so I find him and he's a lovely man. I say 'Look, I'm here, I'm doing a bit of research,' and he says "Oh yeah, they're down there in the graveyard, the two stones."
Keohan found them frozen together (the temperature was -2°) in the tiny graveyard. According to the farmer, who is in his late 70s, no one had lifted them in his lifetime.
Keohan managed a lift on the woman's lifting stone, "which is still damn heavy, I don't mind saying, I go around making a business of lifting stones and I'd say it was about 120 kilos, which would be heavier than a lot of the male lifting stones in Scotland."
Keohan and Heffernan agree that the significance of the find can hardly be overstated.
"There's no telling how many people have come and gone and lifted that stone—it just goes to show you that we had that male and female strength all the way back," said Keohan.
Heffernan again emphasized the uniqueness of the discovery, pointing out that though there's the legend of the Húsafell stone and though women like Jan Todd have lifted famous men's lifting stones, the Fahy stone's historicity is unique. It's also valuable as proof of women's lineage of strength in Ireland, a history that is often hidden; Heffernan compares it to Irish place names lost to colonization.
"To find objects like this which seem to act as a focal point for these lost histories of Gaelic Ireland, lost histories of the men and women who've gone before us, and these lost histories of women's strength...it's hard to contextualize how exciting and important that is," said Heffernan.
He elaborated that the mystery around it is part of what's intriguing about the Fahy women's stone; because lifting stones is so closely associated with masculinity, there are many unknowns.
"What did it mean in a male feat of strength for a woman to lift these stones, did it have the same kudos? We don't know, because women's sport was not captured in the same way that men's strength was, because typically these are male feats of strength. For a historian it's fascinating and equally infuriating."
Keohan hopes to find more lifting stones connected to women as he tracks down more leads and uncovers these powerful pieces of history.