For David Keohan, stone lifting started as a way to build muscle when his gym closed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has since become a “mission” to restore what he describes as a “lost culture”. In Ireland.
For centuries, the stones in Ireland’s rugged landscape were more than mere geographical features. The ability to lift a specific stone was used in tests of strength and often as a rite of passage at events such as weddings and funerals.
However, the practice began to disappear in the 18th and 19th centuries during British colonization and almost disappeared completely in the 1840s when the Great Famine devastated the country. Most stones remain untouched where they were last lifted.
Keohan, 44, who hails from the city of Waterford and holds a world record for kettlebell lifting, learned that there is a tradition of stone lifting in Scotland, Iceland and also the Basque Country of Spain, before delving into Ireland’s own national folklore.
So far he has found 31 such stones “scattered” around Ireland, most of which he lifted himself. They are mostly in the west, but he has just returned from the north where he found one in Derry.
“There were hundreds of stories about it, of men and women lifting stones as a feat of strength and a rite of passage,” he says. “So I went to these areas and started asking older people about the stories.
“Of course there was always someone in the area who knew about it. You meet these people and they tell you a lot about it and the story behind it, the stone or the last person who lifted it.
“There is always a story associated with it. It’s not just a stone away from the field. It is a specific stone in an area, usually a prominent area such as an intersection. The lifting of these stones could have occurred 1,500 years ago in some cases.”
Keohan, who goes by the Instagram handle Indiana Stones, says Irish lifting stones are the heaviest in the world, with an average weight of 170kg. However, a pillar stone he found last weekend weighed about 270kg.
“There was one in the Aran Islands that was part of a village,” he says. “The test of strength in the village was to go out and lift this stone. It was a great day in the life of a young man when he was able to go out and lift that stone from the ground.
“Chiefs used to be crowned at this stone at the top of the hill and it was a test of strength to lift it off the ground.
“There are lots of different ways to raise them. For some, a centimeter was enough. This is called “controlling the wind,” which I think is a nice poetic way of raising it.
“Some of them had to be lifted onto the chest. One in Ireland had to be put on a pedestal. There is a stone on Inis Meáin that had to be lifted up to a wall as part of your training to become a stonemason. One in Kilkenny had to be led around a tree.”
Keohan says it requires a lot of training because it’s “totally different” than lifting a deadlift. “The shape is difficult and the texture could be smooth and round,” he explains. “It’s just a lot harder and you have to get it off the ground too.”
What’s even better for Keohan is that his “mission” to bring back this lost element of Irish culture appears to be gaining momentum. He is writing a book about it and plans to organize tours. There are also four documentaries about it currently in the works.
“It has evolved from a joyous drive into a national identity,” he says. “This was part of our heritage that was taken away from us. People are accessing it now and want to be a part of it. People have taken it to their hearts.”