[Another great suggestion from SB Babs. If this subject interests you I recommend the immersive interview with David Keohan on the Blindboy podcast which provides a more in depth cultural backdrop. SB SM]
A strongman is on a mission to uncover and lift these forgotten tests of strength.
By Alyssa Ages
August 28, 2023
For centuries, Ireland’s stones were more than just a feature of the rugged landscape: The ability to pick them up off of the ground had deep practical and spiritual meaning. Lifting stones were used in tests of manhood (and, in a few cases, womanhood), hoisted at funerals to honor the dead, carried at weddings in celebration of the couple, and used to determine whether a man was strong enough to earn work as a farmhand. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, during British colonization, the practice largely vanished. Most of the stones remained untouched where they were last lifted.
This is how the man they call Indiana Stones came to be standing in the middle of a churchyard 60 miles north of Dublin, bale hook in one hand, crowbar in the other. He notices that something immediately feels wrong about this place: It’s too new, too pristine. If he’s going to find––and attempt to lift––a 400-year-old rock once stood upon during secret Catholic mass gatherings, and used to invoke curses upon one’s neighbors, it’s not going to be here.
Just as he starts to fear his four-hour journey was in vain, an elderly man pops his head out of the church door. That stone he’s looking for is close, the man says, about a mile down the road in another graveyard that’s overgrown with eight-foot-tall weeds. So off he goes.
For the past year, this has become a regular routine for 44-year-old David Keohan who holds a kettlebell lifting world record and has lately become a star in the world of stone lifting, an ancient practice that’s experiencing a surprising resurgence. He’s traveling around Ireland uncovering the country’s lost lifting stones, and today he’s looking for the Flag of Denn.
Only six men are known to have lifted the stone, including a man called Michael Clarke, who, according to legend, hoisted it onto his back over a century ago, walked 150 feet to the local pub, downed a glass of whisky with the stone still on his back, and walked right back to the graveyard. Keohan is hoping that if he can find it, he can claim his place as the seventh.
Standing at the left corner of the old graveyard, Keohan begins to hack his way across the acre-long expanse of weeds. He’s nearly made it to the other side of the yard with no sight of the stone and is starting to wonder if maybe he should just give up, when he spots a big lump of ivy in the far-right corner. He drives the bale hook into the bramble over and over, possessed by the possibility of finally finding what he came for, when he hears the satisfying sound of metal hitting rock. He tosses the hook and begins to rip the vines away with his hands.
Two hours after he began, and moments before he was about to give up, Keohan runs his hands across the seven-inch-thick brown rectangular block of stone. He’s able to use his strength to stand the stone upright, but at about 440 pounds, it’s too heavy for him to lift from the ground. Though he’s exhausted, he knows he’ll soon return for another attempt. In the meantime, there are more stones waiting to be uncovered.
Nearly a year after uncovering the Flag of Denn, Keohan’s stone-discovery total has grown to 30 (and he’s lifted all but two of them). He estimates there might be another 30 out there, wedged into the corners of old graveyards, half buried in the sand on the coastline, or sitting on the front lawn of a clueless landowner. Stone lifting was a part of Irish life for hundreds of years, but thanks to an effort to erase the country’s language and culture during British colonization, the practice was all but forgotten and the stones lost to memory and overgrowth. Keohan’s quest is to ensure these stones are found and the stories are recorded before both are lost forever.
“These stones are both a painful reminder of a cultural genocide which occurred over several centuries but also a reminder of Irish strength and fortitude,” explains Conor Heffernan, a lecturer in the sociology of sport at Ulster University. “Rediscovering these stones helps to recover an Irish past that is unknown to millions across the island.”
Keohan’s first missions began by searching the Duchas Archives, a digitized version of The National Folklore Collection, the culmination of a 1937 government initiative to have schoolchildren record stories of Irish culture from relatives and neighbors. Those handwritten notes offer Keohan the closest thing he has to a map.
Keohan looks for clues, like the name of a town, then joins local village Facebook groups in search of anyone with more details on a stone’s location. From there, most of Keohan’s stone-finding stories involve traveling to the town and meeting a local who says something like, Oh sure, I can show you that stone. My grandad picked it up once at his cousin’s funeral. And off they go to find it.
Today, people all around Ireland send him tips based on stories they’ve heard, or stones they’ve spotted that seem a little out of place in the landscape: They are covered with less moss, or seem to be purposely separated from nearby rocks. There’s the stone that he heard about from a woman he knows, who heard about it from someone she works with, who heard from someone they used to work with, who heard about it from their dad: Apparently, the village men used to lift and carry it as far as possible on their way to church. And the rare women’s testing stone he found resting right beside the men’s stone. And the beheading stone that still bears the imprint of an axe. And the druidic offering stone from the seventh or eighth century. And the one that’s marked by the hand of the giant who hurled it a thousand years ago. One of his most recent finds includes a stone in northern Ireland that predates the North/South divide. Oftentimes he finds himself picking up a stone in the presence of the last known person to have lifted it. Then they all head inside for tea and cookies to celebrate.
Though stones of strength are now synonymous with strongman competitions, where competitors often lift man-made orbs called Atlas stones, the practice is thousands of years old, with roots in nearly every corner of the globe: In Japan, strength stones (chikaraishi) were used not just for fitness but in Shinto religious rituals, and more than 14,000 stones have been found in temples across the country. In Spain, the Basque lifting culture has its roots in farm labor and is still practiced today, more than 500 years after the first written mention of the sport. The first known stone-lifting feat comes from ancient Greece, from the sixth century BCE. The 316-pound stone bears the Iron Age equivalent of an Instagram flex: “Bybon son of Phola has lifted me over head with one hand.” (Historians say that is unlikely.)
Today it’s also the ultimate DIY workout. Head outside, find some rocks, pick them up, maybe carry them for a bit, put them back down. It’s functional strength in the strictest sense: The form used to pick up boulders is the same used to lift your kids, a heavy box, a bag of gardening soil.
Keohan started his own stone-lifting journey out of necessity when his gym closed at the start of the pandemic. He picked up some rocks in his backyard, often piling kettlebells on top for extra heft. Sometimes he’d head down to the local beach and just hoist whatever he could find. “I’ve never felt stronger,” he says. “I work in a builder’s yard, picking up bags of coal and cement, and it doesn’t feel like a weight now. Everything is so easy. It’s such a fundamental movement to be able to pick something like that up off the ground.”
For Keohan and his fellow historical stone lifters, the practice means something more than just a great workout or a cool Instagram reel. They travel around the world to pick up these storied rocks and connect with history, even for a brief moment of grueling discomfort. In Scotland, there’s the oldest known stone that can still be lifted (Bybon’s is in a museum), the Fianna Stone, a 280-pound monster from the turn of the 11th century. According to legend, it once determined whether a man could join a band of warriors in protecting their land. In Iceland, there are the 400-year-old Dritvík stones, once used to qualify would-be fishermen to work on the boats: picking up the lightest stone (50 pounds) would make you a weakling, while pulling the heaviest (340 pounds) would make you fullsturker: full strong. The stronger you were, the more you got paid.
While Keohan searches for the lost stones, he also finds and names new ones he thinks could one day become their own part of history, like the approximately 352-pound giant he found on the beach near his home and named An Chloch Chorcra, or “The Purple Stone.” It’s so tall, he has to squat behind it and grip it in a bear hug to get it off the ground.
He’s not the only one trying to build new lifting traditions with nonhistorical stones. In Utah, Ryan Stewart, a former pro Highland Games athlete who has lifted the Dinnie Stones, perhaps the most famous historical test of strength, led the creation of the Utah Stones of Strength by finding, weighing, and naming 10 lifting stones around the state. In Edmonton, Alberta, brothers Dave Nisbet (also a Dinnie Stone lifter) and Dale Nisbet (a geologist who has lifted the Fianna Stone), who come from Scottish ancestry, founded Edmonton Stones of Strength. They have dug up and weighed about 40 stones, including one they labeled with an Irish name with Keohan’s backing and insight: Éiǵellí, a 380-pound beast that lifters have to hoist to their shoulder to earn that Gaelic title of Éiǵellí, meaning akin to a beast, a berserker.
Four months after he uncovered the Flag of Denn, Keohan finds himself in a similarly tangled situation in an ancient churchyard about halfway between Dublin and Galway. He’s here to find the Mrs. Kildea stone, which has one of Keohan’s favorite stories attached to it. According to an entry in the National Folklore Project, the men of the area used to have trials of strength every Sunday to see who could lift the roughly 375-pound stone highest off the ground. One Sunday, a local woman named Mrs. Kildea stood watch, taunting the men for their weakness. They challenged her to test it herself, she agreed, and beat them all by lifting and launching the stone over a six-foot wall, where it remained, as no one was strong enough to return it to the other side. Could Keohan challenge Mrs. Kildea’s record? First, he had to find the stone.
Thanks to an archaeologist named Daniel Curley, PhD, whom Keohan met in a Facebook group, he knew where to start his search. With Curley by his side, they found an ancient ruin. At first, all the stones they found were small and moss-covered, indicating they hadn’t been lifted in many years, if ever. Then Keohan spotted a bare, massive, sharp-edged rock two feet from the wall beside the church. After slashing through the vines for 20 minutes, blood from his hands mixing with the mud from the ground, he freed the stone. Now there was the matter of lifting it.
Attempt one didn’t budge it, so he tried again. And another time. He was exhausted, and the Guinness he drank just before the journey wasn’t helping. Finally, on the fifth attempt, he lifted the stone from the ground, pulled it into his lap in a deep squat, and stood upright with it. It wasn’t quite equal to Mrs. Kildea’s six-foot toss, but it would do.
Alyssa Ages is a journalist and the author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength out September 9th.