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.