The Blacksmith, Mayo Abbey in Co. Mayo
For centuries the blacksmith's trade had been considered the most important of all. His services were required by nearly every member of the community in which he worked. Whether it was for shoeing a horse, making a gate, plough irons, spades, shovels, sleans, scythes and putting iron tyres on cartwheels or making and effecting repairs to farm implements, or producing a variety of domestic items such as rushlight holders, oatcake toasters, fire tongs and cranes, pots griddles, candlestick holders, and fire irons, knives, forks, scissors, needles and pins as well as locks, bolts and hasps, screws.
Here in East Mayo we had some very good blacksmiths. In Churchfield, Knock, we had Eoin McTighe and near Ballyhaunis we had Brod Boyle and many more. Blacksmiths were usually very good story tellers, and Eoin and Brod were no exception. They were well able to tell a yarn as good as John B. Keane or Eamon Kelly and keep you in suspense as they told it and striking the anvil every so often as to confirm it was true.
The forge was usually situated beside a road and close to running water. Passers-by would drop in for a chat, so the forge was never without a group of men and boys, some of them waiting their turn with a piece of work for the smith, and others just passing the time away. Women very rarely came to the forge and if they came with some job for the smith, they hardly ever entered and usually went away quickly.
No blacksmith had difficulty in gathering a group of neighbours to till his garden and woe betide anyone who refused to help when asked, thereby taking the smith away from his more important work in the forge.
The blacksmith was both respected and a feared member of the community. It was well known that he could lay charms and spells, though always for a good purpose, such as the cure of illness. He worked all day with iron, and it was common knowledge that iron was a safeguard against the powers of evil. He could set at nought the evil spells laid to steal the produce from fields or the butter from the dairy; this was accomplished by a liberal sprinkling of the forge water, accompanied by the appropriate words which were known only to himself.
The smith wasn't just the local metalworker, he was also the dentist in the old days. When a person had severe toothache the answer was to visit the blacksmith's forge and have the tooth out. This was achieved by tying a piece of strong string to the tooth and also the anvil. The smith then gave a red hot piece of metal to the sufferer who jerked away in horror and pulled his own tooth out. Some smiths pulled teeth with their fingers; some are said to have used the horse-shoe tongs.
There was a cure for warts and other skin ailments in the water he used for quenching the hot iron provided the skin wasn't open. And in some areas it was believed if the same water were applied to a squinty eye three mornings in succession without the smith's knowledge, it would cure the squint. The smith also treated horses.
Saddle-sores and bruises were treated with washes, using the water from the trough, and he could flush out a horse's nose with a syringe he made himself from a pig's bladder. And some were believed to have the power to mete revenge by turning the anvil while cursing the person who had done the wrong.
The good smith was said to have an eye sharper than the tailor's measure. He could tell at a glance and to within an inch the length of iron required for the band of a wheel or the exact height of a horse or pony by looking at them or their age by a glance at their teeth. He was a patient craftsman; such tasks as the assembling of an iron gate might take a couple of hours of unbroken work, and seldom did that length of time pass without some customer coming with an urgent job.
In some areas the smith had a standing arrangement by which he gave regular service in shoeing horses and repairing equipment for the farmers in return for regular deliveries to him at set times of produce such as oats, potatoes, flour, vegetables. Others paid him the fair day he went early to the fair and the farmers settled up with him when they sold.
Sadly the smith's trade is no longer required now, with factories and machinery doing his work.
Written and researched by Noreen Costello and Luke Flatley