The Old Irish Blacksmith's Furnace

Patrick Weston Joyce

IN my two books, "A Social History of Ancient Ireland" and "A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland," there is a chapter on "Workers in Wood, Metal, and Stone," of which one section is devoted to an account of the Blacksmith and his Forge. It is necessary to remind the reader that this section—as well indeed as the whole chapter—relates to a period from the eleventh century backwards to ages of unknown antiquity.

The various appliances of the forge are there described in detail:—the anvil with its nose and block; the sledge and hand-hammer; the pincers or tongs; the water-trough; the bellows and bellows-blower, as well as the manner of blowing. The fuel used was wood-charcoal (appropriately called cual crainn, "coal of crann or wood") of which that made from the wood of the birch tree gave the greatest heat obtainable by the old metal workers. The smith always kept a supply of charcoal in bags in the forge. All these appliances, helps, utensils, and tools, as well as others, are described, and as it were reconstructed, with their make and the modes of working them, from a minute examination of Ancient Irish Writings.

After the publication of the "Social History," a further close inspection of the old texts enabled me to arrive at the construction of the blacksmith's furnace, as it existed more than a thousand years ago: a point never worked out till now. As an example of a proper and sane method of investigation and of careful induction, I will here set forth the whole process, mainly for the instruction of those numerous persons—and especially young workers—who are now busily engaged in the study of Irish lore all over Ireland, as well as elsewhere. I will do so in simple language too; and I ask my readers to be careful not to mistake simplicity of language for shallowness of treatment, as some people do.[1]

The following short essay—and indeed the whole of this little book—may be considered as still carrying out the main literary function of my life: namely, to simplify and popularise Irish lore, and thereby to make it more generally read and enjoyed.

In ancient times in Ireland, as well as in many other countries, smiths, as being the makers of arms, were held in great estimation; many stories were told about them in Irish writings, which are still extant; and they and their various implements are often mentioned. So the literary mine we are now about to open up in search of Smith-lore is richer than usual.


[1] For two other, though less ancient, examples of the application of this inductive method, the leader may look at the identification of Spenser's "Baleful Oure" with the river Avonbeg in Wicklow (p. 90, above), and of his "Molanna" with the little stream Behanna (pp. 99 to 105).