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Independent.ie

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Ireland's oldest working Blacksmith still making sparks fly at the age of 84

Blacksmith Florrie O'Sullivan is the fourth generation blacksmith in his family - but also the last. Photo: Mark Condren
Blacksmith Florrie O'Sullivan is the fourth generation blacksmith in his family - but also the last. Photo: Mark Condren
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

Ireland's oldest working blacksmith has witnessed dramatic changes to rural life from the vantage point of his forge door.

Florrie O'Sullivan (84) can remember a time when his native village of Boolteens near Castlemaine, Co Kerry, boasted a church, two pubs, a hotel, a dancehall, a bakery, a coopers, a mill, a creamery, an undertakers and a shop.

Nowadays, all that remains is the church, the two pubs and the forge - still a hive of activity in the Dingle Peninsula village. An insurance broker operates where the old dancehall used to be and there's a thriving GAA club just outside the village.

"The village was completely self-contained for what you'd want," Florrie recalls. "They all had their bit of land. They set their spuds and were very industrious. There were a lot of great tradesmen.

"But of course, there was a lot of emigration too. A pile of it."

Florrie is the fourth generation of blacksmiths in the O'Sullivan family but also the last.

Having never married, he says there was no one to follow him into the trade, and none of his nieces or nephews expressed an interest.

"They say I'm the oldest blacksmith in Ireland but I don't know if that's true or not but I suppose there are not many of us left. It's a shame but that's the way Ireland has gone," he says.

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Little has changed at the forge since his great-grand-father's time. The family originally came from further back west, near Dingle, and Florrie's great-grandfather came to Boolteens and built the forge around 1870. A new roof was put on by his father in 1948 and Florrie extended the premises, building another workshop, where he does most of his welding, in the early '50s.

"My great-grandfather was supposed to have built that chimney. It's just stonework and never fell, and it's a great chimney," he says, with more than a trace of pride.

"I don't have the fire going as often now because it's mainly cutting and welding, but I suppose I'd still use about 12 stone of coal a week."

Florrie began helping his father, Patrick, when he was a boy of around 13; blacksmithing was in his blood. Four of his uncles were also blacksmiths so it was the family trade.

The mainstay of the O'Sullivans' business was shoeing horses, fixing ploughs and doing the banding for the wheels of the carts.

"You can imagine, all of them going to the creamery: ponies and carts, and donkeys and carts," he says. "Some of them went racing too.

"We used to have a line of common ploughs outside the door after doing them up around this time of year, fixing the sock and caudal."

When his father died in 1954, at the age of 54, being the oldest of a family of six, Florrie had to take over the reins. The only other vocation he ever contemplated was the priesthood, although he says he never really pushed it.

"I had no choice, really. I remember the morning after my father being buried, there were five or six of them outside the door. So I was in working and that was it, and I've been here since."

Still, he has no regrets about how he's lived his life and no intention of retiring, not fully anyway.

"I've enjoyed the work and I still love it. It's a heartbreak to be away from it. I'd find it hard to stop and I've a few jobs to do yet," he says.

Florrie's craftsmanship is evident throughout the village. He made the gates for the football field and the railings for the church.

These days he's kept busy making troughs for cattle and sheep, fire tongs and pokers and even the odd gate. One aspect of his work he misses is shoeing horses.

"I haven't shod a horse in around five years but I do miss it. I loved them," he says. "I did it for people all over the county, a world of them.

"I still pare the feet of a donkey belonging to a friend of mine in Dingle but that's about all I do."

Traditionally, a meeting point where news was shared, nowadays the forge is a quieter workplace, although Florrie is still kept company by people dropping in.

"You'd hardly see anyone now. Rural Ireland is gone. There isn't a Christian around. They don't open the pubs till later and we don't have a shop anymore, and it used to be very vibrant."

And when he closes, he knows there won't be anyone to replace him.

"It bothers me. It really troubles me," he says. "You know, the place will have to be sold - there's nobody here to take it over.

"I do have regrets about it but we'll put them to bed."

'The third largest craft in the country'

It could be argued that blacksmiths are a dying breed, but some working in the craft believe its future is looking brighter than it was even 25 years ago.

The Irish Artist Blacksmiths Association (IABA) has over 40 members but a survey conducted in the past number of years suggests there are between 150 and 200 blacksmiths in Ireland.

Nowadays, most Irish blacksmiths have to study abroad to hone their craft - most travelling to one of three colleges in the UK offering courses, with most choosing Herefordshire & Ludlow College in the West Midlands, near the Welsh border.

Michael Budd, who operates his forge in Castlebaldwin, Co Sligo, was on the board of directors of the National School of Blacksmithing in Belmullet, Co Mayo, founded in 1999 by filmmaker David Shaw-Smith, who made the Hands series for RTÉ.

The school folded about five years later after the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland pulled funding. The survey was commissioned in the hope of reopening it.

"I can never understand why smithing doesn't get more support. It's the third-largest craft in Ireland and worth about €15m to the economy," Mr Budd told the Farming Independent.

"People are still captivated by blacksmithing and it's a booming industry around the world right now. We have so much ironwork to be restored in Ireland, besides the contemporary side of it, and yet there is no recognition for it, while resources are being put into blacksmithing in the UK, Germany and America."

Colm Bagnall, vice-chairman of the IABA and co-owner of Bushy Park Ironworks in Tallaght, Dublin, says the future's looking brighter for blacksmithing now than it was 25 years ago when he started.

"It's much healthier now. If I look for another smith to discuss a problem I've encountered, I can find young ones who are active, compared to years ago when there was nobody," he said.


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"During the boom, when we were looking for smiths, most of them came from Eastern Bloc countries."

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