Saturday 20 October 2018

'When you hire a blacksmith, you get a one-of-a-kind bespoke piece' - man (47) on his now-rare craft

Dublin-born Stephen Quinn (47) swapped a life overhauling jet engines to working with hot iron every day... and wouldn't trade it for the world

Hammer time: Stephen Quinn manipulates a piece of metal in his workshop in Kilreekil, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure
Hammer time: Stephen Quinn manipulates a piece of metal in his workshop in Kilreekil, Co Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

I tried a few things after school. I went to England and came back, then I went for an interview for a job as an aircraft fitter and, to my surprise, I got the job.

It was in north Co Dublin and I basically learned how to overhaul jet engines. When the company sold up and went to Kent in England, I went too. I worked there for a while and then headed to work in Belgium. That's where my love of iron work was sparked - it's the home of iron work in Europe, and every house had a little balcony that was beautiful.

I became friends with really good people whose idea of a good day out was to go and look at examples of art nouveau. I began to realise that it was all forge work and the houses I saw held the metal work as an integral part of the building, not just an add-on.

One day I was driving and I saw an anvil in a shop window. I said, 'I'm going to buy that and have a knock-around', so I made a little forge just to start off.

In 2002 I moved back to Ireland with my wife Marie France, who I met in Ostend in Belgium - I call her my wife but we don't believe in marriage.

I was trying to learn about blacksmithing, and I saw that in Belmullet there was a blacksmith's college. I had the full intention of going to college, but two weeks before the course was due to start, I heard it wouldn't be running.

Stephen Quinn heats up some metal. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE
Stephen Quinn heats up some metal. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE

One weekend I went to England to a gathering of blacksmiths. When I saw what they did, I didn't call myself a blacksmith for the next five years. I had a good engineering background and I wasn't afraid of the work or the heat and I started with the basics. I was thirsty for knowledge, and it's only in making something that you learn how to do it. I made a lot of mistakes and they're costly - you don't make them twice.

If you have good eyes and can see things, you can work out how things are made. Blacksmithing has a couple of fundamentals: if you learn them, you can identify them in every other piece of work. If you see something you like, you break it down. You're learning every day of the week - you never stop learning.

While we were driving one day, we were listening to something about moving to the west of Ireland. The only place we could find within our budget was there and now we live halfway between Tuam and Milltown.

We moved in the middle of the economic downturn. The neighbours got to know I was handy and I'd get a few jobs that would keep me ticking over. We kept plugging away and I'd do a few arts and crafts shows. I got a call that there was a man in a museum looking for craft workers, and I now have a workshop in Dartfield Museum in Kilreekil. I do demonstrations there for people, and I have a gallery area as well as the workshop.

You name the item and I have worked on it - door handles, coat hangers, balconies, knives, lighting and beds. When you hire a blacksmith, you get a one-of-a-kind bespoke piece. In England blacksmithing is a viable career choice.

Word of mouth is the best advertisement you have. My main clients would have lived abroad or else they're not from here, and they usually come to me with a budget in mind. They know what they want and they know when they get a craftsperson they expect to pay a little bit more. They also know the work will not be run of the mill.

According to one report, there's 2,500 blacksmiths in Ireland but I reckon that figure is as useful as used toilet roll. Personally I know 50 people who dabble, 30 of them would stand up loud and proud and call themselves blacksmiths. There's only between eight and 11 of them with a fire lit every second day. I've a fire lit every day of the week, and I only know about 14 others who do the same.

I always feel optimistic about the future. What I'd really love to make is any shape or idea that comes into my head. Maybe I'm living in a fantasy because you also have to earn a crust.

What I have to do once in a while is make something just for me. I like to make things, and although I was never really good at getting things on paper, I find I'm better if I can make a part of it.

If I was working on a commission for a gate for example, I'd make one part of it. I'm a do-er rather than a drawer.

My young lads Julian (14) and Luka (12) come in and give me a hand sometimes. They could go to the fire and make a small piece. They don't come in as much as I want them to - they're doing their own thing. I wouldn't want to force them into it. I also have a 22-year-old daughter, Saoirse.

I still don't know what I love most about blacksmithing. I take it for granted that you go to the steel yard and you buy steel and through beating it and putting it in a fire, you can make whatever you want. With blacksmithing you've got all the elements: wind, earth, fire and the water you use to cool things down.

They said years ago it was the king of all the crafts - if the carpenter wanted a chisel, he went to the blacksmith. I don't know if it still is.

Over the years I've seen a lot of really good heritage iron work pulled out to make car parks. Some people are keen to get things reinstated. We should be really proud of it. Well-made iron work will increase the value of your property.

You have to give someone time to make something special. Time is precious, and some people get it and some people don't.

I have to have one or two jobs on the go at the same time. When you're stuck on one job, you'll figure out the answer for it if you're working on something else. If I've got one or two commissions at the same time, that works for me.

Marie France has never once said to me, 'what are you doing?'. She has let me do this and there've been times when we haven't had a penny.

Blacksmithing is tough. It's hard work and there's no easy way of doing it. A true recognition of your work is when you decide to create something you like and you put it up in a gallery and someone wants to buy it.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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