Saturday 18 November 2017

The last craft masters... Ireland's vanishing trades

From blacksmiths to thatchers, Ireland's traditional trades have all but disappeared.

Blacksmith Florence O'Sullivan (83) from Boolteens, Castlemaine in Kerry is the fourth generation of blacksmiths from his family, and the last. Photo: Mark Condron.
Blacksmith Florence O'Sullivan (83) from Boolteens, Castlemaine in Kerry is the fourth generation of blacksmiths from his family, and the last. Photo: Mark Condron.
Blacksmith Florence O'Sullivan in the forge which was built by his great granfather in 1870.
Thatcher Mattie Kelly (71) from Mooncoin in Kilkenny.
Thatcher Mattie Kelly: there's some level of satisfaction with a job well done.
Pat Murphy (87) from Castletownbere, Co Cork could be Ireland's oldest fisherman.
Fisherman Pat Murphy: There's nothing quite like being out on the water fishing for pollock and mackerel.

Graham Clifford

As a child, I'd sit with my late grandfather as he'd carefully bend the sally rods to make his baskets, hens cackling around our feet. Meticulously, he'd weave short rods around the circular frame of longer ones, singing under his breath - a tradesman at one with his trade. It is one of the most cherished memories I have of my youth.

Like many manual trades, basket-making has fallen by the wayside as mechanisation expanded and successive generations looked to more academic-based professions. Today, the shed in Kerry where thousands of baskets were made by my grandfather, and his father before him, lies empty and lifeless.

Of course there are still some excellent craftspeople across Ireland keeping the fading light glowing - but it's now faint where once it roared. I travelled the country looking for the traditional tradesmen who still stay loyal to their craft and met with three intriguing men who told me why they'll never stop doing what they do, and explained how their trade is in their blood.

The blacksmith

Florence O'Sullivan (83) is from Boolteens, Castlemaine in Co Kerry

"I'm the fourth generation of blacksmith here now and the last. I don't know how many more years I'll stick at it but I don't know anything else. They tell me I should slow down but it's hard to change the habit of a lifetime.

"Originally my father's family would have come from Dingle direction but my great grandfather built the forge here around 1870.

"I started helping my father Patrick at the work when I was 13-and-a-half and he passed away in 1955. I suppose I fell into it but there was nothing else I wanted to do. Four of my uncles were blacksmiths so it was the family trade and sure the forge is built onto the side of the house here. It was always good to us and we were never short, thank God.

"I used to love shoeing the horses most, only once ever did I get a kick. I remember it was a stallion and I had a dead leg for 11 weeks but there was no long-term injury. I was very light on my feet, you see, and so avoided kicks.

"When I was young you'd wake up in the morning and there would be farmers outside the door with their horses waiting to be shoed and to have their donkey and horses' carts mended. We did the banding for the wheels. I did a lot of welding in the fire.

"The noise of the blacksmith at work and the smell of the fire in the forge filled the air, it was something else on a busy day. There was a lovely atmosphere, people chatting away and local news being shared, it was the way rural Ireland was then… But it's all changed in recent years.

"In recent years I'd do jobs for people from far and wide. There are very few of the old blacksmiths still around, it's a real shame but that's the way Ireland has gone. People are less willing to repair things, instead they buy new and a lot can weld themselves.

"Mostly now I work on a lot of troughs for sheep and cattle, make tongs and pokers for the fire, the occasional gate and the frames of doors. There's great peace in the work and I take great pride in everything I make.

"I took no notice of the hard work and long days over the years. As I get older I feel it now, but I find it hard to stay out of the forge - there's always something to be tipping away at.

"I've brothers and sisters living away, with one brother a priest in America, but I never felt the urge to travel far from Castlemaine. I was only ever abroad once, to Lourdes.

"I never married so there's no one to continue on the work after I leave this house. It's sad, it will be the end of a long line of blacksmiths, but what can you do only work away each day and enjoy every job you have."

The thatcher

Mattie Kelly (71) is from Mooncoin, Co Kilkenny

"I had a grand uncle named Mattie McGrath and he came back from New York around 1912 and started thatching. At the time everyone had a thatched roof so it was a good profession to be in.

"I remember as a young lad being fascinated with the way the older men would harvest the reeds and get to work. I'd be mesmerised watching them and spent hours helping and trying not to get in the way.

"I didn't get into the trade immediately after school - I worked as a baker and then a butcher, but would always have harvested reeds along the River Suir. It's hard to explain how enjoyable that was, I've always loved the water, you see, and do an odd bit of salmon fishing when I'm not on top of a roof somewhere around the South East. The reed harvesting season was between December and March.

"In 1984 I went out on my own thatching. I've never had to advertise and always get jobs by word of mouth. Up until 2006 I sourced all of my own reeds but since the boom it's become very hard. As new estates sprang up it became so difficult to get access to certain parts of the river, as the roads, which we would have always used to get there before, were closed off. Now we import some of the reeds from Turkey which is a real shame when you think of it.

"It's a tough trade, time-consuming and dictated by the weather but on a fine day there's no better experience than being on top of a roof thatching and re-thatching.

"It'd take about three months to thatch a new house from scratch but there's some level of satisfaction with a job well done. You stand back and look at it when it's finished and it can only be described as a thing of beauty.

"When I eventually go I don't think there'll be anybody to continue on the business. One of my five children Matthew could turn his hand to it but he's flat out working as a tiler and doing timber flooring so he'll probably stick at that.

"I couldn't sit down at a desk and work every day for love nor money. I just want to be out in the fresh air feeling the sun on my skin. It's healthy too, not enough people work outdoors in Ireland today. I'm a sports fanatic and often when on top of a roof will have the GAA or soccer blaring on a little radio.

"Once when re-thatching the roof on the Seanachaí bar and restaurant in Dungarvan I took a notion and dressed up as a leprechaun while working away, sure the American tourists loved it, it was mighty craic.

"When will I retire? When they put me in a box, there's no way I'm giving this up before then.

"There are some very good thatchers in the country today but they're very specialised, not like how it used to be. It's a dying trade but as long as people want to keep the thatched roofs they'll need someone to look after them - no machine can do what we do."

The fisherman

Pat Murphy (87) is from Castletownbere, Co Cork

"They say I'm Ireland's oldest fisherman. A group of American film students came here a few years ago and made a short film about me and since then people drop into the house to hear my story.

"My father Willie, who was the youngest of 13, was a fisherman before me so I suppose that's where the love of the sea came from. So many of the men around here at the time made their living from the sea long before all these rules and regulations kicked in.

"I still get out on the boat as much as I can. I had an operation on my knee a few months back but I've the boat moored at the back of the house and hope to do more fishing once I can move a bit more freely.

"I was the oldest in the family so as a young man I did my best to bring income and food into the house, it's just the way it was. You used to have 30 boats out the water here in Beare Haven during the winter months fishing for scallops and they kept 30 families going. That's nearly all gone now.

"I remember we had no oil skins, there was no plastic coats and jackets at the time. My mother would buy yards of calico cloth and make protective clothing for us. She'd apply linseed oil to make it waterproof.

"There's nothing quite like being out on the water fishing for pollock and mackerel, looking for scallops and crabs. It's so good for the head and the body, hard work of course, sometimes in big swells and bad conditions, but you just get on with it and learn from experience.

"I wonder nowadays if people value experience anymore. All the fishermen worked together, we needed to for safety, but that level of co-operation seems lost in modern Ireland. You have to know how to steer the boat in bad weather, no book will teach you how to do that.

"I got a job with the Irish Lights (the lighthouse service), where I lasted for 22 years, but eventually in 1971 I came back to the fishing full-time. I bought a boat and set to sea. It was difficult with five young children at home.

"In 1987 I decided to set up a company with my son Richard and son-in-law Peter, fishing for crabs. At the time no one was really eating crab meat but slowly we built up a business called Shellfish De La Mar, the local restaurants realised tourists loved the meat of the crab. I would source the seafood and they would distribute it. Today it employs over 100 people and thankfully business is good.

"I think that more could be done to help the small fisherman around the coast of Ireland. We're an island nation and it's crazy we don't have more freedom to make our living from the sea. Between quotas, red tape and health and safety, we're turning people away from the trade which is a real shame.

"I've loved every day of my life as a fisherman, it's been difficult but I can't think of any other job a man can do that's more satisfying and good for the soul. I'll stick at it for as long as I can."

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