Blacksmiths and the supernatural

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Traditional forge. Copyright Shane Broderick Photography

This article will be focusing on the blacksmith in Ireland and how the world of the supernatural is intrinsically bound up with this craftsman. Blacksmiths have for millennia been a member of high status in the community and this status survived in rural Ireland until the decline of the craft in modern times(Mac Cana, 1997:34).  Their ability to turn raw materials such as iron ore or bog iron into usable tools and weapons made them seem like they were in possession of magic. Because of them working with iron, which is almost universally thought of as warding off evil, it is believed to imbue the smith with special powers or the ability to see or defeat evil. The suspicion of this power, perhaps mostly from the church is reflected in the 8th century hymn to protect people from the “spells of women, smiths and druids” (Kelly, 1988:62). We will see this opposition of the church reflected in a story below. They are often depicted as being of an unnatural size or have superhuman strength or stamina. Many folktales and mythological stories feature blacksmiths or blacksmithing gods showing the significance of the blacksmith in society. For this project I will be drawing mostly from the National Folklore Collection. I will also be using some examples from the Schools Collection as well as references from published books. My research is focused mostly, which the exception of one story, on the English language material I came across. I picked this subject as it is something I have had an interest in for a number of years and also I assumed that due to the fact that there was once a blacksmith in every town that there could possibly be an ample supply of interesting stories that would not only be interest the casual reader but would also broaden my own knowledge on the subject. I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of how the National Folklore Collection came into being and its importance.

In light of a quickly changing society, The Folklore of Ireland Society was set up in 1927 to document as much folk tradition as possible. Following this The Irish folklore Institute was set up in 1930. The government quickly realised that it would need a better equipped organisation and this was the impetus for the setting up of the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. It was then that professional collectors, both full and part-time, travelled the length and breadth of country to record the native traditions. The collection is now made up of both the national collection (NFC) and also the schools collection (NFSC). The main collection ran from 1935-70 and the schools collection was carried out over the school year of 1937-8. Due to lack of man power and funding the collecting was not as effective as it could have been and many aspects of folk tradition were overlooked in favour of others. Irish speaking areas were favoured which is reflected in the larger portion of the collected material being in Irish. This makes it harder for any foreign scholarship to be carried out. Even though it was not as thorough as it could have been it still amounts to one of the largest ethnographic archives in the world and is ultimately an archive of national identity. For many years to come it will allow people to study the echoes of the past preserved within the archive.

Curing or Cursing

photo copyright TW Photography

In the course of my research I noticed a bit of a trend. It would appear to be advantageous for all involved to stay on the good side of a blacksmith. It is a recurring theme referred to time and time again, in both the NFC and also in the schools collection, that the blacksmith is both capable of curing people or cursing them. In cursing it would appear that the anvil, one of the principle tools of the blacksmith, is instrumental in acting out the curse. This may have to be either facing a certain direction or rotated a certain direction, i.e Deiseal or Tuathal (clockwise or anti-clockwise).

Máire ní Carthaigh offers 2 Items told to her by her father on the subject, the first of which tells of how one goes about getting a curse placed on someone. She says that “If you want something to befall your neighbour, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse”. The curse itself is not mentioned, which is usual, and neither is the repercussion of curse. The second story, called “The anvil curse” features the same sort of formula in relation to the pointing of the anvil to the East. This is more narrative based and is centred around a bailiff trying to evict people on Easter Sunday. It recounts how a number of men went to the forge and knelt around the anvil to pray. Instead of uttering a curse they would periodically get up and strike the anvil. This ultimately prevented the landlord from evicting his tenants. (NFC, IML.80:283).

A more malevolent version of the blacksmiths curse can be seen in the Schools Collection. The result of the curse can be seen in this tale, although unlike the previous tale the process of the curse is not revealed.  In this account Séamus Ó hOighleáin tells us how it is believed that the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the anvil on him”. He mentions that the methodology is unknown, that “how he turned it or what were the word of the malediction is unknown” but the aftermath is clearly seen later in the tale. This also features a landlord that was found dead at the exact hour of the “turning of the anvil”. It expresses that his skin was all black and that there was no doubt that he had been “done to death by the curse” (NFSC,Vol 0119:507). It is interesting in this account that the curse is thought of as being a trade secret, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the blacksmith.

One would think that given their ability to curse and ultimately kill people that they would be avoided but they were also sought out for cures. Like elsewhere in folklore, i.e the 7th son of a 7th son, this healing ability seems to be more efficacious when performed by a seventh generation blacksmith. Although said to be rare these were seen as having “all sorts of cures” for many different ailments. (NFC,Iml:1457:561). In the course of my research I came across two instances related to healing where the blacksmith was successful where doctors had failed. One of these interestingly involved a seventh generation smith as mentioned above. The smith was said to be well known to have had “cures from herbs and arrowroot”. The focus on this narrative though is on the banishment of a changeling that was thought to be a sickly child. When the mother of the child goes to the smith for a cure after the doctors had failed he advises her to go home and say that the woods next to the house are on fire. Upon hearing this the “child” rises out of the cradle exclaiming that “me children will all be burned” and eventually the child was returned (NFC,Iml.1457:667-9).  This is very similar to a tale offered up by John Gallivan (NFC,Iml.485:55-60) in Sligo, 90km away. This also involves a sickly child that doctors can do nothing for. The wits of the blacksmith once again prevail with the solution being the same. The husband runs in saying the fort is on fire and the changeling leaves to save his wife and children with the child being returned soon after. This tale however does not claim that the blacksmith has any other experience with herbalism or other cures. It was not the only fairy related tale I encountered. One tale attributes the skill of a blacksmith to the fairies, due to the fact he was on good terms with them (NFC, IML.485:188-9). This attribution of an exceptional skill to the fairies is not unknown elsewhere in Irish folklore. One of the only Irish language examples I translated deals with the same theme. A man on his deathbed, who was attended by two doctors that were unable to help him was healed by a blacksmith (NFC, Iml:1836:190-1). What I find interesting about this tale is that it includes a section where the priest attacks the blacksmith due to the fact he thinks that a priest should be better than a blacksmith at healing. This makes it seem like it is believed to be against the church. This was fairly unique in relation to the idea of the blacksmith being contra religion in regard to the religious themed stories I will talk of later, although it does echo the hymn guarding against the spells of smiths.

Butter stealing

Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no
surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in different heats and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a very typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back. (NFC,IML.185:367-9) I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he is able to help in a situation like this.

Size and Strength

These topics were probably the most numerous in my research of the schools collection where it was second only to the practical side of blacksmithing. These examples often describe blacksmiths as being of a large size and capable of superhuman feats of strength. The “test of strength” motif seems to be very popular in relation to tales of blacksmiths. One such tale tells of a smith who could “lift a pony over his head” and is described as “over six feet tall with a very long beard”. I found the mention of the long beard to be interesting due to the fact that many depictions of blacksmith gods such as Vulcan (roman) and Hephaestus (Greek) are shown as bearded. Of course many of the later celtic versions of these gods took on similar appearances. Lifting the pony was not he only feat of strength mention here. During a raid by English troops, he was said to have picked up a huge boulder and threw it at the troops. The result was that it had left a huge hole in the wall (NFC,IML.1405:167-8). Lifting great weights seem to be the most common of these feats of strength. Pádraig Téidina offers three stories in the schools collection of a local smiths renowned for their strength. The first two concern the same smith named “Séan an Gabar”. Interestingly one of these also features the smith lifting a horse over his head (NFSC,Vol.0647:270). The second tale tells of how he was unequalled in terms of strength. It tells of how even at the age of thirteen, Séan an Gabar was able to carry half a hundred weight for a hundred yards with ease, to the astonishment of everyone (NFSC,Vol.0647:268). The final story he had to offer was in relation to a different smith also capable of superhuman feats of strength. In this instance he is able to lift two anvils with one hand over his head and pass them to his other hand (NFSC,Vol.0647:271). . The final 2 examples of this “test of strength” I wish to include are very similar to each other in some regard. In the first I would also like to bring to attention the fact that both the smiths involved in this contest are described as being “like giants” (NFC, IML.437:187-8). The similar aspects, involving the lighting of a pipe from a cinder placed on top of an anvil that is picked up and handed to the other can also be found in the tale “The blacksmith and the Horseman” found in Sean O Sullivan’s book “Folktales of Ireland” (O Sullivan,1966:253). The lifting of the anvil with one hand occurs again and again and is no doubt beyond the ability of any normal person.

Tales of a religious nature

These examples that follow were collected from blacksmiths and are of an etiological nature and are connected to either Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. The first explains why the jaws of a blacksmiths tongs are uneven due to the fact that he made a pin out of the top of the jaws for the Blessed Virgin, to wrap a cloak around Jesus. This tale offers an interesting link to “forge water”, i.e water from the trough also. This mentions that a blacksmith can replenish his stamina from washing his hands in the trough due to the Blessed Virgin blessing the water (NFC, IML.815:48-9). The act of the blacksmith washing his hands to regain strength is a question featured in “The Handbook of Irish Folklore”. Water from the trough is also seen in many cases to have curative properties such as for curing warts (NFC, IML.407:64). The second story offered by this informant tells of why the blacksmith is prosperous and lucky while the tin-smith or “tinker” is often a tramp with no permanent abode. The blacksmiths refusal to make nails for the crucifixion, while the Tinker was willing to do is the explanation for this (NFC, IML.815:50). A similar tale to this was offered up by another blacksmith. This states that there is a geis or taboo on blacksmiths to hammer a nail on Good Friday. Its states that both the blacksmith and the forge are lucky due to his refusal to make the crucifixion nails (NFC, IML.482:560).

Conclusion

The material I found seems to paint the blacksmith as much more than just a normal person. Their special status is reflected in the fact that they are consulted on supernatural matters such as the butter stealing and the banishment of changelings. The superhuman feats of strength and larger than life size of the blacksmiths mentioned add to this and almost show them as a quasi-mythical figure. In making him seem as something outside the normal realm, it in effect turns the blacksmith into a liminal figure. When you take into account that often forges were placed on the outskirts of villages (due to fire risk) this point becomes more valid, a liminal character in a liminal space so to speak. Overall I was happy with the examples I found in my research. I do believe that only sticking to the English material for the most part might have limited my results but I believe the material I found illustrates adequately that the life of the blacksmith was inherently bound up with the world of the supernatural

Bibliography

1.1: NFC,IML.80:283, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.2: NFC,IML.80:286, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.3: NFSC,Vol.0119:507, Séamus Ó hOighleáin, Garryroe, Co.Mayo.

1.4: NFC, IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.5: NFC,IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.6: NFC,Iml.485:55-60, JohnGallivan (90), pensioner, Drumshinagh, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid Ní Gamnáin, Drumshinagh, Baile an Dúan, , pp55-60.

1.7: NFC,IML.1836:190-1, Tomás O Suilleabáin (80), farmer, Baile an tobar, Co.Galway, collector: Prionnsias De Búrca, 3/2/73.

1.8: NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.

1.9: NFC,IML.1405:167-8, Máire Nic Aindruí (80), housewife, Béal-an-Murtid, Mayo, Collector: Áine Ní Ruadáin, 4th April 1955.

1.10: NFC, IML.437:187-8, Johnny Hayes, (—) operator, Horetown, Co.Wexford, Collector: Tomás O Ciardha, Baile Cuillín, Wexford.

1.11: NFC, IML.815:48-51, Joseph McEntee (46), Blacksmith, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, P.J.Gaynor, Bailieboro, Co.Cavan, 2nd January 1942.

1.12: NFC, IML.482:560, Hugh Corrigan, Blacksmith.

1.13: NFC, IML.407:64, Pádraig Mac Doniraill (70), Bainishteior, castletown, limerick, Collector: Peadar Mac Doniraill,,Castletown, Limerick.

1.14: NFC, IML.485:188-9, Mrs.Higgins (60), Doonsheheen, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid M. Ní Gamnáin, Baile an Dún, Sligo, 23 April 1938.

Schools collection:

2.1: NFSC: Vol.0647:270, Tomás Ó Míodhcáin, Boolavonteen, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.2: NFSC, Vol.0647:268, Seamus Ó hAnnracháin, Ballynamult, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.3: NFSC, Vol.0647:271, Liam De h-lideberg, Dungarvan, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

Published Material:

O Sullivan.S (1966), Folktales Of Ireland, Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, London, pp.253-4.

Kelly.F (1988), A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.62.

Mac Cana.P (1997), Celtic Mythology, Reed International Books Limited, Hong Kong, pp.34

8 thoughts on “Blacksmiths and the supernatural

  1. In the Shahnemeh, a Persian story, I think the character’s name was something like Kavan was a black smith who stood up to the evil ruler who had two snakes on his shoulders that demanded the brains of two children/day. He was an important character who fought against evil in the legends.

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