As a young schoolboy attending the local Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane I passed every day what was the last working forge in Athy. Ted Vernal was the blacksmith who in the 1950’s carried on a family tradition which was to end with him.
The forge, located behind the houses which faced the courtyard opposite Herterich’s shop, was itself opposite a row of two storied houses on the laneway leading to the school. Shaws store now extends back into the ground once occupied by these houses while Vernals forge and the laneway have disappeared to become part of the public car park.
Every town and village once had it’s forge and indeed several of them where the blacksmith carried on his craft of shoeing horses. In addition to being a farrier he was also a blacksmith who worked in iron. No doubt we have all seen at some time or another the nineteenth century print showing the village blacksmith performing his other role as village dentist and extracting teeth with a pliers.
The Vernal forge, which I remember so well, had a raised hearth built of bricks with a canopy over it in the north wall to the left of the main door. The big bellows, which created the draught needed to keep the fire going, was pumped by means of a long handle extending outwards from the hearth. A water trough with cold water was positioned nearby for use in cooling tools and sometimes the iron being worked on. Coal was burnt in the fire and the heat generated made the forge an extremely hot and uncomfortable place in which to work.
In the centre of the floor stood the anvil each part of which had a specific purpose. The flat upper part or face of the anvil was most in use and was made of hardened steel. Between the anvil face and the conical shaped projection called the bick was a narrow strip of softer mild steel which was used when cutting metal with a cold chisel. The bick of the anvil was itself used to shape metal and in particular horse shoes.
At the opposite end to the bick and towards the end of the anvil table were two holes. One rounded and called a punch hole was where hot metal was placed when holes such as nail holes in horse shoes were being punched. The square hole, called a tool hole, was used as a receptacle for various tools used in finishing off metal work. The anvil sat on a block of timber and was the blacksmith’s work bench.
Around the forge, hanging on hooks set into the wall, were the tools of trade of the farrier cum blacksmith. He had for instance a variety of hammers of different sizes and shapes, all designed for a specific purpose. Tongs for holding the hot metal being worked were also of different sizes and shapes and they, like the hammers, hung from hooks on the walls.
The blacksmith always wore a leather apron as he worked in the dark dusty confines of the forge, heating, hammering and shaping metal to his requirements. During the early years of this century, before the combustion engine ousted horse power, the blacksmith’s principal function was to make horse shoes and shoe horses. The farmer and indeed the townsman who kept a horse or two for his carriage brought their horses to the local forge for shoeing. The old shoes were removed from the horse with large pincers and the horse’s hooves were cleaned and pared using a paring knife and a rasp. The replacement shoes were put up to the hoof and altered as required. The constant heating of the shoe in the forge fire and the shaping of the shoe on the anvil showed the blacksmith at his skilful best. The rhythmical ring of the anvil as the blacksmith hit the anvil plate and the horse shoe with each alternate stroke of his hammer were the signature tune of the one of the oldest crafts known to man.
The sound of the anvil is no more. The forge in St. John’s Lane has disappeared and those of us who remember it must sometimes wonder why progress must always result in the demise of the old traditional crafts.