Frank Leonard, the Blacksmith from Clontibret

Frank Leonard's family have been blacksmiths for over 100 years.

"Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands."

The Smithy, or blacksmith's forge, was a common sight in rural Ireland until recent times. There were three or four in every parish. The Blacksmith's main tasks were shoeing horses, making hinges, plough parts and gates. From dawn to dusk the forge was a hive of activity, with customers coming and going all the time. It also proved to be a social centre in the area with news and gossip being exchanged and tales being told. The fire in the forge was an added attraction in the winter months and locals regaled each other with stories of recent events and happenings of bygone days. Through all this the blacksmith worked away—blowing the fire with the giant bellows, hammering and shaping the red hot iron on the anvil, cooling it in the convenient 'trough of water' and admiring the finished product. The ring of the hammer on the anvil, the hissing of the hot iron as it was immersed, the "sough" of the bellows and the banter and laughter of the onlookers all added up to make the local forge a much appreciated asset in the community.

On first arriving at Frank Leonard's house, outside Clontibret, one's eye was drawn to the brightly painted collection of farm implements and giant millstones. "Those stones were used to grind corn in the old days", says Frank. "And was that stream with the cascading waterfall a Mill Race?, I asked. "No but I would love to have a working mill wheel on it today" was Frank's reply. The wrought iron fencing around the house and the ornate wrought iron embellishments on top of the stone piers also caught my eye.

To fashion these with the tools of a blacksmith fifty years ago took unerring eye and hand. I knew rightaway that I was conversing with an accomplished craftsman.

On the short walk to the forge, Frank informed me that the Blacksmith tradition went back in the family over a hundred years. "My father was a blacksmith and my grandfather before that. I was working in the forge before the Second World War (1938-1942). Indeed the majority of the young men and women locally were emigrating to England at that time and afterwards, looking for work. I decided to stay and carry on at the trade I knew best."

The forge today contains many modern machines for cutting, pressing, bending and shaping iron, but pride of place still goes to the traditional anvil, hammer, fire and water trough. The bellows of yesteryear have been replaced by a motorised version. "Relighting or rekindling the fire was always the first job in the morning", Frank stated, as he deftly placed the cinders around a crumpled sheet of paper. He "switched on" the bellows and like the speed of the modern car, the heat went from "0 to 60" in a matter of seconds.

"Before the war, iron and coal were relatively easy to obtain. I bought my iron from Patton's, Monaghan and Mone's, Keady. When the war broke out, both commodities became unobtainable and after the war, the prices rose by 100%. The war and its aftermath proved a hard time for blacksmiths as well as everyone else", says Frank.

"I'll make an eye-bolt for a gate", he says. Finding a suitable length of round iron, he thrusts the end into the now "roaring fire". In a few seconds the white-red end is placed on the anvil. With the hammer, Frank expertly rounds the hot end into the perfect circle, using the side and horn of the anvil. The new eye-bolt is immersed in the water and the bellows slowed, allowing the fire to drop to 'normal temperature'. As Frank carried out this task, one could visualise the same scene in the same forge fifty years ago—men wearing caps, pipes puffing away, awaiting their turn or just in for the heat and the chat in the unhurried, uncomplicated pace of life that was characteristic of the 30s the 40s and early 50s.

"I was shoeing horses when I was 12 years of age", says Frank. "Gates and grubbers were high on the list of orders, as were points for ploughs (socks). The 'stoney grey soil of Monaghan' (and Armagh) made the latter "a must" all the time", he laughs.

However change was coming.The days of the farm horse were numbered. The horses and carts trundling home with turf from the bog, or loaded with hay from the meadows, or going to the creamery with milk, were gradually replaced by the 'phutphut' and blue smoke of the Fordson tractor and the grey Ferguson. The work of the blacksmith had to move on with the times. Many of the forges closed their doors as diversification was "a bridge too far". In Frank's case, possibly because of proximity to the border, change was possible and change he did."God be with the old days" he sighed as he led me out to the "hooping stone". The hooping stone is a large (250kg) flat stone, through which an iron rectangular eye has been inserted. "Holes at least 9 inches deep had to be cut through the stone first", says Frank. This precise "job" must have taken days if not weeks. When the iron was positioned and secured, the stone was embedded in the ground. Then the iron "eye" was used to enable 2 or 3 men to bend the iron for a new cart hoop. "It took 50kg of coal to finish one hoop", he says. "The cooling of the new hoop was difficult for some smiths, but we were lucky to work beside the river. Hoops and horse shoes were big business in those days."Journeymen blacksmiths were usually 'colourful characters'. A journeyman could arrive seeking work at anytime. One such journeyman used to come to his forge from time to time. He would stay for a period of 2-3 weeks and then decide to move on. Sometimes he ended up staying in the nearest town for a week 'slaking his thirst' before disappearing for another year.

Today, work in the Leonard forge differs and varies greatly from the Leonard forge of fifty years ago. Ornate gates and railings, parts for modern machinery, bolts of various shapes and sizes—to name but a few—are all part and parcel of life in the modern forge. However, while cutting, pressing and bending can be done using modern machinery, the trained eye and skilled hands of the craftsman are still essential. With Frank's son, Anthony, following in his father's footsteps and drawing on the accumulated knowledge of over a century in the trade, one comes away, sure in the knowledge, that the skill of the blacksmith is safe in Leonard hands for many years to come.

"Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low." (Longfellow)

Courtesy of the Northern Standard