Ballinderry, Co. Antrim
No town or village in Ulster was complete without a nearby forge and a skilled smith. Learn about the heritage skill of smithing through the objects and stories of the Ulster Folk Museum.Explore Lisrace Forge
“Go to a place like Lisnaskea or Derrygonnelly and ask the way to the local blacksmith’s shop. If you are a stranger to the forge you will find much of interest – perhaps fascination – in the unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells. You will enter a dark, warm atmosphere, dominated by the smith, his forge and his anvil. A horse stands as though deep in thought, occasionally stamping the earthen floor with its hoof as if to draw attention to the job in hand.
A few old men are seated on a bench along one wall of the smithy. The stage is set; you are about to see something of a traditional rural craft being practised. You might have gone to a weaving shed or a stone-cutter's yard or the home of a hand-embroiderer, but in selecting the smithy you have chosen well, for it embodies all the elements of country craftsmanship.”
G. B. Thompson, first Director of the Ulster Folk Museum
A traditional blacksmith primarily worked with iron and steel. Some smiths worked with other metals - coppersmiths worked with copper, silversmiths worked with silver and goldsmiths worked with gold. While silver and gold objects are common and are fairly affordable today, in the past this work was particularly specialised, with purchases reserved for religious institutions and wealthier customers.
Many of the metals used in smithing have been mined in Ireland for centuries, however early gold and silver archaeological objects are thought to have been brought to Ireland with new settlers, along with the skills of smithing.
The tools of a smith ranged from the iconic bellows and anvil to the necessary tongs, hammers, and chisels. Smiths had moulds for making commonly requested objects according to their specialism.
In Lisrace Forge, you can see a metal chain wrapped around the bottom of the anvil. This is to stop the very loud reverbrations that occur when the smith is hammering away on top of the anvil.
In days past in rural Ulster, the blacksmith made anything from large agricultural tools to something as small and ordinary as a nail. Our new Heritage Blacksmith Matthew Walton gave us an insight into how a nail was made.
The process of forging a nail began with selecting the metal; this would have been a square wrought iron bar. Wrought iron is a very different material from modern steels as it contains many more impurities. This however makes it much softer to forge in comparison to modern steels. It is possible to identify by the grain of the metal, much like the grain in wood.
When forging begins, the blacksmith draws down the point of the nail first (hammers it thinner) and once to the desired width, cuts off the nail from the rest of the bar leaving a stub of metal at the end of the nail. This is then placed into a nail header while still hot and hammered flat to form the head of the nail. This process would have taken much longer compared to modern methods and meant that nails were very expensive. The coinage "penny" refers to the price placed upon 100 nails.