How Irish Handicraftsmen Excelled In Their Work

All the chief materials for the work of the various crafts were produced

at home. Of wood there was no stint: and there were mines of copper, iron,

lead, and possibly of tin, which were worked with intelligence and


From the most remote times there were in Ireland professional architects

or builders, as there were smiths, poets, historians, physicians, and

druids; and we find them mentioned in our
earliest literature. There were

two main branches of the builder's profession:--stone-building and

wood-building. An ollave builder was supposed to be master of both.

The most distinguished ollave builder of a district was taken into the

direct service of the king, and received from him a good yearly stipend:

for which he was to oversee and have properly executed all the king's

building and other structural works. In addition to this he was permitted

to exercise his art for the general public for pay: and as he had a great

name, and had plenty of time on hands, he usually made a large income.

The three chief metal-workers were the Gobha [gow], the Caird, and the

Saer. The gobha was a smith--a blacksmith; the caird, a worker in brass,

gold, and silver--a brasier, goldsmith, or silversmith; the saer, a

carpenter or a mason--a worker in wood or stone.

We have already seen that the ancient Irish were very skilful in metallic

art. Metallic compounds were carefully and successfully studied, copper

commonly forming one of the ingredients. The most general alloy was

Bronze, formed of copper and tin: but brass, a compound of copper and

zinc, was also used. There were two kinds of bronze:--red bronze, used for

spear-heads, caldrons, etc.; and white bronze, which was much more

expensive, and used for ornamental works of art--fine metal-work of all


The exquisite skill of the ancient Irish brasiers is best proved by the

articles they made, of which hundreds are preserved in our museums. The

gracefully-shaped spear-heads, which, in point of artistic excellence, are

fully equal to any of those found in Greece, Rome, or Egypt, were cast in

moulds: and we have not only the spear-heads themselves but many of the

moulds, usually of stone. In one glass case in the National Museum there

are more than forty moulds for bronze axes, spear-heads, arrow-heads,

etc.: some looking as fresh as if they had been in use yesterday. The old

cairds were equally accomplished in making articles of hammered bronze, of

which the most characteristic and important are the great trumpets (page

87 above) and the beautifully-formed caldrons (page 116)--many of

admirable workmanship--made of a number of bronze plates, hammered into

shape and riveted together.

In old times in Ireland, blacksmiths were held in great estimation; and in

the historical and legendary tales, we find smiths entertaining kings,

princes, and chiefs, and entertained by them in turn. We know that Vulcan

was a Grecian god; and the ancient Irish had their smith-god, Goibniu,

the Dedannan, who figures in many of the old romances.

The old Irish smith's anvil was something like the anvil of the present

day, but not quite so large and heavy: it had the usual long snout, and

was fixed firmly on a block. There were sledges and hand-hammers, pincers

or tongs, and a water-trough. The bellows was very different from the

present smith's bellows: it had two air-chambers of wood and leather lying

side by side and communicating with the blowing-pipe. These were worked by

a bellows-blower, who stood with his feet on the two upper boards, and

pressed them down alternately, by which the two chambers were emptied in

turn into the main pipe, so as to keep up a continuous blast. It should be

remarked that in private houses they used a different sort of bellows,

commonly called a 'blower,' which was held in the lap, and worked by

turning a handle: this, by means of cog-wheels, caused a number of little

fans in the inside to revolve rapidly, and thus to force a current through

the pipe.

The fuel used by metal-workers was wood-charcoal. The smith's furnace was

made of moist clay, specially prepared, a sort of fire-clay, which was

renewed from time to time when needed. This furnace surrounded and

confined the fire on four sides, otherwise the light charcoal would be

scattered by the blast of the bellows.

There was plenty to do for carpenters and other wood-workers, more indeed

than for almost any other tradesmen, as the houses were then nearly all

made of wood.

The yew-tree was formerly very abundant. Its wood was highly valued and

used in making a great variety of articles: so that working in yew was

regarded as one of the most important of trades. It required great skill

and much training and practice: for yew is about the hardest and most

difficult to work of all our native timber: and the cutting-tools must

have been particularly fine in quality. Various domestic vessels were made

from it, and it was used for doorposts and lintels and other prominent

parts of houses, as well as for the posts, bars, and legs of beds and

couches, always carved. Yew-carving accordingly gave much employment.

There were also painters and metal-engravers; and here it is just as well

to remark once for all, that the various articles of everyday life--hats,

curraghs, shoes, book-covers, shields, chariots, leather, and so on, were

made by special tradesmen (or women), all with their several suitable

tools and instruments. The makers of vessels of wood, metal, and clay

were very numerous, and they were quite as skilful and dexterous as those

of the present time. A thousand years ago the Irish coopers were able to

make vessels of staves bound with hoops, like our tubs and churns, as

water-tight and as serviceable as those made by the best coopers of our


The tools used by the various tradesmen are often mentioned in the Brehon

Laws, from which we learn that there was as great a variety in Ireland

then as there is now: but our limited space will only allow us to barely

mention a few. There were saws, axes, hatchets, and hammers of various

shapes and sizes; an adze for coopers and shield-makers; compasses for

circles; planes both for flat surfaces and for moulding; lathes and

potter's wheels for turning in wood and soft clay; chisels and gouges,

awls, and augers. Besides the common whetstone they used a circular

grindstone, which was turned on an axis by a cranked handle like those now

in use.

Numerous stone structures erected in Christian times, but before the

Anglo-Norman invasion, with lime-mortar, still remain all over the

country, chiefly primitive churches and round towers. It is only necessary

to point to the round towers to show the admirable skill and the delicate

perception of gracefulness of outline possessed by the ancient Irish

builders. A similar remark might be made regarding many of the ancient


Artificers of all kinds held a good position in society and were taken

care of by the Brehon Law. Among the higher classes of craftsmen a builder

of oratories or of ships was entitled to the same compensation for any

injury inflicted on him in person, honour, or reputation, as the lowest

rank of noble: and similar provisions are set forth in the law for

craftsmen of a lower grade.

No individual tradesman was permitted to practise till his work had been

in the first place examined at a meeting of chiefs and specially qualified

ollaves, held either at Croghan or at Emain, where a number of craftsmen

candidates always presented themselves. But besides this there was another

precautionary regulation. In each district there was a head-craftsman of

each trade, designated sai-re-cerd [see-re-caird], i.e., "sage in

handicraft." He presided over all those of his own craft in the district:

and a workman who had passed the test of the examiners in Croghan or Emain

had further to obtain the approval and sanction of his own head craftsman

before he was permitted to follow his trade in the district. It will be

seen from all this that precautions were adopted to secure competency in

handicrafts similar to those now adopted in the professions.

Young persons learned trades by apprenticeship, and commonly resided

during the term in the houses of their masters. They generally gave a fee:

but sometimes they were taught free or--as the law-tract expresses

it--"for God's sake." When an apprentice paid a fee, the master was

responsible for his misdeeds: otherwise not. The apprentice was bound to

do all sorts of menial work--digging, reaping, feeding pigs, etc.--for his

master, during apprenticeship.