Forging a new relationship with an ancient craft
Blacksmiths are a rare breed, but a woman working in Russborough House is re-igniting interest in the tradition
ON THE grounds of Russborough House in Co Wicklow, what Seamus Heaney termed “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring” echoes around empty outbuildings which were once hives of activity serving the commercial and domestic needs of the big house. Old carriage buildings are boarded up, while the stables and work sheds are all long since deserted.
All except one, that is, where one of Ireland’s only working female blacksmiths is busy firing up her hearth ahead of another day’s work. The light filters through in shafts, bringing a momentary glow to rusting tools, as the forge inhales and coughs out thick clouds of smoke. Gunvor Anhøj takes small blocks of wood, puts them on top of an aged anvil and breaks them up for kindle. An air vent overhead has been installed to fan the flames while coal and coke are the primary fuels, getting the temperature in the hearth to over 1,500 degrees Celsius.
Gunvor and her husband Michael Calnan have been on site in Russborough since 2009, when they turned an old outhouse into a working forge much like the one that would have been located here in decades past. There were fears in the 1970s and 1980s that blacksmiths were becoming extinct in Ireland, as the availability of cheaply produced items and modern fabrication techniques replaced the need for traditional forges. Now, though, a renewed interest in creativity is ensuring that the market for forged products is increasing, along with the number of working blacksmiths.
Further evidence of this greater appetite for forging is the demand for blacksmith courses at the Russborough forge, which Gunvor has recently started running. Once a month, people from all walks of life take a day out to go hammer-and-tongs at a lump of wrought iron to try and turn it into something tangible. Could forging be the new therapy?
“There was a whole generation here in Ireland that may have grown up and not seen what a blacksmith does,” says Gunvor. “So many people come here out of curiosity nowadays and end up making more custom-made pieces. Of course, there can be a therapeutic element to it, or often people come out of tradition. Occasionally we get people who say, ‘my granddad was a blacksmith and I’d like to have a go.’ Other than that we get some people who tried it in their youth, maybe in school, and want to reconnect with that memory. But there is a lovely rhythm to the work which I think people connect with.”
Gunvor shows me pieces that students have made, including candle-holders and pieces of wall art. The work is assisted by the addition of an industrial Massey Ferguson power hammer that can eliminate some of the more difficult metal shaping. Although, when it comes to forging, the end result often has more to do with method than muscles.
“I’m not completely weak and have a certain amount of core strength,” says Gunvor, “but it is all about technique.”
Gunvor and her husband Michael met in college in the UK and moved back to Ireland together some years ago to raise their family. Recently, they began living on site in an apartment at Russborough. Both of them work normal hours in the forge, each with their own hearth and set of tools, some of which they made, others which they bought from retired blacksmiths.
“We tried to have normal jobs in the past,” says Gunvor, “I was a postwoman in Denmark, but I couldn’t handle it. Working together in here, some days there are sparks flying – if we are not getting on, we have to be mindful there is a lot of sharp equipment around!”
Public courses take place twice a month at the forge, and in the summer months, visitor numbers to Russborough house increase. Participants on the courses so far have included bankers, public servants, engineers, artists, carpenters, students and housewives. Even the chief executive of Russborough, Eric Blatchford, has learned to swing a hammer. It’s never too late to pick up the craft, says Gunvor, and gender, physical strength or age shouldn’t prevent anyone taking part. She points out that women have worked in forges throughout history. Often, in the 18th and 19th centuries, daughters or wives manned the forges when husbands or fathers went to war, and so the tradition of female blacksmithing is nothing new.
“It’s good to know, having researched a little about the craft, that as a female I am part of a long-standing tradition,” says Gunvor, “You don’t often hear that side of the story.”