(Photo: James Fennell)
In the summer of 1249, Jordan de Exeter, sheriff of Athenry, slipped into his chainmail suit and trotted out the town gates at the head of a regiment of cavalry. One bloody battle later, the wily Norman had successfully annihilated a besieging Irish army. Nearly seventy years later, another Anglo-Norman force of a thousand men completely overpowered the Irish allies of Edward the Bruce just outside the town. Amongst the hundreds of Irishmen who lay dead on the battlefield was Bruce’s comrade, the King of Connaught.
The shape of both of Athenry’s battles, and indeed of every battle fought in the Middle Ages, was greatly influenced by blacksmiths. These were the men who manufactured and sharpened every deadly sword, spear and axe-head. They were also highly skilled in the making and maintenance of chain mail. In Medieval Athenry, the leading blacksmith family was the Tannians. When Thomas Tannian died in 1682, he was buried beneath a slab engraved with two bellows, a horseshoe, an anvil, a set of pincers and a claw-head hammer.
Eamon Madden is not certain how long his family have been blacksmiths but he reckons there were at least five generations before him.[i] ‘That would bring you back a bit’, he smiles. They started at Baunmore and then moved to Knockaunglass, outside Athenry, where his grandfather Thomas Madden was born in 1833.
At the time of the 1901 census, Thomas had three young apprentice blacksmiths working at the Knockaunglass forge including his 21-year-old son Edward. By 1911, Edward and his wife Margaret were leasing a modest farm from Lord Oranmore at Gorteenacra, just north of Knockaunglass.[ii] And by the time Eamon was born in 1924, Edward was running the forge and Knockaunglass had effectively been absorbed into the town of Athenry.
The War of Independence ripped through Athenry during Edward’s day. Eamon, the eighth of Edward’s nine children, grew up listening to tales of how, when British soldiers spotted a Sacred Heart glowing in somebody’s house, they would shoot through the windows to knock it down.
Eamon left school in 1938 and came straight into this forge to serve his three-year apprenticeship.[iii] ‘In any job, it’s a matter of studying’, he counsels. ‘To watch a fellow building a wall, you might think it comes naturally but it is a skill and he has to check it over and over again. Experience is the thing that makes you. You can either be good about it, or you can be careless and you wouldn’t be heard of. Tis up to yourself in your ways of life and how you present yourself to people. You’re either a nice lad or you’re a contrary lad.’
Over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, the Madden’s forge became what Eamon calls ‘the central pivot of operations’. ‘We were shoeing cartwheels, making carts and traps, making fences, gates, farm equipment, ploughs, harrows, scufflers, everything. Farmers came to us anytime they had a job with any connection to iron, welding or fitting … And we also manufactured tongs and cranes for the fire, and the crooks and hooks that used to hold up the pots for boiling potatoes and bacon.’
‘It was a good job but heavy work’, says Eamon, who cycled to the forge every day. ‘You’d start about half nine. And you did your days work. Whatever time you finished, you did as good as you could. You were always meeting with people, hearing all the local gossip.’ Eamon evidently enjoyed the banter. He is at all times polite and inquisitive, always learning, devouring papers, reading books, absorbing information
As well as being a blacksmith, Eamon was a farrier, shoeing up to five horses a day for farmers and gentry alike. ‘Most of the horses were for working the land, ploughing, cultivating, carting, harvesting, that sort of thing. Others were for bringing the family into Sunday Mass or to visit relations up the road or to come into town for the weekly market or the horse fairs.’[iv] Amongst his more well-to-do customers were the members of the Galway Blazers, the local fox hunt, who kept their kennels at nearby Craughwell.[v]
Eamon must have shoed more than 20,000 horses in his lifetime and was never once kicked. He is a tall and powerfully built man with massive brawny hands. But he has the sort of temperament that would becalm the wildest stallion. He also has a vital empathy with the animals, as evidenced by his insistence that his forge had a wooden floor. As a young man he noted that horses tended to be easily spooked by the echoes which reverberated around forges with concrete floors.
Athenry was a peaceful town in the 1950s. ‘The people back in the times lived and bought and did everything here, or else they went to the next house to get what they wanted. Our forge was beside the shop where you’d get your weeks’ messages and pay for them at the end of the week. There was a drapery, a butcher, a grocer, a couple of tailors, two saddlers and a hardware store. We were very self sufficient and it was a nice way of life.’
Inevitably, the blacksmith’s focus changed. In 1949, local engineer James Ruane was awarded the agency for the Ferguson tractors. It was Ruane who had introduced home-generated electric light to the town. The tilly lamps and oil lamps which lit the unpaved streets at night were replaced by electric lights, just as the open fires in people’s homes were converted into sturdy ranges.[vi] But it was the coming of the tractors that made the greatest impact. Eamon recalls how many a farmer arrived at the fair with a horse for sale, only to return home bemusedly seated upon a Ferguson 20.
In the 1960s, Eamon made his way to northeast Herefordshire in England where he spent several few years working as a blacksmith for the huntsmen and farmers of Bromyard. By the time he returned to Athenry to take on the forge, ‘it was a new world.’ But Eamon was quick to step up to the mark. ‘The farmers still needed to repair their ploughs and grubbers and the harrows and the grills that kept the cattle in. But they also needed us to work with the tractor and all the implements that followed, to adjust them or put a piece onto them or, if they were broken, to fix them.’[vii]
Like many of his generation, Eamon prefers the world of the past. ‘Our town has changed so much. Our ways of business are so different. People go to Galway to shop now because there is more of a selection. Athenry was nice when everyone knew each other. But everyone moves so quickly now. New people come in but just when you’re getting to know them, they move on again.’
Eamon’s nephew now owns the old forge. He does not operate as a blacksmith.[viii]
With thanks to Annette Daly and Ella McSweeny.
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
[i] See also http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=67156&id=104399489615609&ref=fbx_album or click here to listen to a wonderful talk between Myles Dungan and ‘Ear to the Ground’s Ella McSweeny.
At the time of our meeting, Eamon was taking time out from work at the forge to let a minor injury rest. He hopes to return to the forge shortly.
He has been to Connemara many a time and he was in America with the wife for a wedding – in Boston and New York – thought they were fabulous cities. ‘America is marvellous, but so is England. What they do, they do perfectly. The roadways and flyovers and very good. But there is great work being done in Ireland now too.’
The Maddens were in Athenry ‘forever and ever’ and so were the families they intermarried with.
[ii] ‘The land had a very different pattern and style over here to what it is in Dublin or Kildare’, says Eamon. ‘We were real rural people. There weren’t many in Galway you’d describe as ranchers with more than 150 acres. We were all 75 acres, maybe 100, down to 45. We wouldn’t be classed as equal to the farmers across the Shannon’.
[iii] Eamon’s brothers were Sonny, John, Patrick and Phonsie. His sisters were May, Margaret, Kathleen and Eileen. Eamon lives with his niece Annette Daly who once worked as an underwear buyer for Shaw’s. Another niece Lilly Keenan is married in Rathdangan; her son Lar Keenan is a vet outside Carlow while his twin brother looks after farm.
[iv] There were four horse-fairs each year, on the first Wednesday of January and May, and on the second Wednesday of August and November.
[v] ‘We worked for Galway Blazer for years. They were in The Kennels in Craughwell. Mr. Dempsey had them. He has an English lady who runs them for him now. People would have horses stabled there when there wasn’t room elsewhere. Normally you see the hunt the first Tuesday every month.’
[vi] The range replaced the fire and so, instead of hanging pots on hooks, ‘you just left the saucepans on top of it’.
[vii] Athenry was a cattle farmer’s town. During the 1950s, Eamon recalls how the black and white Friesians began to eclipse the Shorthorns and Herefords as the cow of choice. ‘I remember huge wagons laden with cattle would come in, maybe 25 or 30 of them, and head off from Athenry. It was a hard old life. If you had a loss with one or two cattle dying, that was a great loss for you. You were living on expectation, expecting the calf to become a beast one day, but maybe you’d find him dead one morning.’
‘It got bad in the 1970s’, he says. ‘I remember bringing a few cattle up the streets in the town to the fair. Trying to strike a bargain. Now it’s the marts. But there is no bargain now’.
[viii] Eamon’s wife Anne Madden (nee Nyland) passed away in February 2007.