‘At the end of it all, I’m just a jackeen from the Coombe,’ says Kathleen Lynam. The words elicit a hearty chuckle from her younger cousin, Kathleen Keogh. The two Kathleens have known each other since the summers of their youth when the jackeen was dispatched south to spend some time with her Keogh kinsfolk in the Wicklow Mountains. The Keoghs were blacksmiths and their forge stood just outside the village of Kiltegan.
John Keogh, the man of the house, died young in 1934 and Bridget, his widow, was left with two small sons, Jack and Peter, and a little daughter, Kathleen. Bridget was a capable woman. She got on with the show and raised her children – and their visiting cousin – as best she could.
‘It’s amazing to think of her now,’ says Kathleen Keogh of her mother. ‘And what she did for us. It was a different world. There was no taps, no sinks, no nothing. We only had a few oil lamps. We done our homework by candlelight. We got our water from the well and we ate our meals on stools. We always had porridge for breakfast, big plates of porridge, with lots of milk.’
Bridget kept a vegetable garden and excelled at making bread and current cakes. (How about starting the quotation here: ‘Once a week she would walk the seven miles to Baltinglass with a basket on he arm and come home with some beef. (and delete this ‘) ‘There wouldn’t be any luxuries, mind you,’ laughs Kathleen. ‘But there might be colcannon. Potatoes and cabbage all mixed together, make a well in the middle and put a big lump of butter in it … ah, we used to love that!’
Kiltegan was a happy place to be a child. They played road-skittles and pitch ’n’ toss. They milked cows and hid in the woods. They rowed the lakes of Humewood in ‘leaky boats’. When they got out on the lake, Kathleen Keogh – ‘the only girl amongst eight or nine lads’ – would be given ‘an auld rusty bean tin’ and instructed to fish all the water out. ‘I got no sympathy,’ she says. ‘I was just a skivvy.’
When they weren’t on the lake they were clambering up the old Round Tower. Its rotten stairs still make her shudder today. ‘I don’t know how we ever made it to the top.’ Although raised as Catholics, the Keogh children were not discouraged from mingling with their Protestant neighbours. ‘We had as much fun with them as we did with anybody,’ she says. ‘And that’s the way it should be. I was never able to understand why people made such a thing about the difference. We’re all talking to the same God.’
In time, Kathleen’s brother Peter took on the family forge. ‘The Keoghs were always blacksmiths,’ he says. ‘They shod every horse that ever passed through the Glen of Imaal.’ They were ‘tenant blacksmiths’, or farriers, to the Hume family. They paid their rent by shoeing the Hume’s hunters and they made their living shoeing everybody else. Much of the metalwork at Humewood was crafted here – gates, fences, fire-grids, grain forks and such like. Peter says his grandfather was ‘an exceptionally contrary old man’. ‘No one could sledge right for him – except the wife. She had to do all the sledging for him!’
Most forges have a clay floor. The Keogh’s one was made from wood so that the draught horses could come in and crush the coal nuggets into smaller, more heat sensitive chips.
The wooden floor had an added bonus. ‘Nobody had electricity then – and a warm house could be scarce enough.’ With the fire burning, the Forge offered heath, light – and entertainment. ‘A lad with an accordion would get the dancing going,’ recalls Kathleen, who hosted a dance here after her marriage in 1949 to Jim Lynam. ‘We'd only ever have half-sets; there wasn’t room for a full set. But that was where all the courting was done!’
And it was done without drink. The Keoghs are Pioneers. They took the pledge at their confirmation and have never tasted wine nor stout in their lives. ‘I never tried to stop my own children from drinking,’ says Kathleen, talking about her ten children, ‘although I have one granddaughter now who is a Pioneer too.’
Dancing at the forge faded out in the 1950s with the emergence of purpose-built venues like the Parish Hall and Village Hall. The local priest was also eager to keep a close eye on his courting flock. In the 1970s, the GAA revitalised set dancing with their SCOR programme. A teacher came up from Wexford to remind everyone how it was done. Today, set dancing takes place in the Kiltegan Town Hall every Tuesday night and the Blacksmith’s Reel is still among the more popular tunes.