4 The Forge
By Sheila Leggett
The forge was usually out of bounds to us. Once grandfather’s, it was now father’s workplace filled with warm, steamy animal smells and fiery colour. Along one side were huge bellows, a vast fireplace and a stone water-trough with, at right angles, a workbench made of thick, old, wooden planks. The bench held a powerful vice as well as claw hammers, sledgehammers, pliers, chisels, rasps like enormous iron nail files and boxes of nails of all shapes and sizes. A long and narrow opening above it allowed the daylight to filter through. Spikes on the smoke-stained walls held billets of iron, hoops for cartwheels and horseshoes.
The layout allowed father to remove the molten iron from the fire and place it on the anvil, where he hammered it into shape. He shod the horses on a central floor of sturdy railway sleepers. There was an open entrance to the forge from the yard but double doors blocked the exit to the garden. Usually we were escorted there as Mother worried that a horse might kick out and hurt us.
When there was a big job to complete, my uncle helped father, the pair working in complete harmony as they wielded the heavy sledgehammers on the red-hot iron. The result was a melodic rhythm as each blow rang out on the anvil. They were a perfect partnership; father the teacher and my uncle a willing apprentice. What he lacked in expertise he made up for in strength and companionship. Their silence as they worked was evidence of their friendship.
Father was a master craftsman who turned iron into something useful or beautiful, often both. The railings around our local church and graveyard were made by him and his father working in harmony. I feel such pride when I read our family name McCarron etched into the gates. Translated from the Gaelic it is so appropriate as it means ‘son of the strong man’. My parents are buried behind these gates. Sometimes when I visit their graves I wonder if father was disappointed that I wasn’t a boy or indeed that none of my brothers carried on the family tradition.
He was wiry and agile and each day he donned his leather apron like a uniform and began work. Sometimes the big carthorses did not cooperate, stamping feet and swishing their tails while flaring their nostrils. Father remained calm as he talked to them; in his own special way he soothed even the friskiest beast. He was our own horse-whisperer. I never knew what words he used to calm the horses. It was more the low comforting hum that I sensed. When my youngest brother was born, father used to take his turn walking the floor with him during the long sleepless night. I remember the hit song of the time because he sang ‘Good Night Irene ‘ and I swear I fell asleep before the baby. I still remember each word and imagine what it would be like if he sang it to the horses.
Wet days were busy as horses were unable to work on the land. While father shod one horse another one or two often waited, munching hay while their owners smoked and exchanged yarns. The forge was a club where conversation flowed. I never heard bad language used. If they were talking about something too grown up, a farmer would say in a loud voice,
“Not in front of the child”. Since then I have always known that men talk just as much as women. A favourite topic seemed to be about prices in general. These men took ages to pay father for the work he did. Mother scolded regularly about it. I thought it wasn’t fair. I was always on his side knowing how hard he worked and regularly the farmer said,
“I’ll see you later Frank – there isn’t much money around at the minute.” Then they walked the horse out of the forge, often doffing their caps to mother if they glimpsed her in the kitchen. Father was gentle and good-natured and couldn’t beg or threaten for his money. He loved his work and was prepared to wait knowing he would be paid at some time in the future. Meanwhile, as mother reminded him daily, there were bills to be paid and children to be fed. Fortunately she was a shrewd manager who could make money stretch. Her motto was simple – if you can’t afford to pay for it don’t buy it. I heard her whispering with her own father as they discussed the shocking plight of a friend who had to mortgage his farm. They had a fear of owing money to anyone. Maybe it was part of their heritage. Mention of the bailiff struck fear into everyone.
I loved being with my father. Sometimes he sat me on the bellows when it was not in use; at other times he allowed me to swing up and down on its arm as he worked it to stir the fire. Often a farmer lifted me onto a horse. High above everyone I was enthralled by the dazzling glow of the searing, red-hot iron emerging from the fire and the orange and purple sparks dancing like fireflies. I could not believe how quickly the colour faded when the iron was dipped into the cool water of the trough. A hissing spurt of steam spiralled into the air like an erupting volcano. The water in the trough was reputed to hold a cure for warts and people visited to either dip their fingers in the water or fill a bottle to take away with them. Perhaps the iron residue in the water gave it some healing quality. Even today some country folk place great faith in charms.
It was fascinating watching father shoe a horse. Deftly he eased off the old shoe before cutting away the hard skin and filing the hoof with the rasp. He hammered the new shoe into place all the time holding the nails in his mouth. The unpleasant smell of singing hooves permeated the forge. To me it smelt as if my own skin was burning but father promised me that it was not painful and the horses seemed to take it in their stride.
He held the hoof between his legs, resting it on his knee. When there was a sudden jerk, the hoof automatically knocked hard against his chest. In his late forties and still a young man, he developed cancer and had to have one lung removed. Mother firmly believed the horses regularly kicking him in the same spot did the damage. She was probably right. I was just finishing college when tragedy struck and until I married I contributed monthly to the family budget – as did each of us when we began to earn.
In many ways mother was not sorry he had to give up his trade. The worst part, she said, was not receiving a regular wage each week. She recognised how hard father worked and was annoyed when the farmers did not pay on time. The iron and the nails and the slack for the fire were expensive and essential. She also dreaded a farmer buying a drink for father when the work was done. The farmers were highly skilled in the art of barter. She thought they would be cute enough to negotiate a lower price. She had no faith in father as a businessman but we all appreciated him as a top class tradesman.