Lisrace Forge: where the hammer strikes the anvil

My name is Bridget Molloy and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster. During my placement, I have been looking through the museum’s archives to learn about life and work at Lisrace Forge, which was relocated to the museum from Lisrace, County Fermanagh in the late 1960s.

The forge was originally established at the request of the local landlord who required it for work on his estate in the 1830s. The Wilson family were situated as the first blacksmiths there and continued in this traditional trade until Robert Wilson retired in the early 1960s having worked in the smithy all his life. The Wilson family and their trade of blacksmithing can be traced back to the time of Oliver Cromwell. The first Wilson blacksmith to settle in Fermanagh had come over from Scotland as a horseshoer in Cromwell’s army. When the wars ended he married a local girl and settled down. This means there were Wilson blacksmiths in Fermanagh for 300 years.

Image: James Wilson and his son Robert Wilson (the last of the blacksmiths) standing outside the forge, c.1925
James Wilson and his son Robert Wilson (the last of the blacksmiths) standing outside the forge, c.1925

The forge is believed to have been used as a home for a short period of time before it was converted into a blacksmith's shop. It was built sometime after 1834 and the first blacksmith, Thomas Wilson was working there before 1840, this means that if it did serve as a house it was a short-lived role. Thomas’ son James took on the trade after his father and in turn taught his two sons Robert and George. George worked as a smith in a nearby smaller forge and Robert inherited the forge at Lisrace.

Image: The forge in its original location in County Fermanagh, HOYFM.L384.2
The forge in its original location in County Fermanagh, HOYFM.L384.2

The building was originally thatched but was later slated using imported slates from Britain. The layout of the forge is typical for similar buildings of the time; an open hearth on one gable wall was used to heat the metal being worked and the fire was stoked by hand-operated bellows. Robert Wilson’s daughter remembers watching her father work in the forge and being assigned the special task of pulling the cow's horn handle to get the bellows going.

The fizz-trough sat at the corner of the hearth which was used to cool the blacksmith’s tools. It was a noisy business and throughout the day the racket of the hammer striking the anvil and the sharp hiss of hot metal cooling as it met the water in the fizz-trough echoed down the lane. The floor of the forge is partially paved with flagstones with the rest made of bare earth. The area in front of the door is lined with railway sleepers. Horses brought for shoeing stood partially inside the forge and the railway sleepers were needed for them to grip onto. On your next visit take a look at the small building and imagine a farm horse standing in the doorway having their shoes fitted.

Image: Lisrace Forge as it sits now at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra
Lisrace Forge as it sits now at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra

A common issue for blacksmiths was obtaining raw materials like coal and bar iron. The Wilsons were fortunate as their forge lay only 2.5 miles from the town of Clones which acquired imported coal and metal originally through the rivers linking to the Ulster Canal, and after 1863, by the railways. In an interview with the museum Robert Wilson’s wife Ellen recalled Robert setting off for Clones on his bike to buy metal, a five mile round trip, loaded down with bar iron on the journey home.

The work of the blacksmith was one of the most important roles in the local community especially for farriery which involved making and fitting horseshoes. The Wilson blacksmiths were very skilled and didn’t just make horseshoes. Farriery was a staple in the country where horses were used for nearly every type of farm work and had to be regularly shod. However, Robert Wilson was known to have many skills with metal work and could make griddles for cooking, cranes to hold pots over the fires, metal gates for fields and houses, repairing and making ploughs and setting scythes. He would head up to the forge around 9am and on a busy day not come home again until after 9pm. It was hot in the forge so there was no need for coats but the smiths wore thick leather aprons to protect themselves from the hot metal and sparks that came from striking the metal on the anvil. On a wet day the men coming to commission work would have sat inside the forge and told jokes and stories.

Image: Resident craftsman Gerald Sloan at work in the forge at Cultra
Resident craftsman Gerald Sloan at work in the forge at Cultra

Robert Wilson worked in the forge until he was 82 years old. To many of us this is an exceptionally old retirement age but in a newspaper interview upon his retirement he said, “I didn’t give up the trade, it was the trade that left me. The horse has disappeared from the countryside and there is little to do.” I’m sure that if the business had been there, Robert would have been seen in the forge, brow furrowed accompanied by the ringing of his anvil, until the very end of his days.