After more than half a century as a blacksmith, working a couple of miles on the Donegal side of Pettigo village, David has preserved an ancient craft that is fast disappearing from the rural scene. The emergence of the tractor on the agricultural scene in post-war years, replacing the farm horse, has been blamed for the decline in forges but David maintains there could still be a future in the trade for a dedicated young man willing to learn.
“It is a dying trade to a certain extent but there is a future for any young man who was willing to serve his apprenticeship to become a blacksmith. There would be a livelihood yet, what with the growth in the number of riding horses,” he said, puffing a mild cigar in the confines of his forge.
RED ROSES. Many people would be glad to escape the urban pressures for the simple, carefree life that David and his wife Marion, enjoy at their quaint little cottage adjoining the forge a few miles into Co. Donegal. A profusion of scented red roses growing in black-painted pots adorn the front wall of the whitewashed house which has been preserved from the days of David’s predecessors. The half-door remains a relic of the past and inside of the kitchen- cum-living room with its flagstone floor remains unchanged. The rich odour of burning turf on the hearth fire wafts in the air and tingles the nostrils. The loft, which was once used for sleeping, overhangs from the pitched ceiling. Above the hearth, a gleaming brass overmantel holds various ornaments and antiques and two large circular patterned plates are displayed. It’s like living in another world. A T.V. set serves as the only reminder that it’s a modem era.
FARRIERS’ COMPETITION. In a prominent position on a wall hangs a framed certificate which certifies David’s prowess as a blacksmith. It confirms his membership of The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. David sat the examination while competition at Balmoral Show in 1969 when he was runner-up. The success of the examination made David a registered shoeing smith. But he has a sentimental feeling for the certificate. He became a registered blacksmith exactly 100 years after his grandfather, James Elliott, began his indenture into the trade. He still keeps the original contract. David explained how his grandfather founded the first forge at Drumawark, outside Pettigo. “He served his time with a blacksmith named Robert Johnston in Pettigo village and left to go across to Scotland to work. But when he was there a while he took bad with a fever and was laid up in hospital in Glasgow. It was there that he met his wife, who was a nurse.
SCOTTISH WIFE. “She had come from Argyllshire in the western highlands and was a fluent Scottish-Gaelic speaker. “My grandfather married her and brought her back here where he set up this forge and they reared six of a family. The forge has been here since.”
He went on: “My father married and settled here and when I left school at 14, I joined my grandfather and father in the business. The three of us worked together for a number of years.
David has maintained the links with his grandmother’s homeland. He returned a couple of weeks ago to watch the Scottish National sheepdog trials at Dumfries and he spent a few extra days visiting some of his many friends he has made there. “1 met an old shepherd who was running a dog in the National,” David told me. “He won an international in Wales one year and at 76 years of age, he’s still going strong.”
FEW “WEE DRAMS” “It was a most enjoyable three days, we met afterwards in the beer tent and every trial was re-run as we drank a few wee drams. “I have great respect for the Scottish on account of my granny and I’ve made some very good friends.” It was not his first time there. He spent some time in Caithness with a veterinary surgeon he knows and
Modem society has done little to change the lifestyle of country blacksmith David Elliott. He continues to practise this skilled craft which he learnt from his forebears in the little whitewashed forge adjoining the cottage where he was born. David, now 67, takes great pride in his work and enjoys country life to the full. Sheepdog trials and shooting are among his most treasured pastimes and he has been at the Royal Highland show watching the farriers at work. David’s interest in sheepdog trials began a good many years ago and it prompted him to found the Pettigo Sheepdog Society about 18 years ago which is still flourishing. Trials are held every lune. “We have as good a trial as anywhere in Northern Ireland,” he proclaimed proudly.
IDEAL. The countryside around Pettigo is ideal for this country pursuit although the flocks of sheep kept locally have declined considerably in recent years. The countryside also breeds good game, ideal for shooting and as a member of Pettigo Gun Club, he helps to maintain the supply of game birds, especially pheasants in the area. The club receives a grant from the Eire Government to help rear the birds which are released. The only birds saved from shooting are the hens. “Shooting is not what it used to be,” he recalled. “Birds tend to scatter around a bigger area now than in the days when cereal crops kept them in a confined area.”
Fishing was another sport he took part in mainly in the nearby Termon river and mountain lakes which yielded sturdy brown trout.
HARD WORK. As David would profess, though, hard work was the order of the day when he took up the smithing trade, and there was not much time for sport. “There was a time when you had to work hard and you didn’t get a lot for it,” David said, as another whiff of cigar smoke drifted out of the forge door. “We used to work to ten or eleven o’clock at night on plough irons but it was busiest during wartime. “We did a lot of shoeing and jobbing work then and we often took on journeymen smiths who were on the road during the last war. Then when we were busy in the springtime working on ploughs, we’d keep them for six or eight weeks and we learnt a lot from them for they were very experienced men-
A LIVING. “There was a lot of shoeing farm horses too, because of the compulsory tillage but that’s all gone now and there’s just the odd riding horse to shoe now. “Usually there were always two working in the forge but when wages went up, you struggled to get a living for yourself and very often you could not charge more than what a farmer was willing to pay you. “In those days, a set of shoes for a donkey cost two shillings, and five shillings and sixpence for a horse but your raw materials, iron, coal and nails were very cheap then. A box of nails were only about sixpence a pound, now they might be up to £2 a pound!”
Another modern aid which threatened the trade was the supply of electricity by the ESB to the area. This gave rise to electric welders which took over much of the repair work on farm implements. During the war years, David had to set up a forge on the northern side of Pettigo village for his Northern Ireland customers because of the restrictions on materials. Now, the dark interior of the small forge serves as a reminder of the heyday of blacksmithing in the area. It’s a craft that has dwindled because, there is no-one to carry it on and because of the decline in the blacksmith’s work. In an area stretching westwards from Fermanagh across through Donegal, there are now only three blacksmiths still working, one of them Willie Foster of Lisbellaw. The third operates south of Donegal Town.
AWARDS. Anyone willing to take it up would have to operate a portable forge to serve a wider area, David believes. David takes life easier now. “When you come to between 60 and 70 years of age you’re not as good a man as you were and I don’t need to work as hard to earn a living any more,” he said, stoking up the fire. David spends some of his spare time making shepherd’s crooks from hazel-wood found in nearby woods. The artistry of his work won him an award at Ballyshannon craft show. As I left the blacksmith in his forge on the side of the road that used to be the main route from Pettigo to Castlederg but now down-graded to just another narrow country road, 1 could only admire him for preserving this rural scene for posterity.