Colm Bagnall is one of the few smiths in the country who can still use iron ore from the moors to make iron.
Although he works mainly in the more modern field of architectural metalwork, he stumbled across the ‘ancient but addictive’ practice of collecting ore from the moor and smelting it into iron a few years ago while attending a Galway kiln festival.
“They used a kiln made of clay and charcoal for fuel,” he says. “It was about bringing the simplest elements together to produce something, just like it was back in the Iron Age when that was the norm.
“There are very few people left capable of making iron – only about 10 in the country.”
According to Colm, iron ore is readily produced in most bogs across the country and is easy to identify and collect.
“If you walk the bog during the day and you find water in the bog that has turned orange or rusty, it’s iron ore,” he says. “It has rust (iron oxide) and the water carries it through the bottom.
“The ore grows in a crystal-like form in the bog. If you drive a steel rod through the bog, you will hear a screeching in some places, and that is iron ore you are encountering.
“In other places the iron ore has risen to the top – it will just lie on the ground like rust.”
Iron ore is easier to spot in drained bogs, Colm says, because “the ore turns to dust when it’s dried.”
Although swamp ore is 91 percent iron, Colm says the process of turning it into iron and making a product out of it is much longer and more labor-intensive than the forging methods commonly used today.
“The (flowering) iron has a very liquid surface and is spongy and soft when you take it out of the oven,” he says.
“So to make it useful you have to forge it to squeeze out all the impurities and make it a dense rod.
“Working with Bloomery Iron is a whole set of skills that have been lost in Ireland today.
“We blacksmiths are used to buying ready-forged iron by 20 or 30 feet, whereas bloomery iron is in a very raw condition and needs forge welding a few times before it can be used.
“I used to dismiss it and think, ‘Why do you want to go back to iron ore?’ but once you start using it, it gets a bit addicting.
“But I don’t want to have to live on iron ore.”
Colm, who grew up on a small farm in Tallaght, County Dublin, says his interest in blacksmithing and crafting dates back to his childhood.
“My father was a rancher who went into the machine business,” he says. “I am the last of seven children and I just remember the cows leaving and the machines taking over.
“There was always machinery lying around on the home farm and I was always fixing or building something – I was geared more towards making things than being academic.”
After leaving school, Colm worked various metal and blacksmith trades after completing an apprenticeship and in 1990 he started his own business – Bushy Parks Iron Works – with his friend Edward Bisgood.
“We did a lot of work for very little money in the early years, we just had a thirst to learn and do more,” he says.
“Over time we became more competent and hired employees in 1995. Since then the company has grown and we now have a whole range of talented people with us, from metal workers and fabricators to painters and varnishers.
“Blacksmithing attracts a different breed of professionals—people interested in making something.
“As a blacksmith, you will always remember the first tongs you made for holding hot metal. Tongs are always one of the first things a blacksmith makes, and they will make many of them over time.
“I’ve also made a few farm implements over the years. We are often asked to make hammers, tongs, chisels and tools. Tools for basket weavers and leather workers are very popular.
“We mainly work with steel, but we do a lot of restoration work with wrought iron. We manufacture many steel stairs and steel railings for houses and other buildings.
“We are currently working on the restoration of the Ely Arch gates – the 18th-century arch was originally the entrance to Rathfarnham Castle.
“We are also preparing to make handrails for the Liffey Walls. We have been asked by Dublin City Council to do the work so we will start work in the next week or so.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/rural-life/harking-back-to-the-iron-age-meet-the-dublin-blacksmith-working-with-ore-from-the-bog-42037093.html A throwback to the Iron Age: meet the Dublin blacksmith who worked with ore from the moor