The Old Irish Blacksmith's Furnace

From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911

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The great legendary Smith of Ireland was Goibniu, of the magic-skilled Dedannan race, who was such a mighty master of his craft, that after his death he became a god, like Hephaestus or Vulcan among the Greeks and Romans, and Wayland the Smith among the Germans; and we often find his name mixed up with old Irish literature. He is mentioned in a "Glossary" written in the late ninth (or early tenth) century by Cormac Mac Cullenan. Archbishop and King of Munster. The main purpose of this Glossary was to explain old Irish words that had become in the time of the writer more or less obsolete and obscure.

This little work of Cormac's, which is very scholarly for the period, is still extant and has been translated in our day by Dr. John O'Donovan: and edited and printed by Dr. Whitley Stokes. One of the old words Cormac explains is "ness," and in doing so he brings in a short story about Goibniu. He relates—taking his information of course from documents older than his own time—how Goibniu was one day in his forge holding in his hand a wooden instrument called a crand or crann, when a person came in and told him a very unpleasant story about the misconduct of his wife, which put him into a terrible rage. His anger continued; and day after day he stood in his forge, boiling and fuming in bad humour with the whole world; and whenever anyone had the ill luck to walk in, Goibniu—having first breathed a baleful spell into the crann to charge it with hellish venom—lifted it up and gave the visitor a blow, which either killed him outright or left a malignant and incurable lump or boil in the shape of the crann, that burned like fire and was worse even than death; all by the power of the spell.

Here we will leave him for a moment standing in his surliness, to have a look into an Irish document still older than Cormac's Glossary for another illustration of the use of this word crann as denoting a wooden implement. In the eighth century some scholarly Irish monk, then living in his monastery in Milan, while reading a Latin copy of the Old Testament, wrote, in the wide spaces between the lines, explanations of unusual Latin words as he met them while reading along, and sometimes general explanatory comments on the text. These "Glosses,'' as we now call them, he wrote in his native language—Irish. But the Irish of that time which was then in every day use, is now, after more than a thousand years, "Old Irish" and hard enough to understand. This was a usual practice with the Irish scholars of those days, mainly for the use of their young Irish students: for there were then no Latin Dictionaries available.

This monk, commenting on an expression in the 9th verse of "Psalms" II, about a potter's vessel, takes occasion to mention two implements used by [Irish] potters in their work:—viz. (1) the round crann, that is to say, as he explains, the wooden block on which the vessel is first roughly formed in the soft clay: and (2) the wheel on which it is finally turned into shape. This makes clear what the potter's crann was.[2]

But to return to Goibniu. What was this crann which he turned away from its proper function and used as a weapon when his passion was up? So far we only know that it was a wooden implement of some kind, like the potter's crann; for crann means a tree, a piece of wood, or anything made of wood. But it is not Cormac's custom to leave his reader in doubt as to his meaning; and the mention of the smith's crann leads him up to the explanation of that and of the old word ness. He begins by saying that ness has four meanings, all of which he gives. With two of these we have nothing to do: the other two concern us here. First, as to the implement that the smith had in his hand; Cormac says that this particular kind of crann was called a ness, adding, after his usual happy manner, that its use was to mould or form on it the urnisi criad or "furnace of clay" [for the forge fire], an expression that comes like a flash of light, and makes everything clear.[3]

But he gives another meaning:—that ness is also a name for [a smith's] urnisi or furnace. To illustrate and prove this he quotes an old verse from an elegy written on a smith by his wife (given here in translation): —

"It is grievous to me to look at him [lying dead]: The red flame of his furnace mounted up to the roof: Sweet was the murmur that his bellows Used to chant to [or at] the hole of his furnace."

Here the furnace comes in twice, and in each case the word applied to it is ness, though not in the nominative but in the genitive form, rendered necessary by the construction, as seen in the verse. What the "hole of his furnace" means is explained farther on (p. 240). This explanation of Cormac's is corroborated in a manuscript quoted by Dr. Kuno Meyer in his "Triads of Ireland," p. 52: in which it is stated that ness is aurnisi criad, a "clay furnace."

There was still a third application of this word ness that touches our subject, which we learn from another and totally different old Irish document. The Irish—like the Welsh—have always been fond of presenting things in triads or groups of three; as is seen in the modern triad:—"Three good things to have—a clean shirt, a clean conscience, and a guinea in one's pocket." There is a collection of old Irish triads, in the Irish language, which has been lately translated and edited by Dr. Kuno Meyer, of which one is:—'Three renovators of the world—the womb of woman, a cow's udder, and a smith's ness.[4] This old writer does not—as Cormac does—explain ness; but another writer in another manuscript quoted by Dr. Meyer, explains the word as Mála cré, "a bag of [moulding] clay": but goes no farther. From all this we learn that ness was a name for three different, but closely related things:—

1. The clay [kept in a bag] of which the smith's furnace was made.

2. The wooden mould on which the furnace was formed of the soft clay.

3. The furnace itself fully shaped.

It is well to remark that all the preceding Irish lore, which is presented here in plain readable language, is, in the originals—whether Irish or translation—excessively condensed, almost as much so as algebra.[5]

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[2] That venerable copy of the Psalms is still in Milan with the very handwriting of our countryman. The passage relating to potters has been published and translated in a learned work, "Thesaurus Palaeo-hibernicus," by Drs. Stokes and Strachan, vol. i, p. 23.

[3] The reader will observe that in both the cases where the function of the crann has been determined, it was used as a mould to shape soft clay on:—in the one case for potters' vessels, and in the other for smiths' furnaces.

[4] Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series, vol. xiii., page 21 (No. 148).

[5] Another example of how our concentrated old Irish literature may be expanded and popularised, without departing from accuracy, is seen in the first paper in this book, "The Wonders of Ireland."