The Goban Saor

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

The Goban Saor, pronounced Gubawn Seer (free smith, free mason, or free carpenter, in fact), is a relative of Wayland Smith, or Voelund, in the Voelundar Quida; but with equal skill he is endowed with more mother wit than the Northern craftsman. Unconnected adventures of this character are met with in every country of Europe. It is probable that a more complete legend concerning this celebrated gow (Smith) would be met with in Mayo or Kerry. Vulcan or Prometheus was the original craftsman; perhaps Daedalus might dispute the honour with them. These old-world legends have reached our time and our province in an unsatisfactory and degraded state. All that remains to us is to make the most we can of our materials.

Our smith is a more moral, as well as a more fortunate man, than the Voelund of the Northern saga. Voelund returns evil for evil, and the master smith of MM. Asbjornsen and Moë is altogether unprincipled. He cuts off horses' legs to shoe them with the greater ease to himself, and sets an old woman in his furnace, in the vague hope that he may hammer her into a fresh young lass when she is hot enough.


It is a long time since the Goban Saor was alive. Maybe it was him that built the Castle of Ferns; part of the walls are thick enough to be built by any goban, or gow, that ever splintered wood, or hammered red-hot iron, or cut a stone. If he didn't build Ferns, he built other castles for some of the five kings or the great chiefs. He could fashion a spear-shaft while you'd count five, and the spear-head at three strokes of a hammer. When he wanted to drive big nails into beams that were ever so high from the ground, he would pitch them into their place, and, taking a fling of the hammer at their heads, they would be drove in as firm as the knocker of Newgate, and he would catch the hammer when it was falling down.

At last it came to the King of Munster's turn to get his castle built, and to Goban he sent. Goban knew that, in other times far back, the King of Ireland killed the celebrated architects, Rog, Robog, Rodin, and Rooney, the way they would never build another palace equal to his, and so he mentioned something to his wife privately before he set out. He took his son along with him, and the first night they got lodging at a farmer's house. The farmer told them they might leave their beasts to graze all night in any of his fields they pleased. So they entered one field, and says Goban, "Tie the bastes up for the night." "Why?" says the son; "I can't find anything strong enough." "Well, then, let us try the next field. Now," says he, "tie up the horses if you can." "Oh! by my word, here's a thistle strong enough this time." "That will do."

The next night they slept at another farmer's house, where there were two young daughters—one with black hair, very industrious; the other with fair complexion, and rather liking to sit with her hands across, and listen to the talk round the fire, than to be doing any work. While they were chatting about one thing and another, says the Goban, "Young girls, if I'd wish to be young again, it would be for the sake of getting one of you for a wife; but I think very few old people that do be thinking at all of the other world, ever wish to live their lives over again. Still I wish that you may have good luck in your choice of a husband, and so I give you three bits of advice. Always have the head of an old woman by the hob; warm yourselves with your work in the morning; and, some time before I come back, take the skin of a newly-killed sheep to the market, and bring itself and the price of it home again." When they were leaving next morning, the Goban said to his son, "Maybe one of these girls may be your wife some day."

As they were going along, they met a poor man striving to put a flat roof over a mud-walled round cabin, but he had only three joists,Goban Saor and each of them was only three-quarters of the breadth across. Well, the Goban put two nicks near one end of every joist on opposite sides; and when these were fitted into one another, there was a three-cornered figure formed in the middle, and the other ends rested on the mud wall, and the floor they made was as strong as anything. The poor man blessed the two men, and they went on. That night they stopped at a house where the master sat by the fire, and hardly opened his mouth all the evening. If he didn't talk, a meddlesome neighbour did, and interfered about everything. There was another chance lodger besides the Goban and his son, and when the evening was half over, the Goban said he thought he would go farther on his journey as it was a fine night. "You may come along with us, if you like," says he to the other man; but he said he was too tired. The two men slept in a farmer's house half a mile farther on; and the next morning the first news they heard, when they were setting out, was, that the man of the house they left the evening before was found murdered in his bed, and the lodger taken up on suspicion. Says he to his son, "Never sleep a night where the woman is everything, and the man nothing." He stopped a day or two, however, and by cross-examining and calling witnesses, he got the murder tracked to the woman and the busy neighbour.

The next day they came to a ford, where a dozen of carpenters were puzzling their heads about setting up a wooden bridge that would neither have a peg nor a nail in any part of it. The king would give a great reward to them if they succeeded, and if they didn't, he'd never give one of them a job again. "Give us a hatchet and a few sticks," says the Goban, "and we'll see if we have any little genius that way." So he squared a few posts and cross-bars, and made a little bridge on the sod; and it was so made, that the greater weight was on it, and the stronger the stream of water, the solider it would be.[1]

Maybe the carpenters warn't thankful, except one envious, little, ould basthard of a fellow, that said any child might have thought of the plan (it happened he didn't think of it though), and would make the Goban and his son drink a cag of whisky, only they couldn't delay their journey.


[1] If a curious reader wishes to know the secret of the roofing of the round cabin, let him get three twigs, cut a notch within half an inch of one end of each, and another about an inch and a half from that, but on the opposite side. Let him get a hat, or a large mug, or anything else he pleases, and by adapting the notched ends to each other, he will find the plan of making a roof-support to his model cabin after some essays, more or less, and some healthy trials of his patience. The editor of these sketches will not attempt to decide whether the Goban or Julius Caesar was the inventor of the peg-less and nail-less bridge, but the mode of construction may be learned from the Commentaries on the Gallic War.