Carpenters, Masons and Other Craftsmen in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XX....continued

5. Carpenters, Masons, and other Craftsmen.

Carpenters.—Woodworkers of whatever kind do not figure near so prominently in the ancient literature as smiths and braziers; yet they must have been more numerous, for there was more work to be done in wood than in metals. One important source of employment for carpenters was the building of houses, which in old times were nearly always of wood: and there were special tradesmen for it.

The yew-tree was formerly very abundant. Its wood was highly valued and used in making a great variety of articles: so that working in yew was regarded as one of the most important of trades. It required great skill and much training and practice: for yew is about the hardest and most difficult to work of all our native timber: and the cutting tools must have been particularly fine in quality. Various domestic vessels were made from it—as we have seen—and it was used for doorposts and lintels and other prominent parts of houses, as well as for the posts, bars, and legs of beds and couches, always carved. In the most ancient of the tales we often find mention of houses ornamented with "carvings of red yew."

Among other tradesmen, there were the dúalaidhe [doolee] or painter (from dúal, a brush); the rinnaidhe [rinnee] or metal engraver (from rinn, a sharp point, a sharp-pointed instrument); and the erscoraidhe [erscoree] or wood-carver. Carvers were in much request and exercised their art in the highest perfection on yew-wood.

Various Tools.—Besides other tools mentioned elsewhere in connexion with certain special arts and crafts, the following, chiefly used by wood-workers, may be dealt with here. They are often noticed in Irish literature, but more frequently in the Brehon Laws than elsewhere. The old Irish wood- and metal-workers seem indeed to have used quite as many tools as those of the present day.

A saw had two names, turesc and rodhb [rove], of which turesc is still used. There were—as at the present day—several kinds of axes and hatchets variously shaped, and used in different sorts of work, as may be seen by the number of names for them, and the manner in which they are often distinguished. In all forms of axe, the metallic head was fixed on the handle, the same as now, by wedging the wood through the cro or opening in the iron or bronze. The common hatchet used in the workshop was called tuagh [tooa], which seems to be a general name for a hatchet or axe of any kind. A biail [beeal] was a sort of axe often used in clearing wood: a fidba [feeva] was like our common billhook. Great numbers of bronze axes are preserved in the National Museum, Dublin. The carpenter's hatchet was probably like some of those figured on p. 56, supra.

Bronze adze

FIGS. 175. Bronze adze in National Museum: 4 7/8 inches wide along edge. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

A tál [tawl] or adze—i.e. an axe having the edge across or at right angles to the line of the handle—was used for special sorts of work; as, for instance, in making wooden shields; and of course in cooperage. It was an exceedingly common tool, and it is constantly mentioned in all sorts of records.

An awl, by whatsoever tradesman used, was called menad or meanadh [manna], which is still the Irish word all through Ireland. The old Irish carpenters used an auger and called it taráthar [tarauher], a name which is still in use. They had compasses which they named gabulrinn [gowlrin], a term which is quite descriptive, being compounded of the two words, gabal, a fork, and rinn, a point: that is to say a fork with two points.

The circles on some of the flat golden gorgets and on some bunne-do-ats (pp. 405, 413, supra) were obviously made with a compass: all going to confirm the truthfulness of the records.

The mallet used by carpenters, fence-makers, and other workmen, was generally called farcha or forcha. A sledge was called ord: an ordinary hammer was lámh-ord ('hand-sledge'): but sometimes cas-ord, now generally made casur [cossoor]. The cas in this, which means 'twisted' or 'bended,' probably refers to the 'claw,' so that a casord or casúr would be a 'claw-hammer.' The word mailin was used to designate another kind of hammer, one without a claw: for mailin means 'bald' or 'bare': a 'bare or clawless little hammer.'

Carpenters used a rungenn or runcan, 'a plane': in the Brehon Law, it is stated that the posts of the doors and beds of certain classes of houses were finished off with a moulding-plane. Workers in wood used a sort of press called cantair, either for straightening wood or forcing it into certain shapes—after being softened probably by water or steam. The ancient Irish builders used a crane of some kind for lifting heavy articles, which they called corr aurógbala [aurógala], 'a crane for lifting.' Here the Irish word corresponding to 'crane' is corr, which is still the name of any bird of the crane kind: and it is applied in this passage to the machine, exactly like the English word crane, on account of the long beak.

The lathe and other turning-wheels were well known and employed for a variety of purposes. The Brehon Law when setting forth the privileges of various classes of craftsmen has tornoire or 'turners' among them, explaining that these are the men "who do turning." A much older authority, an eighth-century Irish glossator, in his remarks on a verse of one of the Psalms, gives an explanation of the potter's wheel. The Irish word for a lathe is deil [dell]; and at the present day, speakers, whether using the Irish or English language, call a lathe a dell.

Chisels of a variety of shapes and sizes were used by wood-workers: of which the following illustrations will give a very good idea: the originals—which are all of bronze—are preserved in the National Museum.

Bronze chisels

FIGS. 176-179. Bronze Chisels, in National Museum (From Wilde's Catalogue).

A large number of bronze gouges are preserved in the same Museum; but I have not found any special Irish name for a gouge. Among the collection of bronze tools found at Dooros-Heath in King's County (next page) are three gouges with the regularly curved edges, well adapted for excavating and paring wooden bowls and goblets: and about the same time another was found in Wexford. The bronze of these and of all the other cutting instruments in the King's County collection is excessively hard. It may be observed that bronze can be made almost or altogether as hard as steel by hammering.

Bronze gouge

FIGS. 180. Bronze Gouge in Nat. Museum. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

Sharpening.—For sharpening edged tools and weapons, the people used a whetstone, which is called in Cormac's Glossary cotud, literally meaning 'hard,' and defined "a stone on which iron tools or weapons are ground": but it is often called lec, which is the general name for a flat stone. They had also a circular grindstone which was turned on an axis like those now in use. The grindstone was called liom-brón [leev-vrone], 'sharpening millstone,' and also lic-limad [lic-leeva], 'stone of grinding'—corresponding exactly with the English name "grinding-stone": and it was turned round by means of a cranked handle called ruiti.

Remains of Ancient Workshops.—It is worthy of remark that the remains of ancient workshops or factories belonging to several trades have been discovered from time to time in different parts of Ireland. About the year 1820 a brazier's workshop was turned up in a place called Dooros-Heath, in the parish of Eglish near Birr in King's County, where great quantities of gold-coloured bronze articles were found—bells, spearheads, celts, trumpets, gouges, and so forth: also whetstones, flat, convex, and concave. That this was a workshop is shown by several facts: many of the articles were unfinished or only half made, while some were mended: and there was one lump of unworked bronze—mere material. The remains of a glass factory will be found mentioned at p. 295, supra; and an old workshop of a family of goldsmiths has lately been found near Cullen in Tipperary. In parts of Ulster where flints are common, flint workshops are sometimes turned up, with vast numbers of finished and half-finished flint articles. Ancient Gaulish workshops of various crafts have in like manner been lately found in France.

Masons and their work.—A knowledge of the use of lime-mortar and of the arch was introduced by St. Patrick and his foreign missionaries. Before his time the Irish built their stone structures of dry masonry: and not knowing how to construct an arch, they brought their walls to converge in a curve—like the ancient Greeks and other nations of antiquity—by the gradual overlapping of the flat-lying stones. Numerous specimens of their handiwork in this department of ancient art still remain, especially in the south and west, in the beehive-shaped houses and stone cahers, which show much skill in fitting the stones to one another so as to form very close joints. Although the Irish did not employ lime (Irish aol: pron. ail) in making mortar till the fifth century, it was used as a whitener in pagan times (p. 312, supra). They made lime by burning limestone or sea-shells in a limekiln, much as is done at the present day.

Numerous structures erected in Christian times, but before the invasion, with lime-mortar, still remain all over the country, chiefly primitive churches and round towers.

Round Tower of Devenish Island

FIG. 181. Round Tower of Devenish Island, in Lough Erne: 85 feet high. To illustrate what is said here in the text as to beauty of outline and general shape. (From Petrie's Round Towers).

It is only necessary to point to the round towers to show the admirable skill and the delicate perception of gracefulness of outline possessed by the ancient Irish builders. A similar remark might be made regarding many of the ancient churches, especially those called Romanesque.

Castledermot Abbey

FIG. 182. Beautiful window of Castledermot Abbey. (From Miss Stokes's High Crosses of Castledermot and Durrow.) To illustrate the statements about the skill of Irish masons.

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