Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Born 1923
Deerpark Forge, Mountrath, County Laois

Jack Lowry and his wife Nora live in a neat two-storey building at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The house, with a Famine wall nearby, dates to the 1840s and was originally built by the Coote family of Ballyfin for their carpenter and blacksmith.

Jack was the second of five boys. Although the family owned a ten-acre farm, his father – and grandfather – were first and foremost blacksmiths. ‘My father was nearly sixty when he married and he lived to be ninety-five. The way it was, he shod the horses and the people paying for the horses would do the farm work. It was all more neighbourly like.’

One of Jack’s earliest memories is of the Big Snow of 1932. ‘The weather them years was different to now, much harder. In the winters, there’d be a terrible lot of snow and frost. Now there’s very little snow. When the Big Snow came, I was only nine. It fell on a Thursday night and by Friday morning the windows were all dark. The snow was lying against them. I opened the door and two feet of snow came in on me. I got a powerful knock. I can remember my breath was near going away. There was a storm along with the snow and it blew all the snow so it banked up against the houses. The whole country was level. You’d only see the top of the trees. There were places where there was twenty feet of snow. There was very little food around then. A loaf of bread, some flour, a few eggs. Some were near starving because they couldn’t get to their neighbours. People got out and started digging along the road and finally they got into Mountrath the following week and that was the relief. There was never the like of it came since.

In his teens, Jack was educated at nearby Ballyfin, once the Coote family seat, converted into a school by the Patrician Order in the 1920s. But he left school at sixteen to follow his father into the blacksmith’s profession.

I was about thirteen years old when I shod my first horse. We’d always be here, repairing farm implements and shoeing horses. In the springtime, it would be all ploughs, harrows and cultivators. Then you went on to mowing machines, blades and that. Then, in summer, binding wheels was a big job. We’d often be at it until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. But at that time, there were forges everywhere.’

There’d always be people passing on bicycles or maybe with a horse and cart,’ recalls Jack. ‘They’d call in to get a drink or have a talk or maybe light a pipe. Matches were scarce! They were always talking! My father would work away, just carry on, leave them to it. He’d have to make peace sometimes when they’d get to fighting over politics. Then there’d be all the talk about hurling and football matches. My mother made them all tea. People could be waiting here a long time. There might be three or four horses in front of them, so she’d bring them in for a cup of tea.’

Later on, the third generation blacksmith takes us to his forge where rusty tools remain optimistic of a renaissance in smithery – tongs, mallets, springs, anvils, bellows, grinders. Beside the same old hob his grandfather used a century ago is the basin of water where red-hot horseshoes once hissed.

Blacksmiths have been around since the Iron Age but Jack can’t see the profession surviving for much longer. It’s already become a specialist world where your best hope is to secure contract work with a racehorse trainer, like Jack’s son Martin Lowry who works with Charlie Swan. ‘Everything changed after the war when the tractors came. That’s when the farm-horses began to go. By the sixties, it was nearly all machinery.’

The advent of rural electrification sped on the blacksmith’s decline. ‘When I began, the work I did was the same as my grandfather. It was heavy work and everything was done with fire and that was the way it was done. But then we got welders and drills and it became much easier. There was terrible work trying to get people to get in the electric. The parish priest had to go around and convince everybody. People were very poor then. I remember asking one fellow, “Are you getting in the electric?” He was coming out of a shop at the time and he had a gallon can of paraffin oil on him. “Oh no, what would make me get electrics?” says he, “Sure that’ll do me a fortnight.”’

Jack and Nora have two daughters and a son. Nora loves dancing and attends céilidhs in Nenagh twice a week. Jack says he was never a great one for the dancing and prefers playing cards – Twenty Fives is his personal favourite.


Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.