Almost directly across from the entrance to Skibbereen Heritage Centre car park at Upper Bridge Street is a little plaza that is beautifully maintained by Skibbereen Tidy Towns group.
Set back off the footpath, the little oasis is quite easy to miss as you walk or drive to the Heritage Centre, but it is worth taking some time to examine it.
It is the site of the old Shamrock Foundry which was run by the McCarthy family of blacksmiths from Skibbereen for at least four generations. There is a plaque dedicated to the memory of that family and mounted on top is the original anvil used in the foundry.
As well as having four generations of McCarthys involved in that particular foundry, some of the extended family members were also blacksmiths and iron founders in the town. So, as they say, the family was steeped in it.
In Slater’s 1846 Directory, there were fifteen blacksmiths listed in Skibbereen, including three McCarthys in Bridgetown, Charles, Jeremiah and Timothy.
In Guy’s Postal Directory of 1914, the number of iron founders and blacksmiths listed was nine, including Eugene and John McCarthy. A descendant, also John McCarthy, who died in May 2000, was the last of the McCarthy clan to produce iron work of high quality and great precision in Skibbereen. There is no working blacksmith in the town now.
There are many fine examples of the work of the McCarthy Foundry in Skibbereen and beyond. One of the best known is the memorial to the victims of the Great Irish Famine (1845-52) at Abbeystrowry cemetery. That was made by Eugene McCarthy and was erected in 1887.
The railings at the presbytery and parish office, Cork Road, which were recently restored, are also from the McCarthy Foundry. The entrance gates for the Catholic church in Union Hall, made in 1929, were made by them, and in 1932 they turned out a magnificent piece of iron work for the parish church of St Finbarr’s West in Cork city.
The McCarthy Foundry won many prizes over the years for the quality of its craftsmanship. They were especially well known as plough-makers and in the 1930s and 40s ploughs made at their foundry were used by many of the winners at ploughing matches throughout County Cork.
Smiths specialised in different aspects of iron work. The O’Sullivan family of High Street, another family associated with the trade for several generations in Skibbereen, were farriers – they principally shoed horses. Interestingly, they also specialised in putting iron on the hooves of bullocks which were often worked like horses in these parts.
It’s hard to believe that a craft that was once an integral part of the commercial life of the town has now all but disappeared. But, in fact, it has not as the beautiful workmanship of the McCarthy family is still to be seen. And the memory of the blacksmiths and the ‘iron craftsmanship of vanished hands’ is now celebrated with the display of this historic anvil in Upper Bridge Street. Well done to all involved in putting it there.
© Skibbereen Heritage Centre