Tag Archives: County Wexford blacksmiths

Blacksmiths: The heart of the Irish community

Letter B: Second of twenty-six posts in the April 2016 Blogging From A to Z Challenge, and fourth in a series about the Dempsey Cousins Family Research Team.

Through clues from my Dempsey cousins and a bit of research, I learned that our Irish great, great grandfather William Patrick Dempsey — a blacksmith who lived in Baltimore, Maryland during and after the U.S. Civil War — came from County Wexford, where blacksmiths played a prominent role in the 1798 Irish Rebellion/ Éirí Amach.

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December 2015: Traditional blacksmith’s tools at the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum in Madison County, N.Y. In the days before motorized vehicles, the shops of blacksmiths like our ancestor William Patrick Dempsey were important gathering places, and the blacksmith was highly respected by the community he served. Photo by Molly Charboneau

But what about the everyday life of an Irish blacksmith? I wondered. What might that tell us about our ancestor’s experience?

So back I went on the research trail, and was delighted to discover a wonderful book by author Eamon Doyle titled Tales of the Anvil – The Forges and Blacksmiths of Wexford (2008).

Author Doyle has painstakingly amassed a wealth of historical detail on blacksmiths from his home county — using sources from 1798 tradition through 20th century records — and describes how, centuries ago, using fire to turn metal into useful implements led to a belief that smiths possessed supernatural powers.

Though this view waned in modern times, Ireland’s blacksmiths in particular remained highly regarded in both city and town because their work — from rimming cart wheels and shoeing horses to fashioning tools and household implements — was so essential to the day-to-day flow of the economy.

Their role put blacksmiths at the heart of the communities they served, explains Doyle:

The forge and the blacksmith shop became one of the few fixed establishments in every parish and remained so through all the changes in Irish society, in peace, war, oppression and hardship. It was a place at which people gathered when danger threatened and where one could look for information when rumour stalked the land. The forge became a familiar and beloved part of life in every area, long before churches, parish halls and school buildings became established in the mid-nineteenth century. Along with the importance of the forge in local communities came a respect for the blacksmith himself.

Baltimore City blacksmith

I wonder if it was any different for our “William the blacksmith” as he plied his trade in Baltimore City, Baltimore Co., Md. from the mid to late 1800s? He had emigrated from Ireland years before — but if he learned ironwork from his father back home, he would likely have  carried its traditions with him.

William’s obituary says he was “a well-known blacksmith” — and probably also highly respected in a city where travel was mainly by horse and horse-drawn vehicle during his working life. So it’s easy to envision Irish ex pats gathering around his forge to share news, swap stories and talk politics.

In short, much food for thought as we Dempsey cousins continue tracking the lives of our mutual ancestors — William Patrick and Katherine (Gormley) Dempsey.

Ireland’s forges and blacksmiths

One last word on Tales of the Anvil. In addition to providing a wonderful narrative history of County Wexford’s blacksmiths, Doyle includes photos and a county-wide map of many active and closed forges.

He has also compiled a list of blacksmiths from a variety of sources, and on the list are Willie Dempsey of Blackwater and Michael Dempsey of Ballinastraw  — linking our Dempsey surname to the trade.

Of course, much more research is needed to connect our great, great grandfather “William the blacksmith” to his roots and birth location in County Wexford — let alone to definitively link him to blacksmiths back home.

Nevertheless, Doyle deserves our gratitude for providing valuable background information and context for us Dempsey cousins as we move forward with our family history search.

Coming on April 5: Our Dempsey cousins team makes some discoveries. Right after the next April 4 post: Elizabeths in my family tree. Hope to see you then!

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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The rebellious blacksmiths of County Wexford

Third in a series on the Demspey Cousins Family Research Team.

Within the Dempsey Cousins Family Research Team, our Irish-born great, great grandfather William Patrick Dempsey is affectionately known as “William the blacksmith” — a trade-based nickname that cousin Barb suggested to distinguish him from his son and other same-name descendants.

Wexford Pikeman of 1798. Blacksmiths in County Wexford — birthplace of my gggrandfather, blacksmith William Patrick Dempsey — forged pikes of freedom equipped with hooks to catch the reins of British cavalry and unseat the riders during the 1798 Irish Rebellion/Éirí Amach. By: National Library of Ireland on The Commons

William’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun (shared by cousin John) said he was from County Wexford — where he may have learned the highly regarded blacksmith trade from his father.

So before we Dempsey cousins got down to the serious genealogical business of specifically tracing William’s roots in Ireland, I decided to do some background research on the history of County Wexford and its blacksmiths.

I first learned that County Wexford in southeast Ireland saw incursions by Vikings, invasion by Normans, and later occupation by British forces — each met with a fighting spirit by the Irish population.

Then I discovered that County Wexford’s blacksmiths played a crucial role in the heroic 1798 Irish Rebellion/ Éirí Amach against British rule — an uprising inspired by the earlier American and French revolutions and a landmark on the road to Ireland’s independence.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill/ Chnoc Fíodh na gCaor — the last, great battle of the rebellion, which is still re-enacted today —  took place in County Wexford’s town of Enniscorthy and pitted the fighting Irish against British occupation forces, with about 20,000 on each side.

Lacking firearms, the Irish combatants brandished pikes of freedom equipped with hooks to catch the reins of British cavalry and unseat the riders. Those metal pike tops were forged by Wexford’s blacksmiths.

Well, how about that!

Of course, my great, great grandfather William Patrick Dempsey wasn’t born until about 1828, so his father was probably just a child at the time of rebellion. But that doesn’t rule out involvement by more distant direct or side line Dempsey ancestors, nor the pride with which older generations likely shared this rich local history.

When “William the blacksmith” was taught by the forge, he may have also heard stories about the heroic blacksmiths of County Wexford and throughout Ireland — as immortalized in this verse from a song about blacksmith Páid O’’Donoghue of County Meath:

But Ninety-Eight’’s dark season came and Irish hearts were sore; The pitch-cap and triangle the patient folk outwore;
The blacksmith thought of Ireland and found he’’d work to do: “I’’ll forge some steel for freedom,” said Páid O’’Donoghue.1

What more did I learn about County Wexford’s blacksmiths? Stay tuned for the next post.

To be continued.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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Footnotes

  1. From the song Páid O’’Donoghue by Patrick Archer.