When I was a young boy growing up in Navan, there used to be an old forge at Corn Market in the centre of the town. It was worked by John Curtis, "Gussie", and although it was a time of great decline in the blacksmith industry, Gussie was kept busy and I was privileged to witness a master at work. Many times on my way home from school I stopped for a while to watch Gussie shoe a horse.
The forge had a chimney, a fireplace and an anvil. There was a large bellows beside the fire with an overhanging handle attached. One had to pull hard on the handle to generate enough heat to render the iron pliable so that the blacksmith could work it into what ever shape he required. Customers often took turns at pumping the bellows while Gussie banged and shaped the iron with a heavy hammer.
A special type of coal called slack was used for forge work. Unlike domestic coal which came in lumps slack came in granules. Gussie mixed water with the slack before putting it in the fire as it gave better results that way.
The iron for the horseshoes came in long bars. Gussie would cut a piece from one of the long bars and place it in the fire. Then he would pump the bellows to make the fire stronger until the iron glowed at which point he would remove it from the fire with a long pincers and hammer it into shape while it was still glowing red. I loved the ringing clinging sounds he made as he worked the iron on the anvil. When the shoe was near the correct shape he inserted a file into a nail on the outside of the shoe to hold the hot shoe in place. I can still hear the sizzling sound and smell the smoke as the shoe burned into place. When the shoe was exactly the right shape Gussie would put it into the trough of water to cool it down. He would continue working the same way until all four shoes were made. Then he would select some nails and hammer the shoe to the hoof. Oh, how my teeth cringed the first time I saw him drive the nails home.
Gussie wore a special apron made of leather. It had a slit in the center, which went to above his knees; this enabled him to hold the horse's hoof between his knees while he fitted the shoe.
Most animals were quiet during the shoeing process. Flighty ones could be a problem and Gussie relied on the help of the owners to keep them under control. Sometimes an owner would lose the battle with a jittery beast. When this happened Gussie used a special implement called a "touch". A touch was a long stick with a small loop of rope fitted on the end. Gussie didn't like to have to use the touch but it was necessary on occasion. He would simply pull down the touch and give it a twist. This controlled the horse until the shoe was fitted.
Sometimes an animal would be brought in with loose shoes, which weren't well worn. These were called slippers and the blacksmith didn't have to make new ones. Instead, he would remove the old ones, reshape them and nail them on again. Fitting slippers on took less time and cost less than new ones.
As well as the noble art of horse-shoeing that has faded into the mists of time, Gussie did general repair work to ploughs, harrows, mowers, reapers, etc.
Gussie was also a Weight Master. There was a small weigh-bridge in Corn Market just outside the forge which he used for weighing small loads and there was a much larger one on Circular Road for lorries. I can remember standing on the weigh-bridge at Circular Road with groups of other children to feel it vibrate under our feet.
The forge was sited in an old stable which was used to keep horses overnight when hay and straw and other general produce were transported by horse and cart to Dublin.
Gussie worked the forge from the year 1936 until 1978 when he retired. After the forge closed down John Smith, who has a very popular pub in Academy Street, Navan, bought all the equipment originally used in the forge. John turned part of his premises into a museum depicting the old forge and all the original equipment is now on display in the reconstructed version.
The bellows itself dates back to 1870 when Hyland's Coach Works, Fair Green and Navan used it. It was later transferred to Hyland's Coach Builders in Trim Gate Street in 1910. Hyland's closed their coach building business in 1929 and sold the same bellows to John Curtis. Gussie worked it until he retired and it is still in perfect working order thanks to John Smyth.
Visitors to the town of Navan and especially those with a sense of history would be pleasantly surprised by a visit to Smyth's pub, which is situated, beside the railway viaduct. There they can have a meal and quench their thirst in pleasant surroundings and witness part of Navan's history at the same time.
An exact image of the forge has been recreated by local artist Patrick (Patsy) Reel, in 1972. It can be seen in the greater bar area where it generates the atmosphere and the era in which it flourished as a working and a meeting place for coachmen and farmers alike and will almost certainly capture the imagination of today's visitor.
Michael "The Sheriff" Sheils.