I am always happy to find longstanding customs and traditions still going strong, especially when they are as relevant today as they have been over countless generations. This summer we chanced upon two strangers from Germany who passed through Ballydehob. They were journeymen blacksmiths: lads who had completed their apprenticeships at home and were now ‘Auf der Walz’ (on the road) – gaining experience in the wider world.
Here are the two Journeymen who travelled the west of Ireland’captured’ by photographer Inese MJ – she came across them in her local supermarket! I am very grateful to Inese for allowing me to use her excellent photograph which comes from her own blog, here.
The tradition of the Journeyman Brotherhood is centuries old, originating in the Craftsmen Guilds of Europe during the Middle Ages and it is still practiced. In the past every young craftsperson who aspired to be a Master was, following his apprenticeship, required to leave home and not return for three years and a day. They had to stay at least 50 km away, but the journeys of the more adventurous candidates involved crossing oceans and continents. Simon and Benjamin – seen in the top picture after an exploratory climb to the summit of Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula – are from Munich and Frankfurt. They are wearing the uniform of their trade, known as the Kluft: this is how they are required to dress during their travels. The number of buttons on their waistcoats show the number of hours in a day they expect to work – in this case eight. When they leave home they have only a token sum of money each, and they must return with the same sum, no more. The purpose of the journey is not to seek their fortune, but to improve their knowledge and skills and give them a rich life experience, preparing them for becoming masters of their craft. It is a prerequisite that Journeymen cannot set out unless they are unmarried, childless and debt-free.
Left – a typical Charlottenburger used to carry the Journeyman’s possessions. Right – group of three in Germany looking for their preferred mode of transport
Other traditions which have to be observed by the true Journeymen include carrying only the most basic possessions with them: clothes to work in and the tools of their trade. These are wrapped in a small blanket, 80 cm square, known as a Charlottenburger. They also often carry a crooked walking stick, called a Stenz, which they have made themselves. Mobile phones are not allowed! Notably, Journeymen usually have gold bracelets and earrings: these may be pawned or sold, but only in cases of dire emergency… I learned that the earring tradition refers back to a time when each apprentice had a nail hammered through his earlobe to mark that he had reached the stage of his apprenticeship which allowed him to go out into the world and remain a stranger until he had completed his journey. Some sources suggest that the term Journeyman comes from the French Journée, meaning ‘journey’ – but this is not correct. Journée means ‘day’ in modern French, but its medieval root is the latin diurnata, which in fact means ‘a day’s work’ or ‘a day’s travel’.
Journeymen surrounded by the tools of their trade in the forge at Lowertown
Simon and Benjamin were fortunate that in Ballydehob they bumped into our neighbour Dietrich: although he and Hildegard have lived here for much of their working lives they were brought up in Germany and were aware of the Journeyman tradition. They immediately found a project for the two young blacksmiths: constructing a new gate for their entrance. John Joe Bowen of the local forge at Lowertown was very helpful in allowing a space in his workshops for the boys to set to work.
The process. Top – blank canvas: laying the full-size design out on the workshop floor. Above – learning from real life: how to fabricate a metal foxglove
We followed reports of the gate-making process with great interest, but were not allowed to see the completed design until the ‘official unveiling’. Dietrich and Hildegard recorded the various stages and have most kindly allowed me to use their photographs of the construction process (and the hike up Hungry Hill) reproduced here.
From design to reality. Top left – Hildegard supervising the assembly and – top right – her design concept drawings. Above – a metal heron takes shape
The gate is a masterpiece. Made in West Cork, it reflects the environment of the place. It’s elegant, and unique. Although it appears complex, it is very understated: I think Dietrich and Hildegard have perfectly summed up the zeitgeist of our own time here in our small townland. Its inspiration is in nature, yet it is a technologically up-to-date piece of fine engineering.
The construction process, and Dietrich and ‘The Boys’
We were privileged to be at the ‘launch party’. I have never been to a formal gate opening before! Dietrich cut the ribbon and then revealed the finished product to our eager eyes. This work must surely have been the highlight of the travels of these Journeyman from afar: they learned so much about observation and the translation of ideas into practical form.
Benjamin and Simon were not at the ‘launch’; they were already far away, continuing with their travels and their education. But they must carry with them good memories of the West of Ireland. Good luck to them both!