‘Auf der Walz’ – The Journeymen

on the summit

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.

blank canvas

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.


making the heron

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.

piecing it together

on the floor

sanding the gate

dietrich, journeymen and gate

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.

the gate

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!

on hungry hill

Experiencing beautiful West Cork – the Beara Peninsula, summer 2016

27 thoughts

  1. Hi, My name is Diana Noonan. I live in New Zealand and just the other day I picked up a journeyman who was hitchiking through our part of the country. I’d now like to write a short artifcle about journeymen for the 50 plus online website I send my articles to. I didn’t take a photo of ‘my journeyman’ and now wish I had. Would you allow me to use an image from your site? I would be sure to credit the photo to you and direct my readers to your site to read more about this interesting group of travellers.


  2. I’m so glad they got work. I shared their story when Inese first came across them and posted about them on her blog. They are very talented and skillful blacksmiths, I love that design on the gate they made. Is it okay to reblog this as an update to my readers?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely to see these two cheery young men again. That gate is really beautiful and shows what talented smiths Simon and Benjamin are! I wonder where they are now – if they’re still on their travels? Perhaps their three years is over, now. Such a fascinating tradition, with strict rules, too. Great post, and wonderful photos, Inese.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How fascinating Robert – what a great encounter and an interesting tradition. Several years ago I cam across three journeywomen in Durrus (I initially mistook them for Morris women!!) and had to stop and chat.I have a photo somewhere which I will find for you! A beautiful gate too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great stuff these traditions. I had a Journeyman on board “Präsident Freiherr von Maltzahn” once from the Bretagne to Scotland – Michi was wonderful company. By the way: Seamen used to wear a golden earring too. The ring they hoped would get them a proper Christian burial, once they died in foreign land.

    Liked by 1 person

      • At the time I began wearing an earring, it wasn’t that daring anymore – the hippie culture already had laid out the pathway. But still, we had to take care to choose the appropriate side, as a ring on the right-hand side was considered to show that the wearer was gay.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing the link! I am so happy and grateful for these two young men that they made it to Co Cork and found a job. I was worrying every time the weather forecast was no good, and hoped they were safe. I came across them in the most unfortunate moment, on my way home – in the opposite direction of where they were heading – with no cash left and even no card to get more petrol. The only thing I could do was to take them to Kilmeaden and leave them at the Centra on the Cork Road. Thank you again for the wonderful story. Hope that Simon and Benjamin will have good memories of Ireland.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Inese – your own blog post was so helpful to me in putting together the article. Many thanks for that, and for the use of your wonderful portrait of the two lads. Like you, we wonder how they are getting on with their journey: maybe we’ll hear from them again at some point. If so, we’ll let you know!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence? It is like an answer to my prayers – I did worry about them. I too hope to hear from them some day, and may their Walz be safe and fruitful. Thank you again for the great job with this post, and for the mention.

        Liked by 1 person

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