Another Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork 2)

The hand-forged wrought iron farm gate, featured in last week’s post, was once ubiquitous around West Cork, mostly made by local blacksmiths. Perhaps enterprising blacksmiths also mass-produced gates, which were then sold by local shops. In Ballydehob, for example, around 1890, Wolfe’s shop was selling this gate, captured by the photographer Robert French and now part of the Lawrence Collection at the National Library of Ireland (used with their permission).

To understand the technology and skill that went into making and repairing these gates, take a look at this video, the follow-on to last week’s, from Shem Caulfield in Kilkenny. (If you haven’t already seen Part 1, check back on it now for diagrams of what I will be talking about.)

Forge-welding, as illustrated in the video, can be seen in this gate (below), located on the Twelve Arch Bridge in Ballydehob, separating the bridge from what was once the railway station. [Or so I thought – read on to see how mistaken I was.]

The hooped strengthening bars are a very common element in West Cork vernacular gates, but in this case, you can clearly see that the loops have been added by forge-welding. The other thing about this gate is the perfection and uniformity of the twists – a very skilful job indeed. And not a rivet in sight – each joint appears to be forge-welded. [EDIT: I got this SO wrong. This is not an example of forge welding, but “a dodgy repair job with an arc welder” – thanks to Pat O’Driscoll for putting me straight. I think we can take it this is NOT a hand-forged gate but a more recent example – machine made, given the perfection of the twists. I am adding this clarification rather than deleting the photograph and text to show that we are all still learning!]

A more common, and perhaps more traditional approach was to make these looped strengthening bars by bending one continuous length of iron and attaching them to the cross bars with rivets. This beautiful gate (above), still in situ in Ballybane, near Ballydehob, illustrates this.

In this photograph you can see that the cross bars are joined to the slapping stile with a mortice and tenon joint. In the forge the stile is heated until a hole can be punched through it. The end of the bar is inserted into this hole and then hammered flat to fix it in place.

Using the same mortice and tenon technique, a heel is affixed to the top (and sometimes the bottom bar) to further strengthen and hang the gate and prevent sagging. Across the road from this gate is an identical one (below) where only half the original gate remains – how wonderful that it is still kept in place!

Entrance gates performed a different function than a farm or field gate. The height of a field gate accommodated the head of a horse or a cow to look over it. Entrance gates, understandably, were often made to deter anyone from going over them. They were taller and certainly less inviting to a climber. I spotted this lovely red set in Rossmore – you can see all the traits of the hand-forged gate in them.

But entrance gates were also designed to make a more prestigious statement about the people going through them or the house behind them. This beautiful set of gates (below) is on the road up to Brow Head and is definitely made to impress. My favourite part is that there is a discrete pedestrian gate built in to them.

Finally, a couple of garden gates – perfect for leaning across for the chat with the neighbours. This one is next door to me, rescued and re-purposed by my friend Hildegard. I love the way the stiles have been split – such a simple way to create a decorative element.

And how about this one, spotted at Coolkelure? A few simple twists and a couple of scrolls and you’ve got a pretty little gate that will last forever.

Over the course of the twentieth century hand-forged entrance gates gave way to cast-iron gates made in foundries and eventually to mass-produced and imported varieties, bought from a catalogue. Meanwhile, farmers bought the tubular steel gates that are everywhere around us. When you see those gates, remember that they have probably replaced a hand-forged example of the blacksmith’s skill, such as the ones in Brian Lalor’s engraving below, which conjures up for me such a feeling for a lost tradition.

© Brian Lalor, used with permission

A Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork)

If you look closely, all around the Irish countryside are still scattered old wrought iron gates made by local blacksmiths. These gates, according to Shem Caulfied, “are particular to Ireland. . .  and their design often illustrates a distinctive local style. This local or vernacular style is an important element of our rural heritage.” Shem has produced lovely videos for the Kilkenny Co Council on forged gates – see the first one here as a good introduction to these gates.

I’ve been looking out for farm gates to see if I can identify a local style. So far I haven’t found any of the hooped braces which are the dominant kind in some parts. This illustration (and the others in this post) is from an article in a 1974 Ireland of the Welcomes by Gerald Tyler, designer and architectural historian, who worked with the Kilkenny Design Workshop. The article has given me the vocabulary and some of the knowledge I need to look at these gates. By the way, the gate was assembled ‘out of square’ so that as it naturally sagged it would come into square.

Local blacksmiths around this part of West Cork kept the design straightforward and sturdy. Some gates had no bracing at all. The one below is the simplest of all types – three upright stiles and five bars. The stile on the left is the hanging stile and the one on the right, where the latch is, is the ‘slapping’ stile.

But most gates had diagonal braces of one kind or another. Here are a few local examples.

Above is the only example I have seen with parallel diagonal braces.

This gate has an X brace, but an additional half stile was also inserted at some point.

A favourite way to brace was a pair of up-pointing diagonals. This gate is barely hanging in. The spikes on top may have been to deter cattle or horses from leaning over the top bar, or maybe small boys from climbing.

The diagonals could be down-pointing, as in the example above, which is actually a double gate. This gate is made of band iron which was often used (or straightened and re-used from old wheels). In cross section, it’s flat on one side and curved on the other, making it easily recognisable. The curved side was the one in contact with the road when it was used on wheels. Many of our local gates are band iron, or a combination of straight iron and band iron.

Gates often had to be widened to allow for modern machinery.  The gate above and the one in the illustration have been widened by the insertion of extra lengths of iron in the horizontal bars. Often this is so skilfully done that it’s imperceptible.

This gate has been widened by the addition of a new section on the slapping side.

This double gate, which has no cross-bracing, only vertical stiles, has been widened by adding a section in the middle, attached to the left hand side. Did the farmer regret having no easy way to just hop over the gate and take the opportunity to put in a set of steps?

The gate in my lead photograph features mainly half stiles, but was once a lot fancier than it is now. The gate above has both full-height stiles and a diagonal brace and has been paired with a newer steel gate – you see this a lot around here.

Some gates had extra horizontal bars at the bottom to prevent small animals (calves or sheep) from squirming through the openings. Above is a lovely example from a local farmyard.

I have been amazed, and cheered, to see how many wrought iron gates are still to be found around here, although sometimes you have to poke around a bit to find them, as in the example above. . However, they are disappearing, and the vast majority have been replaced by the ubiquitous tubular steel gates. I am planning a further post to explore some of the skills of the blacksmiths to be seen in the details of our local gates. Meanwhile, take a look at how Pat O’Driscoll still works in the time-honoured way in his forge, now located in Durrus.

The Gate to My Heart

Orchard Gate, David Ross

Everywhere I go in West Cork I take pictures of gates.* Most, nowadays, are galvanised metal, rather than, as in the past, forged by a blacksmith taking satisfaction in making each piece unique. Our friend David Ross of the Top of the Rock Pod Páirc & Walking Centre collects and preserves these wrought iron gates where he can. The first two photographs are kindly supplied by him. At the top is an orchard gate he found lying in a ditch and restored – note the blacksmith’s marks of an X and four dots. The gate below is also his, salvaged from the site of an old monastery in Castlemartyr.

David Ross Gate

Another friend and fellow-blogger, Pat Crowley of the encyclopaedic Durrus History, shared his photographs with us – see below. This kind of gate is called a ‘band iron trinity’ and this one was made in the 1930s. The blacksmith was an O’Donovan from Kilcrohane or Kealties.

Band Trinity Gate

Such gate-dedication is rare: large wrought iron field gates are often left to rust, or cast aside in favour of an easy-care option. But you can still find them, hanging in there, often by a thread, and doing their job. Their days are numbered so we enjoy them while we can.



Smaller gates fare better. Perhaps maintaining them isn’t as big a commitment. Garden gates establish the atmosphere the homeowner wishes to evoke – or in the case of abandoned houses, once wished.

Elegant Gate, Ahakista


Here are details from a pair of matching red gates near us – a large entrance gate and a smaller side gate.

Graveyards are fertile sources of wrought-iron. The entrance gates still stand sentinel, sometimes double gates, but often single, as most coffins were shouldered in.



Long-disused church yards with little walls separating off the church precinct from the surrounding cemetery or from the vicarage, feature overgrown gates with fetching designs.


Castlehaven graveyardHoly wells are accessed through through special gates, many dating from the mid-20th century, when holy well sites were re-furbished.

The boreens leading to the well can be accessed occasionally by edging through a kissing gate. This one is not wrought iron, but I like the little details on it.

Kissing Gate

Still, the common field gate manages to establish its own character, and often acts to frame a vista across a valley, or a tantalising glimpse of old stone farm buildings. The vast majority now are galvanised metal, but some have been painted, or hung between substantial stone pillars.

green gate

Nick's GateMost are secured using a highly technical local form of lock called the loop-a-bit-of-rope technique. Seems to baffle the cattle, who stay inside, but it’s great for your friendly wandering archaeologist wanting to investigate a pile of rocks in a field.

The ultimate, of course, is to dispense with the gate altogether and simply use the loop-a-bit-of-rope lock on its own.


Will this gate, below, sadly neglected, be replaced with a wooden or galvanised model? Perhaps new owners will see what they have and try to salvage it. But it does look like it’s on its last legs.


When we decided we need some wrought iron for our own entrance, we went to Cronin’s Forge near Durrus. Working in time-honoured ways they make gates and signs that will last the course.

Fitting to end with a church gate, as this has been a hymn to the West Cork Gate, in the form of a photo essay. This is one of my favourites, access to and guardian of so many treasures: the gates to St Barrahane’s Church in Castletownshend. Like so many aspects of this place it is elegant and unique. The photograph was taken by my 11-year old niece, Ava.

St Barrahane's Church Steps

*My apologies to those of you who followed a broken link to this page earlier. At an early stage of writing, I pressed ‘publish’ rather than save (easy to do!) and then had to delete the post. I hope you came back!