Traditional Crafts Found In Gaelic Celtic Culture
BASKET MAKING - Wickerwork in all its forms
is one of the oldest crafts.
Willow and osier are the most common materials used, and they grow
easily in all areas. Many different kinds of baskets are made in Ireland
for example: the 'cliabh' or creel, for gathering turf; these are used
in pairs, one basket on each side of a pony; the 'skib', for harvesting
potatoes; the 'ciseog' for straining and serving vegetables; the lusset
(losaid), a rectangular basket with wooden sides, also for vegetables.
In Cork and Kerry the 'sciathog' is used, similar but U-shaped, deepest
in the centre. In Co. Mayo the 'tiachog' is used for holding eggs.
An interesting feature of the larger Irish baskets is that the rim is
constructed first, finishing with the base last. Although most people
once had the ability to make baskets for their own needs, nevertheless
basket making was a specialised craft in its own right. There were many
itinerant basket makers, also. They jealously guarded their craft and
would not let anyone see them start or finish a basket.
BLACKSMITING - In Celtic society the Smith held a very high status. His
apparently magical ability to work with the elements of fire (Sky) and
water (Sea) to mold and shape metal (Land) made him seem semi- divine.
His was the rightful claim, that he made everything used by the other
skills. So much esteem and honor have traditionally belonged to the
smith that it was common for the smith to dine with kings. An example of
this is provided with King Conor Mac Nessa of Ulster coming to the house
of Culann the master smith for dinner. This was the occasion where
Setanta killed Culanns wolfhound and hence took the place of the animal
for a time earning him the name CuChullain (Dog of Culann). Today we
still associate one of the main artifacts of the Smith, the horseshoe,
with the bringing of Good Luck*.
The Gaelic God of the Forge is Gobhniu, who is referred to in many
legends. The Irish word for a BLACKSMITH is 'goba'. Every village had
its own Blacksmith, who provided a service for all classes of people -
kings, warriors, farmers. Iron was used not only to make weapons, but
also agricultural implements, cooking utensils, axles and lynch pins and
many other uses.
The Forge ('cerdcha') was an important meeting place for the community,
where storytelling and exchanges of news were carried on. The Forge fire
was fanned by leather bellows, called 'builgg', which were worked by the
The anvil ('inneoin') was placed on a block which stood in the center
of the forge. The Smith held the red-hot iron in a 'tennchair' (tongs)
then struck it with a heavy 'ord' (sledge) on the anvil. It was then
plunged into a vat of cold water for 'tempering' the metal. The furnaces
were made of specially prepared clay and had to be reconstructed quite
often, using a mold.
There is quite a body of lore revolving around the smithy which is the
place where a Smith works. Probably the most well known examples of this
lore is found from the Pretanic cousins in which is relayed how the
Hounds of Annwnn cannot enter a smithy. Other examples tell of how the
Sidhe cannot cross ferrous metal thrown down before them. Each of these
have Gaelic counterparts.
BRONZE SMITHING: Bronze, made from copper and tin, was the most common
metallic alloy used (and long before iron was discovered). Brass, an
alloy of copper and zinc, was also used. The Irish called copper 'uma'.
There were two chief types of Bronze: red bronze, called 'derg-uma' and
white bronze, called 'finn-uma' or 'findruine'. White bronze was more
expensive, and used mainly for ornamental art. Red bronze was used for
cauldrons and weapons.
The most common way used for the working of bronze was with a
technique called sandcasting. This technique involves carving a model
of the object desired out of wood, then embedding the model in water or
oil soaked sand. Anciently, our ancestors would dig down into the banks
of rivers and streams, then embed the models in the sand thereof, after
which they poured the molten bronze into the imprint made in the sand.
CARPENTRY - A little known fact is that amongst the other skills that
the Dagda has been associated with is carpentry. Very little lore
remains about this skill from the old days. However, among the things
that do survive is the custom of the carpenter placing corn dollies in
the eves of a new building.
DYEING- Wild plants and berries provided our ancestors with a rich
variety of bright colors for their cloth. Most dyes require the use of a
'mordant' to fix the color permanently into the wool. The most common
mordants are alum, cream of tartar, ferrous sulphate (iron), tin and
bichromate of potash. Formerly, crude native alum could be obtained from
wood ash, sheep manure, oak galls, urine and sediments of bog pools.
The dyestuff is immersed in cold water and brought to the boil until
the color is released (this can take a few hours for certain barks of
trees). The liquid is left to cool, the wool is put in and brought back
to the boil, then simmered. Finally the wool is squeezed out and dried.
The oldest plant used in dyeing is lichen. A few recipes:
BLACK - bog pool sediments, yellow flag, elder bark.
BROWN - crottle (lichen); dulse (a form of seaweed), peat soot, water
lily, onion skins
BLUE - blackberries (use alum and salt), sloes, bilberries.
RED - Madder
YELLOW - heather (ling), bracken, dock, autumn crocus
YELLOW/GREEN - Elder leaves plus alum.
The plant matter available in a given region was the main reason that
certain plaids had the colors that they did. This of course before the
standardization of plaids. For example, Clanns that lived where burdock
was predominant saw their main color be yellow.
GOLD AND SILVERSMITHS - Gold and silver artifacts have been made by the
Celts since earliest times, with great skill and artistic refinement.
Gold was used for collars, torcs, bracelets, goblets. From the 10th and
11th century silver was more commonly used - the Ardagh Chalice and the
Brooch of Tara are two of the finest examples.
A worker in gold or silver was, like the worker in bronze, called a
Silver was hand raised using indented tree trunks, then hammered into
shape. A silver casting method which goes back 5,000 years is the 'lost
wax' method. A model of wax is surrounded by a heat proof material, then
heated in the oven to burn out the wax. This leaves a hollow in the
material which is an exact negative copy of the wax item. The hollow is
then filled with molten metal which is poured into the mold. In olden
times mold was then spun around in a sling like apparatus so as to use
centrifugal force to push the molten metal into the deepest recesses of
Much of the detail work traditionally done, was done, by a process
called filigree. This process involved actually soldering very fine
wires of the metal in use to the main piece. This is how the traditional
artisans were capable of creating the very small and detailed raised
lines on the pieces they created.
MASONS - This is another skill that has much of its religious aspect
missing from official records. What we know from folklore tough is that
the masons placed an axe head under either the threshold stone or the
top left pillar stone of the steps depending on construction style. Dr.
Maria Gimbutas in her book The Language of the Goddess may shed some
very interesting light on this custom.
PHYSICIANS - This was a skill that was heavily regulated by Brehon Law.
Number of sheets, views of the outside and clean running water being
amongst the required things that a Physician had to provide. The
physician also had to see the patient for free should a cure not work
the first time as well as pay fines if they caused any disfigurement or
harm to a patient.
This skill goes back at least as far back as the Tuatha de Danaan. The
God of healing is Dianecht. Dianecht had two children who followed him
into healing. They were a son named Miach, and a daughter named Airmid.
These two children are often seen as the surgeon (Miach) and the herbal
healer (Airmid). What is funny is how the jealousies found today between
the two branches of healing were there so long ago as well.
SHOEMAKER - we have yet to find much regarding the customs of the
cobbler. What we can say however is that Lugh was definitely connected
with shoemaking, and was probably the Patron of the Gild of cobblers.
The importance of footwear cannot be over estimated when one considers
the terrain that folks would be walking over.
SPINNING - While the Spinning Wheel was not invented until the late 15th
century. Before this all spinning was carried out using a distaff and
spindle. The distaff, or 'cuigeal', was held in the left hand while the
spindle was held in the right hand. Both wool and flax were spun by the
Celts. The craft of spinning was always carried out by women, and young
women had to spin sufficient quantities of yarn to become eligible to
Celtic women tended to be excellent spinners and weavers, and Irish
linen is still world famous. Men looked after the gathering fleeces;
all other processes were carried out by women only - carding, dyeing,
weaving (although this was taken over later by men). Spinning and
weaving, like all the ancient crafts, have their deeper, hidden
meanings, their Mysteries. Spinning and weaving are particularly
associated with the Ancient Goddess of the loom, who weaves the web of
Fate. There is some evidence that the stang, or forked staff, goes
back to the time of this ancient way of weaving. The lore surrounding
this implement towit: the use by women, Fey and Sidhe, etc., mark this
in some minds as belonging to that era and skill. It is however the lore
that has draw some neo-Pagans to adopt this tool.
WEAVING - The techniques of weaving have changed little since earliest
times. Thread was woven into cloth on a handloom. The larger looms had
two beams: 'garmain' - the larger beam, and 'lu- garmain' - the smaller
beam. The larger beam was likened to a warrior's spear. The weaving rods
were called 'claidim' (swords); these were long laths used during the
process of weaving and were almost as long as the beam itself. The warp
was called DLUTH and the weft was called INNECH.
The earliest looms had only one beam, propped up above the ground, with
the warp threads strung independently and weighed down with stones.
Later a loom with a horizontal frame and a reed to separate the threads
was developed. This led in time to the hand thrown shuttle, passed
across the web between two sets of warp threads, alternatively raised
In Celtic society different castes or professional ranks were only
entitled to wear a certain number of colors. This was codified in the
Ilbreachta Law, which is a sumptuary law. For example farmers could wear
two colors; kings could wear six colors. In general the Celts loved to
dress and adorn themselves in bright, well made clothes, which they took
great pride in.
* Over a doorway with the ends pointing up is the customary way of
keeping a horse shoe. It is said to be a bowl which holds the good in
the home that way. This may relate to the crescent Moon.