Restoring gates that survived Cork Burning

MARY ROSE MCCARTHY catches up with Pat Ronan, of Ronan Engineering, who is involved in restoring gates that were removed from the city after the Burning of Cork
Restoring gates that survived Cork Burning

Ronan of Ronan Engineering is now engaged in the work of restoring the Carnegie library railings.

THE railings that once stood at Carnegie Library, where the City Hall now stands, were removed after the fire which destroyed the building in the Burning of Cork during the War of Independence.

The gates were made by John Perry, of Robert Street, who undertook much of this kind of work for the city at the time.

Pat Ronan, of Ronan Engineering, is now engaged in the work of restoring the railings.

Pat has checked the Census and discovered that in 1905 Perry would have been 60, and speculates that it is not the Perry’s creation but rather Benjamin Watson, who would have been very familiar with Perry’s work.

There is one extant photo of the railings in the Lawrence collection, and it is from this reference that Pat is working to restore the railings.

Part of the Carnegie library railings.
Part of the Carnegie library railings.

He says no two elements in the work matched and that master craftsmen use this technique to signal to the next craftsperson not to replicate that mistake.

After the fire, the railings went to Monard Spade Mill, off the Mallow Road, with the intention that they be fashioned into spades. They languished there until the 1950s when the Bishop of Cork made an appeal for donations to help build a new church at Gurranabraher. The mill donated the railings to the Bishop and for years they formed the side entrance to the church from Cathedral Road.

With the aid of a heritage grant, the church commissioned Pat Ronan to restore them. Pat says at some point the railings were vandalised and there are bits missing.

His liaison with the church is Joe Murphy, whose family business, Murphy Engineering, did the structural framework for The Church of the Ascension in Gurranabraher. Pat says he is a mine of information about many of the Cork churches constructed during the tenure of Bishop Lucey in the 1950s. He is a huge support to him.

Part of the Carnegie library railings which are being restored.
Part of the Carnegie library railings which are being restored.

Pat is thrilled with the commission as he says it is once in a lifetime job. JJ Bowen, from Ballydehob, assists him with the larger parts of the restoration work.

Pat is passionate about his job, but did not always work in metal engineering. For many years, he worked with Carbery Milk in Ballineen.

Metal work was always his hobby until eventually, over 30 years ago, he took the decision to go into it full time. He is a member of the Irish Artists Blacksmiths Association and a lecturer with them, and delivered lectures at Millstreet country park. His reputation has spread through word of mouth.

The restoration in progress.
The restoration in progress.

Pat undertook many weekend courses in England, and has has completed many heritage projects around Cork, including the monument on the Grand Parade, railings at City Hall and UCC, work at Fota, Electric Bar on South Mall, Bodega, on the Coal quay and the Island Crematorium. He also constructed the gates at Annaville, The Falling Angel at Vicarstown Inn is also one of Pat’s creations. He was also the winner of a Titanic-themed competition run by the Irish Artists Blacksmiths Association with his successful work on show in Belfast.

When undertaking restoration work such as the Carnegie railings, Pat never knows what he’s facing. As he says: “Paint can hide a multitude of issues.”

Making entrance gates is the bread-and-butter work for Pat that allows him the creative space for the artistic side of metalwork.

He observes that many families need entrance gates with the arrival of a second child, who seems more adventurous and likely to attempt escape onto a busy road.

Pat has a German standard forge for heating metal before then pounding and shaping it. Much of the work, he says, is eye hand coordination and is as much intuition as skill. He has a gas furnace that uses coke, which gives a better heat for moulding wrought iron.

Work being carried out on the railings.
Work being carried out on the railings.

Some of his equipment dates to 1938 and 1957: “The old tools are well built,” he says.

Pat also works with an anvil and electric power harmer and has a forging crane for taking heavy pieces from the fire to the hammer.

Restoring the railings is painstaking work, figuring out clues such as a petal facing the wrong way left by the previous craftsperson, to fashioning new work based on the photo from the Lawrence Collection.

“There is no other hobby I know of that you spend 12 hours a day doing. As the workshop is at home, I can just cross the yard and return to work whenever I want, sometimes until 11 or 12 at night,” he said.

Pat has a portable forge which he takes around to festivals. He has also done demonstrations for the Irish Georgian Society.

The Irish Artists Blacksmith Association hold regular meetings for the love of ironmongery. They meet at places such as Strokestown House. Global teams from around the world attend these meetings from countries such as Chile, Russia and Japan.

Pat says those who attend are the best in their game. They are living treasures, and the relevant country ambassador to Ireland also attends these meetings.

Pat would like to see more young people enter the heritage blacksmithing industry, but says it isn’t possible to make a living from craft work only. People also need a day job such as making gates to allow them the freedom to work on craft projects. He feels there is enormous potential in Cork as there is a mix of the old and new.

“Ironwork,” he says “is often the interface between the walker and the household. We are not making it as attractive as we could.

“We should be creating a better environment to retain graduates for high end jobs. Preserving heritage needs political will. Other countries are much stronger on conservation.”

Anyone wishing to work in this industry needs skill, not physical strength. Currently, that means travelling to Hereford in England to undertake courses there.

“You need to be prepared for hard work,” Pat says, “but there is a great community to join, and forge gatherings are a great social event.”

Like any job, it has its ups and downs, but for Pat Ronan, he’s doing what he’s passionate about and thoroughly enjoying life.

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