Every couple of years this man would come to Loughrea, County Galway and set up shop on the footpath outside Molloy's Harp Bar on Main Street. He was an itinerant blade grinder, or knife sharpener.

Folks would get wind he was in town and quickly a queue would form, of people waiting to have their 'sharps' sharpened. All manner of blades were whetted. Scissors, shears, scythes, chisels, sickles, lawn-mower blades, axes, carving knives, plane-blades, scrapers, even razors, he sharpened them all.

Sparks would fly when he applied the blade to the spinning whetstone, turning the blade to whet both sides, changing the angle he held it at, almost flat for knives, fully right-angled for scissors. He moved in reverie with the blade, caressing the blade's fine edge to the stone, teasing it to a polished finish as he gently varied the speed of the stone by pedaling the foot-spindles faster or slower.

He was an artist really, a craftsman for whom steel was his brush. He would finish with a smile, rubbing the now gleaming blade with an oily rag to keep the rust off. I can't remember what he charged, something fairly nominal and affordable I imagine, for everyone needed their knives sharpened, rich and poor alike, and he didn't discriminate.

He would finish up when the last blade was tested. Deftly he'd flip the cart onto it's one wheel, and using two handles which he had folded into the frame, he wheeled the grinding barrow off to his night's lodgings. He towed the cart behind his bicycle and like the poet Antoine Raftery, he went from village to village, town to town, farm to farm, working his magic on the cutting edges of Irish life, continuing a tradition that probably went all the way back to medieval times.

I wonder if he had a set route, or just took a notion, north today, tomorrow west with the sun? I took these two photographs in August of 1973 and had 'lost' the images until this weekend when tidying out my mum's house.  

I was working in Sligo in 1979 when one day I took a drive to Drumcliff to see Yeats' grave. There I saw the little blue and white cart for the last time, tucked in behind a caravan, parked off the road. I stopped, but there was no one about. I often wondered what ever became of the little man with the sharpest wit in Ireland. I never saw him again. I didn't even know his name!

For more on this story and for many other stories, feel free to contact me;
Brian Nolan, Galway Walks - Walking Tours of Galway Website www.GalwayWalks.com.

Views: 1314

Tags: Antoine, Blades, Drumcliff, Folklore, Galway, Living History, Loughrea, Raftery, Scissors, Sligo, More…Yeats

Comment by NancyUSA on June 2, 2015 at 6:00pm

It's a shame that modern tecnology has taken away  the ability for people to make a living like that. I remember my dad taking our knives to someone to sharpen them.

Comment by Brian Nolan on June 3, 2015 at 2:12pm

One of my American friends mentioned that a guy used come to her street in Boston in a van, and sharpened all the street's knives and scissors and....Ice Skates! Knife sharpeners, always on the cutting edge eh!

Comment by Diane on June 4, 2015 at 3:56am

When I was a child living in Philadelphia (late 1940's), a man would travel through our neighborhoods on foot to sharpen knives.  He always used the alleys behind the houses and knocked at the back doors. He only had a whetstone and we children would sit around him and watch him as he worked.  There was also a man who came through the alley to repair umbrellas.  Nice piece, thank you.

Comment by Gerry Regan on June 5, 2015 at 2:42pm

Brian, I so relish your lyrical writing style vizier: "He towed the cart behind his bicycle and like the poet Antoine Raftery, he went from village to village, town to town, farm to farm, working his magic on the cutting edges of Irish life ..."

Go raibh maith agat for throwing in with us.

We had a guy drive around the neighborhood in a motorized van in my early childhood. I always saw trends in Ireland lagging about 15-20 years behind the States, e.g., McDonalds, hamburgers, et al. After his departure from the scene, how did you all get your knives sharpened?

Comment by Brian Nolan on June 8, 2015 at 3:45am

Thanks Gerry, Diane and Nancy for your kind comments. Gerry, I don't know when he stopped coming the Loughrea. I had gone off to University in 1973 and may have missed him. I suppose he had ceased by the 1980's. How did we sharpen our blades after that...well the disposable society had made its presence felt here, yes, maybe 20 or so years after you had embraced it. Scissors don't get sharpened anymore, they get chucked in the trash and we buy a new set in Staples, or whatever store, 2 for $10 ....and the lawnmower blades, well we get the mower serviced nowadays, and sharpening the dulled blade is part of the 'specialised' service. No one uses a sickle or a scythe now, nor a cut-throat razor either. Shears for shearing sheep are mostly electric now. As for knives, well I still have a 'steel' which I frighten the blade with every Christmas, and other that, I suppose we are a 'dull' lot, aren't we. I found my dad's 'whetstone' in the garage when we were clearing out the house. I remember the debate between dad and our neighbor when they got together to trim the garden hedge between our gardens. They were trying to sharpen a garden shears with the whetstone. Dad used spittle to lubricate the black stone, the man suggested using oil. The debate probably lasted 15 minutes, with each giving very reasoned arguments for and against. In the end, dad had an idea, and turned on his fixed electric drill that he'd made from an old motor in the 1950's, attached a grinding wheel and had the shears sharp as could be in no time. They had time for debate and co-operation back then. No such luxury nowadays, start up the petrol strimmer, put the ear-muffs on, ignore your neighbor. I'm not sure we weren't better off waiting our turn for the knife-sharpener.

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Comment by Totally Irish Gifts on June 23, 2015 at 2:24pm

Great photo!


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