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.