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From lecture hall to the forge, student Owen Mort hammers out a new career as a blacksmith

By Linda Stewart

Published 01/02/2016

Owen Mort at work in his own forge on the family farm in the Clogher Valley
Owen Mort at work in his own forge on the family farm in the Clogher Valley
Owen Mort with the tools of his new trade

He started off with a degree in mechanical engineering - but now Owen Mort has retrained as a blacksmith.

The 28-year-old has set up his own forge in Clogher, bought an anvil on Gumtree and the orders are flying in.

"I've always been good with my hands, but I really started off in engineering," he explains.

When he finished his degree at Ulster University, the recession had hit and there was little work - so he retrained as a welder.

But Owen had just completed an all-night shift at the shipyard in Belfast when he saw the advert that was to change his life.

The Heritage Lottery Fund was advertising a Skills for the Future scheme with the chance to retrain as a heritage blacksmith - and he jumped at it.

"I didn't think I'd get it, but I've loved it. It's become more of a passion than anything," he says.

As soon as the course finished, Owen set up his business, Black Anvil, based on the family farm in the Clogher Valley.

Start-up costs were minimal - he bought an anvil on Gumtree for just £150, acquired a blacksmith's leg vice for less, got a full set of hammers and other tools from a blacksmith who had just retired, which he has restored. Then he built his own furnace in an outbuilding. Even better, he now has all he needs to make any more tools he requires.

Owen did not advertise or market his business, but from the start work flowed in - local farmers wanting gates and tools repaired, customers who wanted handmade railings and elaborate gates, shows and fairs who wanted him to showcase his craft.

"I make gates, railings, stair balustrades, curtain poles, fire pokers. I'm currently making a door knocker. It's for people that want something unique, not made in a factory," he says.

There are also the heritage projects - restoring railings, gates, and ornamentation with the same techniques used to make them. He has even built a footbridge for the prehistoric Springfarm Rath in Antrim.

"It's looked at as a dying trade, which is a shame because you are losing those skills. I thought I would struggle to find work - but the work has come to me."

Owen also demonstrates his craft at various events around the country and has delivered a number of training courses. And he grew a long, bushy beard - which proved to be a boon.

"It is actually a practical thing, not a fashion statement. When you are working with fire and metals, sparks fly and if you are clean shaven they get stuck to your face, and burn," he says.

"With a beard, they just singe the hair then fall to the floor. That is why so many blacksmiths have beards."

He has just fixed farm gates made by a blacksmith who lived less than a mile down the road.

"A hundred years ago, you were never more than a mile away from a forge," he says.

"Today, by my reckoning, there are just five blacksmiths in Northern Ireland qualified to do heritage work.

"I love the work. My slogan is 'bringing metal to life' - that's what I do and that's the joy of it, you can do pretty much what you want with it once you know how. And I would like to thank National Lottery players everywhere, for giving me the opportunity to acquire these skills."

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