Re-making the Red Man of Kilbeg

Mark Griffiths

The most striking feature of the ‘Red Man’ is the strong serpentine curve that runs from its domed head down to its rough-hewn stake end (Below are a selection of photos taken of the artefact during our visit to the National Museum of Ireland storage facility in Swords). The fresh length of alder that lay before me in the yard at Meitheal Mara, although perfect in dimension, could only be described as dead straight. Sourcing the right timber for these projects is always a challenge. The environment trees grow in today is very different from that found thousands of years past. Then woodland would be jungle like, trees closely crowded together, fighting for space to grow, and a forest floor strewn with fallen trunks and scattered branches in varying states of decay. In this space trees would be left to grow twisted, wild and full of character. Most woodland today is managed, trees are given the freedom to grow strong and straight, which is perfect for joinery and furniture but not so good for pre-history woodwork. However, this was the timber we had, and it would be fine for what we intended.

From Japanese to Chinese and through to Indian, over time I have use and collected tools from every corner of the globe, however this would be my first experience with Bronze. Brian had sent me images of Billy forging the axe heads and shaping the hafts, but to now have our finished collection spread out on the table before me Billy’s skill and craftsmanship were obvious. The casting was light, refined, with a cutting edge hammered to a perfect even angle, which had been honed to a fine, keen edge. Timber for the hafts had been carefully selected and shaped to balance and complement the heads, making the tools quick to ‘find’ in the hand. Far from being cruder forms of the early Iron Age tools we had used previously, these Bronze tools had elegance, beauty and delivered a precise, clean cut.

As often with working large sections of green wood I found the ground a perfect workbench. After testing each Bronze tool on a spare piece of Alder I set to work, first removing the thick bark, then reducing the log to its correct dimensions. The original ‘Red Man’, we had seen in the storage facility at Swords, had suffered at the merciless blades of a commercial peat cutter and as a result had lost half its mass. Our Red Man would be crafted to what we estimated were the dimensions of the original.

After the end of this first day good progress had been made, however I found the straight shape of our man un-inspiring and soulless. Brian and I dropped in to a bar on our way home, and sitting at his ‘favourite’ stools we talked over this problem. Brian had the solution. Instead of crafting a faithful, accurate copy of the ‘Red Man’, I should instead carve a figure in the spirit of the Kilbeg figure. This figure should follow the same form as the original, yet flow more in tune with the wood we were using. It would be as if the original craftsperson had carved this figure a few days after carving the Kilbeg original.

This idea was inspiring, and the next day I set to work with purpose, reflecting on people in my personal life to form the idea of the Red Man in my mind. It’s possible these ancient figures represent people close, or known, to the maker. This was a concept we wanted to explore in our planned workshops. By the days end I had a finished ‘Red Man’, and an object I felt far more connected too. We also had a theory, this was that the original figure had been carved by the same person responsible for building the trackway where it had originally stood. As well as appearing to have been carved using a large felling axe (one used to produce material for the trackway?) the carving had the style of a maker more used to shaping joints and stakes. This level of insight that can only come from re-making an object, and immersing yourself in the original craft.

During the day we had been joined by Mike Groves, another woodworker from the U.K. Mike’s enthusiasm for our project was infectious, and we were excited to have his input in the next day’s workshop. We left Meitheal Mara at the end of a long day with our Red Man standing sentinel over the tangle of boats and timber in the yard, and the curve of the river Lee beyond.

More photos of the finished product by Orla Peach Power:

The arrival of Mike Groves

If viewing the video below, click where it says HD in the bottom left corner and select 1080p for the best resolution.

The Kilbeg Replica from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.

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