Saturday, October 31, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 11

By Victor Sullivan,  © 2015  Chairs and Decorum

From his lowly, prone position either on the floor or on Eureka, Johnnie had an unusual view of the kitchen chairs in the Gill farmhouse. He noticed that his mother was clearly uncomfortable when seated on one of the crude kitchen chairs or on the settle-seat. She was constantly changing position, seeking comfort. He watched, sketched, said nothing, but he planned to make a better, more comfortable chair for her. 
Fully aware of his crippled son's manual dexterity, Johnnie's father had given him free access to his workshop and to the many tools that he had accumulated during his years working on major projects on the surface at the mines in Allihies, Urhin and at Dunboy castle. The chair design that Johnnie selected was a simple one, a standard design that might have been routinely set to challenge a carpenter's apprentice. Johnnie completed it without much difficulty and it finally stood on its four legs on the workshop floor. It was strong, fairly light but it had no seat. The seats of the existing, heavy kitchen chairs were large, solid slabs of thick wood, not easily obtained or worked. But Johnnie Gill's chair was to be DIFFERENT. His father, who had been following the chair's development with genuine interest, was persuaded to purchase a ball of white rope when he was next in town. Johnnie used it to weave a coarse but strong and flexible seat for his chair. A visit to Dan-the-tailor "to have his back scratched" resulted in a beautifully machine-stitched cover for the final comfort component for his mother's chair, the cushion. Behind the stable door hung a bulging sack of horse-hair that had been contributed from the tail and mane of Nancy and her predecessors over several years. The sack bulged less conspicuously after Johnnie had raided it and used the horse-hair to stuff the cushion for his mother's comfort. 
Unable to sit on the chair he had made, Johnnie persuaded Susan to come secretly to the workshop and test the chair's comfort features. He told her she was not there to flatter him, it was her duty to be critical of the chair, to point out where it hurt, if it did, or if there was anything that should be different. He could make changes if necessary. Susan declared the chair to be perfect. He suggested that she should stay sitting on it without moving for some time. She did so and said it remained very comfortable even after quite a long sit. However, Johnnie failed to understand why, if his chair didn't hurt her, his older sister begin to cry while she sat on it, staring at the handsaws hanging on the workshop wall. Women!
There was to be no presentation ceremony in the kitchen. Late one night, when everyone had gone to bed, Johnnie quietly removed the ugliest of the old chairs from around the kitchen table, rearranged the remaining ones and installed the new chair in the place always occupied by his mother. 
Next morning……….. More tears, in spite of the vastly increased comfort.    WOMEN!!
The success of the chair was talked about and boasted about. Not surprisingly, old Mrs. Lynch, who lived not far away, heard about it and began to feel her pains more acutely as winter approached… perhaps a new chair, like that one Mrs. Gill got from her son Johnnie, would ease her sitting and improve her aged bones… Johnnie received a note from the formidable old lady, inviting him to visit her 'to talk about them chairs we hear so much about.' Johnnie frowned at the shaky hand-writing. While his mother was of fairly normal proportions, he was keenly aware that Mrs. Lynch was definitely not. If Mrs. Lynch ever sat on his mother's chair she would overflow on both sides and challenge the strength of the chair-legs to support her. The job would require tact, courage and… and… "Decorum?" suggested Susan innocently and was immediately enlisted as chair-maker's assistant on the Lynch Project, her function: to undertake all aspects involving her speciality, Decorum, whatever that might imply. The most vital measurements to be captured were the width of the customer, (a) at the knees and, (b) at the beam (as in a ship). Both measurements to be taken when Mrs. Lynch was sitting comfortably on a flat surface. This would determine how far apart the front legs of the chair would have to be. Johnnie and Susan discussed and rehearsed the possible options on the way to Mrs. Lynch's house. 
"There is a settle seat in her kitchen and you could ask her to sit on it." Johnnie suggested, "then get her to move to the end of it until she is up against the arm-rest."
"Then what do I do?"
"Then you sit beside her on the settle and move right up close to her."
"What good will that do?"
"We will then get her to stand and when she does, you stay sitting and I will measure from you to the arm-rest and that will be the measurement between the inside of the front chair-legs."
"She should be sitting in her most relaxed position for that measuring to be right. How do I make sure that she is in her most comfortable and relaxed position."
"Use that decorum you were talking about, of course!" 
The technique worked and two weeks later Mrs. Lynch's special chair was almost completed and the white hemp rope had been woven firmly across the wide frame. Thanks to Dan-the-Tailor, the purple, outer case of the cushion was decoratively machine-stitched with white linen thread displaying a large 'L' in the centre and stuffed with sheep's wool instead of horse-hair. The entire Gill family gathered to watch Johnnie's two older brothers carefully carry the finished Lynch chair down the stone steps from the workshop and place it on a bed of straw on the horse-cart. 
Chair delivered,… favourable initial comments, … payment promised after one week's trial, … payment received, … Mrs. Lynch's pains were greatly diminished and her bones were much improved.
Mrs. Lynch's house was a popular venue for late-night card-playing and story-telling and consequently news of the 'Johnnie-Chair' spread rapidly. A girl who was to be married the following September saw the Lynch chair and declared that 'there was no way she would agree to go and live in her husband-to-be's hovel in its present condition and the least he could do would be get Johnnie Gill to make two of his chairs for the kitchen.'
What happened next was neither planned, intended or expected, yet it happened, much to Johnnie's advantage. His chairs became a fashionable component of a dowry, a new house, a wedding gift or simply a 'Must Have' for those who could afford them.
  Some of those chairs still exist on the Beara peninsula. The author was invited to sit on one while researching this chapter in a farm-house in Urhin, in 2007.

The Frank O'Connor Short Story Award Festival

by Cecily Lynch    © 2015

I got wonderful value from this festival – entertainment, information and the meeting of friends.

The winning story was written by an American girl in her twenties.  She was pleasant and unassuming.  Her story was on the dark side, though.  It began brightly enough with a description of meeting a man on her street who was dressed as a giant white rabbit.  The story continued with her reaction to this innocent fancy dress.  The author described her panic, her fear of being murdered by a serial killer, by her terror of a gun attack, by her fear of a mad rapist or of a frenzied racist attack. The story ended by the white rabbit passing peacefully by.  The style of the writing in this short story was an anguished outpouring of the fears of a woman in an American town. The writing was outstanding in that the story consisted of one long breathless sentence, adding greatly to the tension and fear felt by the narrator.

In the Triskel Christchurch three independent publishers discussed how they choose the manuscripts from the thousands they received.  They judged on the presentation initially.  Then came the search for an authentic voice.   They read the beginning, the middle and the end, and judged from these extracts.  Then they passed the manuscripts over to professional readers who gave their opinions based on their experience of what would sell. Finally they consulted with the authors on the editing process.  I admired their respect for the authors, and their consciousness of the effort creative writing takes.

On the final evening, successful short story writers read from their work.  I was very moved by the tender reading by Claire Keegan of her novella 'Foster'.  You could hear a pin drop in the hall as the story of a sensitive child's experience of being fostered on the farm of a relative and her growing awareness that these kind people were her true parents.

The second reading that night was from Mary Costelloe's book 'Academy Street', read by the author herself.  It was a beautiful experience for me.  A lonely Irish woman's life in New York was portrayed with much sympathy and compassion.  The story told of the girl's reason for emigrating, her vocation of nursing, her interior life of passion and sorrow, her growing awareness that most of love consists of mercy. These developments in her life were delicately described.

Afterwards, I reflected on why people read novels.  Perhaps everyday life cannot touch or communicate the deepest emotions, and daily routine does not do justice to the miracle of life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 10

By Victor Sullivan © 2015      As Tough as Leather

  The owner of the neighbouring farm was about to return to the hayfield with his horse and cart for the final load of hay while ominous black clouds built up overhead, threatening to put a stop to the operation. The brilliant lightning-flash and simultaneous thunder-clap startled the horse and it bolted past Gills farmhouse, its anxious owner helplessly running after the terrified animal and the wildly swaying, out-of-control cart. At the first bend, just beyond Gill's house, both cart and horse were capsized, fortunately causing only minimal damage to the horse. The cart also survived unscathed but there was extensive damage to the leather harness. 
Thomas Gill and his two strong sons were quickly on the scene and Richard sat on the horse's head while the remaining damaged tackle was released. Once the struggling horse was safely back on four legs and was being carefully examined for injury by its anxious owner, Richard ran to get Nancy, tackled her quickly to her own cart, found a hay-fork and headed quickly into the neighbour's hayfield. The interrupted job had to be completed before the darkening clouds and imminent downpour ruined what hay remained to be brought home for his worried neighbour. It was done without hesitation or even asking for permission to enter the field. A neighbour in trouble was everyone's problem.  Richard began to load the cart with hay. 
Johnnie, attracted by the commotion, dragged himself along on Eureka to survey the damage. Apart from a couple of small cuts and some invisible bruises, the neighbour's horse had been extremely lucky. Johnnie eyed the damaged harness lying across the stone wall while its owner continued to calm his still agitated animal.
"The harness got off worst, by the look of it." Johnnie commented.
"'Tis torn bad!"  came the dismal response, "'Twill take time…. and money to fix it…. "
Johnnie had pulled the heavy harness down on top of himself from the wall and was working his hands along the  leather of the britchen. A distant rumble of thunder agitated the nervous horse once more, demanding its owner's full attention for several minutes while Johnnie conducted a closer inspection of the broken harness.
"'Tisn't as bad as you think. The leather isn't damaged anywhere. Only the stitching. That stitching was never up to much anyway, wherever you got it. Look!" and he pulled out one end of a dirty bit of heavy thread and shredded it with his fingers. 
"Rotten! Useless! That stitching could have given way at any time when you were going down a steep hill with a heavy load. It probably saved that horse from being badly injured when the harness ripped apart so easily." Johnny pointed out. "Yourself too." he added.
Johnnie Gill was always ready to exploit new opportunities. Here was one staring him in the face. By the time Nancy returned from the hayfield with the final load of rescued hay, Johnnie had arranged to re-stitch the horse's harness for his grateful neighbour.
He went home on Eureka with the broken harness piled on top of himself and later  that same evening he prepared dozens of long strands of strong, 'wax-ends' of linen thread by drawing each one over a lump of black wax. Then he twisted several together and ran the result across the wax several more times. His father provided advice where he could, having watched the process many times but never having actually stitched anything heavier than his own boots. Surrounded by four candles, a couple of awls, a special needle and the general purpose, razor-sharp knife he had named Queen Mave, Johnnie worked through the night and as dawn was breaking he made the journey along the lane to his neighbour's house on Eureka. He deposited the repaired and now much stronger harness outside the front door and departed. Good job done!
The exciting idea of using Nancy to tow Eureka directly, without the encumbrance of a cart, had been a much processed thought in Johnnie's head, ever since he had launched Eureka onto the roads and lanes of the countryside. His early attempts at controlling the horse from beneath a cart by yelling the usual horse instructions had been met with a total lack of co-operation by Nancy. Vocal orders from beneath her were just that, beneath her, and she chose to ignore them. When Johnnie traveled on the floor of the cart, holding the reins in the usual way, Nancy responded obediently to his simple, direct orders. So….?     Could long distances with Nancy without a cart  be possible?  The future was looking much brighter. It would be worth trying.
The cartless horse-towing trial took place in secret and it must have been a dismal and possibly a painful or startling failure. Cartless horse-towing was never again attempted behind Nancy, or behind any other horse.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


 By Aidan O'Shea  © 2015   A new type of distance learning.

For many adults, the late summer is a time to plan for new learning opportunities. Schools, colleges, voluntary organisations and cultural institutions compete to engage our interest. We all enjoy the challenge of something new, the chance to improve our knowledge or to gain a life skill. When comparing ideas with a friend, she asked me if I had tried a MOOC. In response to my puzzled expression, she explained that a MOOC stands for a Massive Open Online Course. Massive, in that there may be thousands of students, Open in that anyone may join free of charge and Online in that the course is delivered via the Internet. It struck me that the comfort and flexibility of studying at home was preferable to heading out to college on dark winter nights.
Then I found an index of MOOC courses ( offering an array of themes from 72 colleges worldwide. Futurelearn is a subsidiary of The Open University, which has been a pioneer of distance learning. Courses are listed under broad categories such as Languages, Politics, Arts, Literature, Health, History and many others. Chapters are delivered online weekly and courses last from three to eight weeks. Three hours per week is the minimum commitment to keep up with the topic. Course material includes video lectures, relevant articles, a reading list for further study and a forum in which all students can partake. 

British Empire.

I chose a six-week course entitled Empire: the controversies of British Imperialism from The University of Exeter. I have an exclusively Irish view of British colonial power and I wanted to gain a wider perspective. Ireland's case is unique; not quite a colony but more a forceful annexation, bound to England/Britain more or less from the Norman arrivals at Bannow, Co. Wexford in 1169 , through the Act of Union in 1800 which subsumed Ireland into Britain, to partial independence in 1922. I had a very sketchy knowledge about the colonisation of America, Asia, the Middle East or Africa. 

Here is a summary of the main learning points for me:
In the 12th century, Norman expansion took place into Wales, the Isle of Man, The Channel Isles and Ireland. This was territorial expansion to subdue local chiefs and lords. 
Britain did not emerge until the union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707.

Britain exercised different structures of empire, including Company Rule under licence from the Crown, for example The East India Company, which had its own fleet and army. A Colony was ruled by a governor and reported to The Colonial Office in London. Examples include Gold Coast and Kenya. A Protectorate retained local rulers but defence and foreign affairs were ruled by Britain. Examples include Egypt, Matabeleland (later Rhodesia) and British Cameroons.  Many of these later became colonies. A Dominion was a mainly white settler colony which later became an independent state under the Statute of Westminster (1931). Examples are South Africa, Australia and Canada. The Irish Free State had Dominion status. League of Nations Mandates were created after the defeat of the Germany and the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Britain acquired control of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. 
As Britain's empire expanded, she developed a huge navy and merchant fleet, which in turn needed provisioning stations such as Gibraltar and Singapore.  
Slavery was a particular feature of colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and this was a brutal form of forced labour practised by Britain, France and Spain in their overseas territories. Forces driving the expansion of the British Empire include rivalry with France, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands, the use of early colonies such as America and Australia as a destination for religious and political dissidents and the lure of treasure such as spices, minerals, and the seizure of territory. 

The MOOC Process.

As soon as we received the first instalment of the course, a lively discussion grew around the margins of the course materials. We have had personal recollections of students from India, Malta, The West Indies, Australia, Canada and other former territories of Empire. Sometimes we students disagreed, but by and large the diverse opinions became an additional resource within the course structure. One can argue that our shared knowledge of English is a benign legacy of the British Empire. In a course such as this many will join out of idle curiosity, but only the hardy minority will persist to the end. A Most adult education courses start in a blaze of glory to be followed by a steady decline in numbers. A further advantage of the internet has been the chance to watch documentary films about the pomp of empire and the struggle for freedom from its control. 

We might ask what benefit is there for the course provider. Well, such courses will attract students to fee-paying distance learning courses, or indeed to take up postgraduate study in that particular discipline. For my part, I have gained a wider understanding of the topic and I have begun to select books from the extensive reading list. I doubt that I shall be waving the Union Flag to the chorus of Land of hope and glory, mother of the free… any time soon! 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 9

By Victor Sullivan © 2015       Washing and Fishing

The narrow lanes were rough, rutted and stony and usually consisted of two endless ruts created by wear and tear from the traditional, iron-banded cartwheels. In the centre of every lane ran a rough strip, that was usually churned into mud by the pounding of horse-shoes. Separating the centre track from the wheel-ruts on either side were usually two ridges of fresh green grass. Johnnie Gill soon realised that his smoothest ride on Eureka could best be achieved by keeping his two front wheels running on the grassy ridges. A slight drift to either side could run his front wheels into trouble, with one slipping into the cartwheel rut and the other wheel into the horse track simultaneously. If the rut and horse track were deep, the underbelly of Eureka came in contact with the grassy ridge. On wider lanes and roads the grassy ridges were less evident and Johnnie had to endure a rougher ride beneath a towing horse-cart, while keeping a constant look-out for large stones, potholes, deep wheel-ruts and rising tails, avoiding them as best he could. Traveling on Eureka in a position so near the ground and in close proximity to the rear end of a horse, inevitably resulted in a generous coating of mud and shit of all sorts on Eureka, on himself, and on Cromwell 2, and every other item of clothing he wore. His mother banned him from entering the house in such a condition and provided a bucket of water and clean clothing in the peat-shed at the end of the house. But as Johnnie's messy journeys became almost daily events she soon grew weary of providing such services and declared that he would have to devise his own personal washing and laundry methods to suit his peculiar life-style.
A small stream flowed near the farmhouse. It conveniently watered horses and cattle, maintained a small pond for the family's six or seven ducks to swim in and it provided an enjoyable, very wet plaything for children. Every generation paddled in it, floated their feather-sailed pieces of wood on it, threw stones into it with as big a splash as possible and they washed dogs and themselves in it. Access to its clear, chilly water required careful footwork for both animals and children. Johnnie studied the accessibility challenge and soon a new feature began to develop at the side of the stream. By collecting and positioning several large flat stones, sometimes with the help of his brothers, Johnnie built a stone-paved access track for Eureka that ran from the lane to the stream's edge. It then continued underwater, creating a submerged pavement on the bottom that ran all the way across the little pond and up on to the bank on the opposite side, an area favoured only by the ducks. Now Eureka could carry him across the pond, dragged along by his two Horses. The normal water level didn't quite reach Eureka's deck so, apart from his arms, he kept dry. 
Trying to wash himself thoroughly from a bucket beside the kitchen fire, after everyone else had gone to bed, or in the peat-shed, had always been a troublesome chore that never quite achieved the desired aim. The opinion of his mother that no matter how clean he claimed to be, he was still filthy, a fact he could not honestly disagree with. It was while working on the under-water section of the pond slipway that Johnnie noticed how clean Eureka had become. 
Late on one Autumn night, when the rest of the family were asleep, Johnnie left the farmhouse as quietly as he could on Eureka, and, collecting a pre-prepared bundle of clean clothing and a few other necessities, he headed for the stream. Leaving the bundle of dry clothes on the bank of the stream, he used his Horses to drag Eureka to the centre of the barely visible pond. The chilly water came up to within an inch of the deck. Confident that he was adequately hidden by the darkness, Johnnie removed every item of clothing from his twisted body and reveled in his badly-needed and long overdue thorough wash in the chilly water. He also washed Eureka. Shivering but satisfied, he managed to dry and dress himself in clean clothes, aided by the moonlight. Then he carefully and quietly returned to the farmhouse and the comforting warmth of the kitchen fire that he quickly and revived from its ash-covered embers.
Next morning his spotless condition was noticed, commented on positively, and, for the first time since the sheep incident, he felt he was being admired, not for being clever, but simply for being clean. Not only did his mother pass an appreciative comment but his sisters did too. Susan even crouched down and hugged him. From that moment, Johnnie became fastidious, establishing washing rules and routines for himself, routines that included doing his own laundry. His nocturnal ablutions in the pond became a regular procedure, regardless of weather, wind or temperature. The mild climate of the area ensured that the stream never froze completely, though, in a hard winter, ice around the edges could sometimes occur. His mother, of course, was delighted with the change for the better and her anxiety about the increasing frequency of his visits to the town diminished as Johnnie 'always dressed for town.' Another Cromwell was added to his wardrobe and a separate cleaning routine took care of the Cromwellian appearance. 
Word reached Johnnie Gill that a few young local men had heard about the success of the fishing flies he had made for the Puxleys and that they were plotting something that would require his involvement. They arrived late one evening with a proposition: They couldn't pay him, but if Johnnie could help with their new sea-fishing enterprise with the right hooks and bait, he could be a partner in their new-fangled fishing operation. They had bought an old rowing boat and wanted to 'be different' from the traditional techniques used by everyone else. They had heard about a sea-fishing method that was used 'away out foreign' and and wanted to try it.  Anyone or anything that tried to be different always appealed to Johnnie. Their project reminded him of something he had read about in the magazines salvaged from Dunboy about a sea-fishing technique somewhere that used fresh-water eels as bait…. He would catch eels that he knew were plentiful in the river that formed the bottom boundary of the Gill farm. 
The river, Inchinagcath, though not very big, yet could generate a dangerous flood after heavy rain in its catchment area, sending a torrent of brown flood-water over its two modest waterfalls that were known as Upper Sock and Lower Sock.  Catching the eels was the easy part. Getting to the riverside just below Upper Sock on Eureka was more challenging. There was easy access to the river above upper sock but a rough rocky outcrop made it difficult to get to the flat, grassy river-bank at the lower level where he and his brothers had learned to swim and catch eels before the sheep….  
Once again Johnnie solved his problem by constructing a reasonable trackway that suited Eureka's wheels using whatever stones were within easy reach. 
Having established fairly easy access to the source of eels, he caught several a few days later and brought them home. According to the instructions in the remembered article, the eel had to be skinned and the skin then bound onto the line above the fish-hook. Head up – tail down? Or should it be tail up – head down? He just couldn't remember. It would depend on the fancy of the fish to decide that matter. He made some of each, then prepared a jar of salt water in which to store his baited fish-hooks. 
There were some wry comments when he turned up on Eureka at the little creek that was within a stone's throw of of Dunboy Castle's impressive entrance gates. The three young boatmen reluctantly agreed to take him with them, '… but we're not going to take you outside the harbour's mouth.'  Two of them picked Johnnie up rather clumsily and deposited him in the bottom of the four-oar rowing boat where he found he was keeping company with several dead crabs and some evil-smelling offal in a bag. Lines were produced and Johnnie attached his first eel-baited hook. It had barely hit the water when it was taken by a large pollock. Everyone aboard probably thought it, but nobody said, 'Beginner's luck.' The fish was taken off the hook and the eel bait was returned to the sea. The same thing happened again and again. Whether it was luck, skill, or fish stupidity, it mattered not. Johnnie's eels were a rip-roaring success… and they were DIFFERENT! He agreed not to sell his eel-baited hooks to anyone else. Instead, he negotiated a crew-share of the catch, and he got taken on fishing expeditions whenever it suited him. There was another 'different' also: The superstitious boat-men were able to claim that 'Lucky' Johnnie Gill was a crew member of their boat only. They feared that their luck would 'break' if they ever tried to defraud him out of his agreed share in their catch, even when he wasn't in the boat with them! 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 8

By Victor Sullivan  © 2015     Horse-shoes and Whips

It was one thing to get a tow to the peat bog from his brother or his father. It would be more challenging to get a tow to the town of Castletown Bere, all of two miles away, without his father noticing the stowaway beneath the cart. It is highly unlikely that Johnnie Gill's father failed to hear the unusual rumble coming from beneath his horse-cart as he set out to keep Nancy's appointment with the blacksmith. Every cart had its own individual, rhythmic 'wheel-crack' and familiar creaks and rattles that its owner would instantly investigate if any deviation from the normal sounds were detected. 

The horse-cart journey to Castletown Bere was routine and uneventful but for Johnnie, on tow behind it, the journey was a major historical event, like the maiden voyage of a great ship. Apart from a few cows grazing 'the long acre' (the grassy strip by the roadside), they neither met or overtook any other living creature. As they passed the entrance to Dunboy castle, Johnnie's eye caught the warning signal of Nancy's rising tail. He watched, paid out some of Belle, and, to his satisfaction, his estimate of a safe position for Eureka was proved to be 100% correct. Johnnie held his breath as Nancy missed both Eureka and its passenger and what she dropped passed between the front wheels, while the single castor wheel at the back easily ran over the lumps of soft, steaming horse-dung.

Arriving at the blacksmith's forge at the outskirts of the town, Johnnie released himself from the cart before it came to a stop. Johnnie watched as his father began to un-tackle Nancy in readiness for her shoeing job. A large, heavy boot landed on one wheel of Eureka and Johnnie looked up to see the grimy, sweat-streaked face of the elderly blacksmith gaping down at him.
"Well glory be to God! You must be young Johnnie Gill… the fella that fixed the sewing machine for Dan-the-Tailor. He keeps on telling everyone about you until we're sick of hearing the story. That's a great wagon you have there. Who made it for ya?"
"I made it myself."
"Good pair of hands you've got. Dan-the-Tailor must be right. Hello there Thomas."
Johnnie's father came up to them, leading Nancy by the head. He showed no surprise on finding Johnnie chatting to the blacksmith.
"That castor wheel at the back end, that's the one I got from you when I called in here a couple of weeks ago. Johnnie cleaned it up and fitted it. It's great ease for him."
"How the divil did you get those brass bands onto the two front wheels so neatly?" the blacksmith asked Johnnie. 
His father answered quickly with a wink to the blacksmith, "That's a question best avoided. Here's my horse for her set of shoes." 
"Mmmmmm!  Those brass bands look good but they won't last very long. Brass is too soft for these stony roads. Come back to me when the brass wears thin and I'll put iron bands on those wheels for ya."

As his father and the blacksmith set about preparing Nancy for her new shoes, Johnnie, using his two spiked Horses with a rhythmic, overarm action, propelled Eureka around the open area in front of the forge before returning to watch Nancy being shod. He had seen the job being done before, but this time he hadn't such a good view from Eureka level. Disappointed, he moved away to explore the area around the back of the forge, watched by three curious boys, aged around fourteen or fifteen years.

Thomas Gill held Nancy by the head, just inside the doorway of the forge, stroking her nose gently as the smith raised one hind leg and ripped off what remained of the old worn shoe. After a close examination and some careful hoof-paring with his knife. The smith took a red-hot shoe from the fire.
The yell and cursing from outside stopped him. It was a yell of pain followed by furious and abusive jeering and swearing. Street noises he usually ignored but this sounded like someone in trouble, someone had been hurt. Glowing hot horseshoe in tongs, the blacksmith got to the doorway in time to see three jeering boys running past, towing Johnnie's trolley at the end of a rope. His bellowed order didn't stop them. He dropped the tongs and shoe, reached  above the door and took down a whip, a very long-lashed whip. Thomas Gill stared in surprise as the whip hissed through the air leaving a faint trail of soot, before the sharp crack like a rifle-shot rang out and startled Nancy.
"Drop it!" bellowed the blacksmith, "Drop that rope or I'll whip the ear off your head. Go back to your own end of this town, while you are still able. NOW!"
The whip cracked again, ominously close to the boy pulling the rope but, as if daring the blacksmith to carry out his threat, he did not drop the rope. The other two had run some way ahead.
The whip-lash streaked backwards, then forwards and the sharp crack was partly drowned by the scream as the tip of the lash ripped a jagged hole in the boy's shirt-sleeve near his elbow. Dropping the rope instantly and with one hand holding his stinging arm, he ran to catch up with his two colleagues. The blacksmith picked up Belle and towed Eureka back to Johnnie, who had dragged himself around from the back of the forge in time to witness the coup de gras.
"What did those lads do to you? Good God! How did you get that face?"
"A kick. Then they turned me over and ran off with Eureka. Thanks for getting it back."
"Thanks for baiting the rat-trap for me. Those three are from the other end of the town. Pure trouble they are. They've been around here looking for some mischief lately. They won't tangle with me again, that's for sure." 
The blacksmith began to coil up his unusually long whip. Johnnie dragged himself onto Eureka and watched the whip being coiled up with growing interest, while rubbing his bruised face. A very long whip like that had possibilities.
"Could I make it work?"
"Find out for yourself. I have a horse to shoe for your old man. Catch!"

The four shoes had been securely nailed and clinched and once more the blacksmith raised Nancy's foreleg, placing the hoof on his knee for a final trim with the rasp. The sudden shot startled the horse, sending the rasp flying and almost knocking the blacksmith off his feet. 
"Who the bloody hell did that?" he yelled, striding towards the door while Johnnie's father calmed the now very nervous Nancy.
"Sorry! I got the knack sooner than I expected." explained Johnnie, appearing at the forge doorway, the whip trailing behind Eureka. 
"Well go away somewhere else and practice with it." growled the blacksmith, resisting the temptation to reclaim his whip and prevent further loud cracks, "Try clipping leaves off that tree away over there. That sycamore could do with a trimming!"
Johnnie needed no further encouragement. His father completed the transaction with the blacksmith and they chatted for a long time. Meantime, his son developed his whip skills on the sycamore, encouraged by a curious and growing audience, until his arm ached and he returned to the forge to hand back the magnificent whip.
"Thanks for letting me try it out. It's a great whip but why is its lash so long? What is it really for?" Johnnie asked.
"Aha! I was wondering when I'd be asked that question. Years ago, I used to be in charge of big teams of horses for heavy hauling at the Allihies mines. Eight or twelve horses pulling together was no bother to me. I used to train them specially for moving very heavy machinery. Some parts for the mine engines weighed several tons and had to be dragged from wherever they were landed off the ship all the way up to the mine workings on the hillside. That took some pulling! You were working at the building of that Man-engine at the Mountain mine in the 1850s, weren't you, Thomas?"
"How could I forget it! We watched you bringing up the beam and then the boiler for the Man-Engine with all the horses. Some of the men had bets on the number of horses it would take to pull it up the final incline. I don't bet, but I nearly gave in to the temptation that day.  I also watched you do the same thing with a big team of horses at the Urhin Mine, on the northern side of the mountain." Johnnie's father added, "You had over a dozen horses pulling the boiler up from the beach at Travara to the new crushing mill we were building on the hillside above Urhin. The 'mill on the hill' the locals called it. Not that it ever did much work. It was closed down a year or two after opening."

When Nancy was re-tackled to the cart, Johnnie's father posed the question,
"Well Johnnie, on it or under it?"
Johnnie wrestled with his emotions, rubbed his over-used and aching whip-arm and the arm's aches won.
"On it, this time, please."
His father picked him up and landed him on the flat floor of the cart. The blacksmith picked up Eureka and placed it beside Johnnie.
"Next time you're here, Johnnie, I'll show you how to do some fancy tricks with that whip. You seem to have a flair for it. Safe home."

They left the old blacksmith coughing and spitting into his fire and headed off along the quiet road, Nancy lifting her legs high in an un-natural gait until she gradually became accustomed to the extra weight and strange feel of the new shoes.  

"Where did you find him?" demanded Johnnie's mother as the cart stopped in front of the Gill farmhouse, "We've all been out searching for him everywhere."
"He was with me, watching Nancy being shod."
"WHAT?! Are you telling me he has been to Castletown Bere. Did anyone see him?"
"Well there was the blacksmith and three troublesome young scoundrels. Then there were several others watching Johnnie trimming a sycamore tree."
"WHAT!!! And YOU took him to town on the horse-cart?!"
"Oh no. I only brought him home on the cart," replied her husband truthfully, "He got to town on that thing he calls Eureka."

Mrs. Gill threw her apron up over her face in utter frustration. Johnnie was simply beyond controlling. First it was Dan-the-tailor, then the Dunboy estate manager, now the blacksmith and some unknown young lads from the town. Soon everyone would know about Johnnie and they'd be telling each other about his ailments and what things he couldn't do and they'd be trying to describe him and his dirty condition and, and, and everyone would find out that the cripple was her son. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 7

By Victor Sullivan  © 2015     Towing Along

During the following weeks Johnnie made several changes to Eureka. He moved the front axle further forward. He made a pocket of coarse sacking that he attached to the deck to create a convenient, rapid access pouch for holding the neatly coiled rope, Belle. Several holes had been drilled in the Deck, one for obvious personal use, some others for purposes obscure. A sloping piece of wood was added to support his chest and raise his shoulders so that he could improve the rhythmic over-arm operation of his Horses. Provided the spikes of the Horses could find a firm purchase in the ground, he could travel faster than normal walking pace; Susan had to run hard in order to win when they had an impromptu race on a level lane. Downhill, Johnnie on Eureka won almost every time.

The innovative ways the boy made use of his multipurpose rope, Belle, was a constant source of surprises. One of his stunts involved throwing Belle over a convenient branch of a tree and climbing the double rope with his powerful arms and hands until he could see the ships in the harbour from a much higher vantage point than anyone else.  
He also began to request a tow from the drivers of passing horse-carts.  Johnnie considered that, rather than be pulled by a rope fixed to a moving horse-cart at floor level, it would be wiser and safer to use Belle as a doubled tow-rope, passed around the axle of the cart. Then, by simply releasing one end of the double rope, he could stop whenever he wanted without interrupting the towing horse or its driver. The technique also meant that the owner of the cart need never know of the presence of the strange stowaway if he kept Eureka beneath the cart, close to the axle. He perfected the technique on the family horse-cart until it worked well. 
Such a traveling position behind a horse had its down-side; he would have to be constantly on the lookout for the hazard of the rising tail. To avoid any unpleasantness, he would just pay out a few yards of Belle, then pull back to near-axle position once more after the conclusion of the equine performance.

The world was beginning to open up to Eureka, Belle and Johnnie Gill.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 6

By Victor Sullivan  © 2015    Consternation

 Shocked surprise, furious anger, yells of "JOHNNIE" and gasps of utter disbelief all mingled in wild confusion as the weary Gill family entered the kitchen after their long day at "The Sports in the Mines."
What had the boy been doing that had made such a mess? And where was he? 


But there was no response and no indication of where he might be.
Cows had to be milked in the fading light. Animals had to be fed. Neighbouring farms were visited, the strange tracks in the lane suggested that something odd had travelled along it, dragging something behind it. Where could Johnnie have gone? 

The ease with which Johnnie could propel himself forwards on two wheels, aided by gravity on the downhill sections of his journey, had brought him to the door of Dan-the-Tailor's house in about thirty minutes, arriving as night was falling and Dan was about to go to bed. Responding to the knocking, Dan opened the door, saw nobody and went to close it again when a voice from ground level stopped him. 
"I've come to say thanks for Cromwell."
"Jaysus! What have I got to do with that oul' bastard?!"
"It's this leather coat thing you made for me. I call it Cromwell. I came to say thanks for it. It's a great help."
"You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours! You fixed my sewing machine. Come in… And bring in that contraption you're lying on…. Well I never….! Who made that thing for you?"
They talked until dawn streaked the eastern sky. Dan made tea. They agreed that the Gills would all be out looking for their missing charioteer. He had better head for home. A neighbor of Dan's was passing with a horse and cart and he caught the end of the thrown rope. 
"Can you gimme a pull, please?"
"He's Thomas Gill's lad who was injured by that sheep a few years ago." Dan explained.
"Oh! You're the fella who fixes sewing machines and clocks. I've heard lot about you. I'm going up your way for a load of peat. How do you want to travel? Fast or slow?"
"Well I've never tried this before so start slow, then we'll see about fast when I get things worked out."

Slow mode was progressing favorably with Johnny gripping Belle in his hands but he began to realize that holding on to the rope for a long distance was tiring. His carriage needed a towing bollard like boats have. Then they met another horse cart coming towards them its driver standing on the flat floor balancing on wide-spread feet as he called out, 
"Have you seen my Johnnie anywhere along the road?"
Both horses were pulled up, facing each other in the narrow lane. Johnnie's carriage had continued to run forwards beneath the cart that was towing him and he almost ran up against its horse's hind legs. 
"Well now Thomas, I just might have."
"He's right behind me."
"Well I can't see him."
"He's at the other end of this rope."
"He has had us out all night searching for him and his mother wants to skin him alive for messing the house." 

Johnnie's father towed him home. Proudly.

 As the horse-cart passed in front of the Gill's farmhouse, His father untied the tow-rope, leaving his son abandoned on his wheeled creation in the middle of the lane. By the time Nancy had been un-tackled and stabled Johnnie had braved whatever had awaited him inside the kitchen. His father paused outside the door to examine his son's trolley or whatever he might have named the thing. It was little more than a plank on two wheels. Wheels!!! The wheels with their brass bands were easily identified as having once been his precious Block that he had salvaged from the mast of that unknown lost ship. His anger boiled up as he reached for the door-latch… but he stopped himself, looked again at the brass-shod wheels on Johnnie's trolley. His anger subsided and instead he shook his head and smiled. He had to hand it to the boy, he had brains and hands and he could use both. The wrath of his wife was still reverberating around on the other side of the door; one parent was more than enough in that kitchen. Her husband slunk off towards his workshop in search of whatever other revelations might await him there. 

A patch of fresh, yellow sawdust caught his eye in an odd location beside the rough stone fence. Lying on the sawdust was a thick disc of wood, the unwanted remnant of The Block, no longer resplendent in its former brass-banded status. Admiration for his crippled son overcame any remaining anger. Thomas Gill picked up the disc of wood and returned to the house. 

He entered the kitchen cheerfully, in vivid contrast with the prevailing atmosphere inside.
"Look what Johnnie made for us!" he announced as he landed the wood disc on the table with a heavy thump. "The finest chopping-board ever seen. It needs a lot of polishing but Johnnie will see to that. It used to be my Block. The rest of it is on that carriage contraption he made for himself that's outside the front door."
"What carriage contraption?"
"It's not a contraption." declared a voice from beneath the kitchen table, "It's Eureka. It's my new chariot."
They all went out to see what his father was talking about and Johnnie dragged himself onto the deck of Eureka and demonstrated how it worked. 
"Wouldn't wheels at the back end make it even easier to pull along?" someone suggested.
"Then it would only go in a straight line." Johnnie replied, 'but if I had a castoring wheel that could swing around…"

When on his next trip to Castletown Bere, Johnnie's father visited the blacksmith's workshop before leaving the town. It was time to arrange for a new set of shoes for Nancy. While waiting for the smith to finish his tricky job of fitting a hot metal band around a wooden cart-wheel, Thomas Gill casually wandered among the blacksmith's accumulated collection of scrap-iron that was piled in various heaps around the forge. Some things he could not identify but most of the junk had once been connected with either sea-fishing or farming. He poked a rusty wheel with his boot. It looked like one… It swiveled around… Yes!! Very rusty but fully functioning, a pair of heavy-duty, iron, castor wheels mounted on what looked like a base for some sort of bin. One if them would vastly improve Johnnie's chariot and make it easier to maneuver around corners and tight places. It would also make the thing quieter. That constant scraping noise was beginning to get on his nerves, a constant reminder of his youngest son's appalling handicap. Those wheels were worth a bit of bargaining effort. Yes, Nancy would come back in four weeks time for the set of shoes but he would take those rusty old castor wheels as part of the deal. 
"Any idea where those rusty old wheels came from?"
"They're from an old landing-barrow that they had down at the fish-palace back in the days when pilchards were the big thing for the fishermen around here. The pilchards vanished all of a sudden. Now it's nearly all herring for pickling they're catching these days." 
Thomas Gill threw his find onto the cart floor, arranged to return for Nancy to be shod two weeks later and set off homeward. Getting the rust off his acquisition would keep Johnnie occupied for days.

By dawn next morning one of the castor wheels had become rust free, greased and was now mounted beneath the tail end of Eureka. The clay surface of the yard in front of the farmhouse was a maze of overlapping circular patterns where Eureka had been thoroughly tested throughout the night to determine the best position for the tail castor and prove its three-wheeled flexibility beyond doubt.

A few days later a carefully selected, heavy tree-branch had been cut by Richard at Johnnie's request and dragged to the fuel shed at the end of the farmhouse where it was reduced to a larger than usual pile of firewood logs. The end section had been sawn off and escaped the axe; result: One very new chopping block appeared beneath the workbench above the cow-stalls. It had letters carved into its side: 'THANKS.'

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 5

By Victor Sullivan © 2015        EUREKA

 In addition to general farming operations, Johnnie's father, Thomas Gill, regarded carpentry, stone-masonry, harness and shoe repairs, iron-working, pig-killing, horse-training and thatching as work-skills well within his personal capacity. He had acquired some unusual and practical problem solving experience during the 1850s while employed as an assistant on the repair of Cornish Pumping Engines and also on the installation of the Man-Engine at the Copper Mines in Allihies. He had also assembled an enviable collection of tools, some of which he had made. While his work-mates bought drink and consumed it, Thomas Gill had bought tools and used them. Centre-piece of his home workshop was a sturdy work-bench fitted with a vise. Hanging above it was a row of handsaws while on the floor amongst shavings and sawdust was The Block. This item had a history, or it would have had one if it could speak, for it had once been part of the mast of a sailing ship that had foundered in the Atlantic and some of its masts and rigging had been washed ashore near Allihies. On hearing about the 'wrack' he had been wise enough to bring tools to the beach and that was how he got the short section of mast with a pair of sturdy brass bands around it. He thought it would make a very useful stool for use in the kitchen but it proved to be too heavy and awkward and, in spite of its attractive pair of brass hoops, was quickly demoted from a stool to a chopping block, eventually permanently located beneath his workbench. 

Thomas Gill's home workshop was at one end of the hay-loft above the cow-stalls. Access was by external stone steps at the west gable. Small children were banned because of the presence of sharp tools, but after their sixth birthday, they might be permitted to "sit still on the Block and watch." Thomas Gill introduced his children, girls as well as boys, to his collection of tools. He showed them how to hold them, use them and, where appropriate, how to sharpen them. The girls boasted that they had taught their father how to knit and sew and claimed that "He wasn't too bad at it."
His other unexpected skill was as a fluent speaker and writer of the Irish language.

Admiring the dexterity with which his crippled son used tools, Johnnie's father had given him permission to use whatever tools he needed in the workshop. Access to the high hanging saws and other items had proved to be easily solved by poles with hooks and other improvised creations. Thanks to his strange-looking but highly practical leather garment, 'Cromwell,' Johnnie could drag himself around the farmyard with considerable ease. Keeping Cromwell clean was another matter. Its daily transits through clay, mud, cow-dung, horse-dung, hen-shit, and whatever else life on a farm laid across its path required a strict Cromwell-cleaning routine.  Each evening he would wash the muddied and cowdung-smeared Cromwell in the stream that flowed close to the hen-house. The procedure greatly diminished the frequency of his mother's tongue-lashings about keeping himself 'respectable and presentable.'  
He no longer considered a stairs to be an unsurmountable painful obstacle, having devised a comfortable method of navigating steps. His relied increasingly on his skill with his rope, Belle.

Hawks, Rats and Firewood

Johnnie was usually willing to perform whatever jobs were within his physical capability. Protecting young chicks from a hovering hawk was one such occupation. As they pecked about the farmyard the anxious clucking of the mother-hen would alert Johnnie to the imminent danger overhead. He claimed to have actually struck a rat with a pebble from a sling-shot on one occasion but few believed him. The claim received more credulity when he later produced more than one dead rat to validate his skill with the slingshot from his prone position. 

The large, open fire in the farmhouse kitchen had a voracious appetite for fuel. Peat from the family's extensive bogland was augmented by timber. Johnnie's brothers, Tommy and Richard, would cut the tree branches and drag them to the fuel shed at the end of the farm-house, there to be reduced to a convenient size by Johnnie. He used a hand-saw, a short-handled axe and he also developed a technique for breaking quite thick branches by holding one end against the ground in his left hand, propping the free end against his right shoulder and applying great force in between with his right arm, snapping the branch. Repeated use ensured powerful muscles; muscles, he decided, that could be more profitably employed if given the right kind of machine to operate. Moving about was troublesome, dirty, and slow, even with the assistance of Cromwell. He had tried, several times, to get Captain to pull him along with an improvised harness but the big farm-dog simply refused to co-operate.


Rough sketches appeared on scraps of paper in the Cell. A geometrical exercise for determining the exact location of the centre of a circle had been practiced several times. A six-foot plank of wood that had stood behind the stable door for as long as anyone could remember suddenly vanished. A well-worn old pitch-fork that had been stuck in the roof-timbers of the stable for decades, disappeared. An iron bar, that may have once been part of a fancy gate, ceased to be a prop for keeping the hen-house door open and was replaced by a stick. Johnnie's father's workshop above the cow-stalls, was frequently visited and a careful assessment was made of The Block. The existence of several precious tools was noted, including a wood auger. Nails and washers were selected and pocketed. A short section of beautifully shaped and finished mahogany handrail was found wrapped in a rag. It was measured and replaced carefully to await its fate. The plan was complete. Anticipating obstruction and objections if his plan was discovered, Johnnie was prepared to wait for an appropriate opportunity. He needed an uninterrupted day in which to make his plan a liberating reality. 

1882      15th August

The 'The Sports in the Mines' was the major social event of the year. The popular title of the event caused puzzled expressions on the faces of visiting strangers until it was explained that the sports referred to were not some underground competitions for miners but a day of athletic events in the fields near where the copper mines were located at Allihies.  There were athletic competitions for anyone who cared to compete, culminating in horse racing across the wild and rugged fields that overlooked the Atlantic ocean. It was an annual family day-out. 

Every year since his sheep-riding misadventure, Johnnie had watched his parents and sisters go off in the horse-cart, dressed in their best clothes. His two brothers usually headed off across the mountain on foot at an early hour, not wishing to miss anything. His mother had left Johnnie's dinner prepared. Resigned to his status of family embarrassment, Johnnie had agreed once again to remain at home, hoping to appear bravely indifferent to their departure, this time  being careful to smother any sign of impatient excitement he might tend to display. This time it was going to be different. They would all be away for the entire day, the cows would be milked late, by which time his project would have been completed.

Johnnie had planned the day well. Iron-work first meant a really good fire. He piled on peat and wood. Pulling on Cromwell, he dragged himself outside to the cow-house and up the stone steps that led to his father's workshop. Once inside, he quickly filled the sack he had hidden for the occasion. Then he pushed The Block out through the door from where it rolled down the steps, ending up beside the dungheap. 

His plan was working as intended. Dragging the sack behind him, 'Cromwell' got him back to the now blazing fire in the kitchen. One end of the iron bar, that had been the hen-house door-prop, was thrust into the fire and soon, while red hot, Johnnie had shortened it and had punched eight holes through it. When cool, it was fitted across the plank from behind the stable door.  The section of mahogany handrail that had been a sample of the grand staircase of the never-to-be-finished East Wing of Dunboy Castle, was cut into two short lengths. The rusty old pitchfork was next into the fire and the hand-bellows soon had it white hot. Johnnie quickly straightened the curved prongs and reheated them before cutting each one off with a chisel and hammer.  The kitchen was beginning to resemble a blacksmith's workshop. 
The Block with its two brass bands was next for attention. Donning Cromwell once more, Johnnie set off to retrieve his father's valued and much-used chopping block from beside the dungheap. He had planned his next action precisely. He rolled The Block into a 'V' shaped gap between two large stones and, with the sharpest of his father's handsaws, Johnnie cut through The Block twice. It was exhausting work and seemed to take an age but he succeeded in creating two brass-banded discs and a rather thin chopping block as a left-over.
Determining the centers of the wheels and drilling the holes with the auger completed the main components. With the wheels fitted on the axle, he pulled himself on to his new vehicle. It felt good. Better than he had expected! He adjusted the axle forwards and backwards finally securing it permanently. He placed his hands on the floor and tried to move forwards. Difficult, but his 'Horses' would solve that. The trailing end of the plank, (he called it the Deck), dragged along the ground, supporting his straight leg. Each of Johnnie's  Horses consisted of a short section of the mahogany handrail of the grand staircase from which a prong from the pitchfork projected. With a Horse in each hand he reached forwards, eased the prongs into the crevices between the flagstones of the kitchen floor and pulled himself and his carriage forwards. It MOVED with ease! … Out through the front door and onto the clay yard. He reached forwards and struck the Horses into the ground, pulled, and it worked well, far better than on the kitchen flagstones. A few trial runs across the yard highlighted the need for a few refinements in the interests of personal comfort and ease of operation. The bag packed with straw under his chest occupied too much space. He would need storage space for Belle and his other tools. But such modifications could wait for a day or two. A celebration of the joy of his increased mobility demanded more immediate action.  His enthusiasm for his chariot was reflected in the name he gave the contraption, Eureka, thanks to a story about a great moment of revelation he had read about in one of Susan's old school-books.

Not bothering to clear up the evidence of his labours in the kitchen or eat what his mother had left prepared for him, Johnnie, with a Horse in each hand, set off along the lane on Eureka, the lane that let to everywhere else in the world.  FREEDOM! … And he knew exactly where he would go.