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.