1877-1879 A taste of Freedom
Johnnie's father, Thomas Gill, was always ready to grasp an opportunity to learn some new skill and be ready to turn that ability to his advantage. He was able to read and write in both English and also in the Irish language. Although he had been reared on a farm, he acquired the skills of both a carpenter and a stone-mason in his early years. His artistic leanings coupled with his carpentry skills led to wood-carving and more than one local church benefited extensively from Thomas Gill's creative ability as a wood-carver. Like many of his contemporaries, he sought employment at the Copper Mines, but not as a miner. His intuitive flair for working with mine machinery during the installation of the Man Engine in the 1850s attracted the attention of Henry Puxley. On completion of the Man-Engine project, Thomas Gill was invited to join the team of men engaged by Puxley in the building of the magnificient East Wing Extension of his home at Dunboy Castle. The new extension was to be a gift for Henry Puxley's wife, Katherine. The roof of the extension had been completed and work was under way on the internal details in 1872, when Mrs. Katherine Puxley died in childbirth. All work on the new wing of the Castle had been stopped on that tragic morning. Immediately following the burial of his much-loved wife in the little graveyard at Adrigole, heart-broken Henry Puxley turned his back on Dunboy, never to return. Building work on the castle never resumed either and thereafter Johnnie's father was only occasionally employed at the castle for the repair of storm-damaged buildings or carrying out occasional maintenance jobs. Occasionally some of the Puxley family took up residence at Dunboy Castle during the summer but only the Estate Manager, the Gardener and a few others were employed permanently to keep the place secure.
It was while he was working on the Dunboy extension, in the early 1860s, that Thomas Gill bought a farm at Clounaglaskin. The hillside property included a large peat bog of excellent quality and the fields were clearly visible from the castle, about one mile away as the crow flies. Unfortunatelythe farm lacked a decent farm-house so the ever-practical, Jack-of-all-trades, Thomas built a house for his wife and growing family. Building stones were salvaged from the remains of the many abandoned hovels that existed on his new farm, relics of the Great Potato Famine of 1846-1847.
A severe gale roared in from the Atlantic one night, threatening to leave the usual trail of ripped thatch and slate-stripped roofs, uprooted trees, frightened livestock and wrecked boats. Johnnie's father opened the front door of the farmhouse next morning and went out to inspect the damage. There was none. His building skills and awareness of the powers of nature combined to ensure that the Gill farmstead would be as secure against high winds as it could be. He looked towards his neighbors' farmyards and others across the valley. They too, appeared to have survived the night's violence unscathed. Then something white caught his eye about a mile away; a white sheet flapping in the wind from a high window in the west tower of Dunboy Castle. It was a signal that his services were urgently required.
He issued a stream of instructions to the various members of his family regarding the feeding of livestock and other essential jobs that he usually performed himself but he was needed at Dunboy, probably to repair storm damage to the castle roof. He fetched Nancy from the stable, tackled her to the cart and began loading some of his many tools.
Upstairs in The Cell, Johnnie had overheard the instructions being issued and decided it was an opportunity worth taking a risk for. At worst, it could be just another NO. The house had emptied instantly as each family member headed out to perform their allotted farmyard tasks. With great difficulty and considerable pain, Johnnie worked his way down the stairs, head first, on his hands and elbows, then, with one leg dragging along behind him, he 'elbow-walked' out into the yard, indifferent to the damp, grey clay that clung to his clothing. He reached the middle of the lane along which his father must pass with the horse and cart and there he waited, preparing for another rejection. He had often suspected that his father was not comfortable with the role of jailor and, to his delight, his plea to be taken to the castle did not meet with the expected rejection. All his father demanded was a promise that his passenger would remain in the cart, all day, starving with hunger if necessary; a promise instantly made. Then, for the first time, Johnnie's father carefully picked up his crippled son and hoisted him onto the pile of straw among the assortment of tools on the floor of the horse-cart. Johnnie was elated. His father mounted the setlock, flicked the reins, Nancy leaned forward, the draft chains tightened, leather harness creaked and the cart moved off to the familiar rhythmic rattle of its large, iron-banded wheels and Nancy's plodding gait. Johnnie tried to express his thanks to his father but found he could not do so; instead of words he only produced embarrassing tears. He was OUT! And he was going to Dunboy castle once again.
On reaching the gate-lodge, his father called out,
"Thomas Gill –– They've called me in for something. Storm damage repairs I expect. I'll do the gates myself, don't bother to come out."
A haggard face appeared at the gate-lodge window and a hand waved its gratitude. The hip was getting very painful and those gates were heavy to push open. Gill could always be trusted to open and close the gates correctly by himself, which he did, and Nancy managed a gentle trot as they rumbled between the white railings of the avenue. Then, having passed the ornamental lake on their right, they passed between the banks of rhododendrons and turned into the service yard at the back of the castle. The Estate Manager came out to meet them, clearly much relieved to see who had arrived.
"You made good time. I was afraid more heavy rain would get here before you could get the slates replaced over the Library. There is more storm damage elsewhere but keeping rainwater out of the Library is the first priority. There is nobody from the family here to give us orders, they went back to Wales last week. They spent most of their time here sorting out boxes of old documents and clearing out rubbish of all sorts. They left piles of it for me to get rid of. They said we can take anything we want out of the heap before I burn it or bury it. The ladder is up for you."
Thomas Gill quickly tied the horse to the usual ring in the wall, thrust some tools into a sack and headed towards the extension ladder that was already in place at the back of the castle.
The great soaring height of the roofed but unfinished East Wing brought back memories of the days when he had worked on its construction. It had been roofed and was nearing completion when, one August morning in 1872, all the workmen had been called together to be told that Mrs. Katherine Puxley had died in childbirth and that all building work was to stop on the castle extension immediately. The project had never been completed. Johnnie's father had been about to start assembling the grand staircase only that very morning. Beautiful timber it was. He had brought a small off-cut of the handrail home just to show them what it was like. Thomas Gill climbed the ladder with a satchel of tools on his back. He looked back towards his horse and cart on which he could see his son lying on the straw. The Estate Manager was still standing beside the cart.
"Not in school today?" he addressed the boy on the straw.
"I'm not allowed to go to school since my accident, Sir."
"Oh! You must be the boy who was attacked by a sheep. We heard about that. What's your name?"
"Johnnie Sir. I'm Johnnie Gill, Sir."
"Well, Johnnie, you are welcome to hop out and wander around the castle grounds while your father is fixing the roof. The Puxleys are all away. Not that they'd mind you looking around even if they were here."
"Thank you, Sir, but I can't do that 'cause I promised him up there on the roof that I wouldn't get out of the cart, even if the job takes all day. I can't walk anymore anyway since my accident with the sheep."
There was something about the boy in the cart that made the Estate Manager linger. This boy did not speak in the shy monosyllables as was usual among his peers. How old was he? Fourteen or fifteen at most. This was a bright lad waiting patiently in Gill's cart. Soon they were discussing The Great Eastern and the telegraph cable to America, the steam engines at the Copper Mines and recent inventions.
Hours later, having completed the roof repairs, Johnnie's father returned for his son and the cart to find they were no longer where he had left the horse tied. Johnnie's chat with the Estate Manager had resulted in a relocation of the cart to a more interesting location beside the heap of rubbish that had been destined for the bonfire. Armed with a long bamboo pole with a hook of fencing wire at the end, Johnnie had retreived several technical books on scientific subjects. He had also selected an instruction booklet about a sewing machine and how to use it and some tattered drawings of of what was probably mine machinery. The trophy pile included a dilapidated clock. His father held up the clock with a quizzical expression on his face.
"That man said I could keep the old clock to play with. It doesn't work anymore."
"I hope you thanked him."
"He did indeed! Bright lad you've got there, Thomas." declared the Estate Manager, reappearing with another box of rubbish for the castle bonfire. If I see anything else that might suit him in the pile, I'll fish it out for him, now that I know the kind of things he might be interested in. Most of this is pure rubbish though."
On the way home Johnnie examined his trophies more thoroughly and grew increasingly excited.
The tattered old technical books proved to be an inspirational goldmine. He re-arranged the bookshelf in The Cell to acommodate his growing library. Johnnie's mother noticed that the candle beside his bed had completely burned out quite frequently. The worn, mouldy and tattered 'rubbish' rescued from the Puxleys' bonfire had unwittingly launched Johnnie on a life-road that his parents could never have imagined possible for their crippled child.
A few weeks after the excursion to Dunboy Castle a new background sound was noticed in the Gills' farmhouse as they sat around the breakfast table one morning.
"He's got it working!"
"Got what working?"
"Listen! That noise. It's that old clock he got from Dunboy. He's got it working. It's ticking."
"How could he? What does Johnnie know about clocks?"
"He knows nothing about clocks."
"Oh yes he does!" snapped Susan, always ready to defend her prodigy student. "He drew it first, then took it apart and cleaned and polished each tiny bit; all those little wheels and things. He got me cleaning some of it. He kept a drawing of each of the bits and how they fitted into each other. Then he put it back together. He says it needs some special sort of oil but it works fairly well without it."
Clocks were rare things and this was the only one ever to enter the Gill farmhouse. It continued to tick reliably for several weeks but Johnnie had no way of determining how accurate it was. Twenty four hours from mid-day sun to mid-day sun was the best guide he had.
His mother had decided on the exact spot on the kitchen wall where she felt the clock would look best, high up to the right of the big fireplace arch, but Johnnie had other ideas. He felt very grateful for those salvaged books and for the clock he had rescued from the Dunboy bonfire. He decided that when the Puxley family were next in residence, he would return the clock, in working order, with an accompanying note explaining that it may need adjustment by raising or lowering the pendulum.
Many months later when some members of the Puxley family had returned to the castle from their other residence in Wales, the clock was returned to the castle. The result of that gesture was the arrival of the Estate Manager, on horseback, bearing another non-functioning clock, a magnifying glass and a box of what he described as "…thingamejigs from the Puxleys."
Some of the 'thingamejigs' were readily identified and clearly would be very useful for clock repairing, a pair of pointed-nosed pliers and the large magnifying glass for instance. Johnnie's mother hinted that the miniature pair of scissors and the set of little colorful bobbins of silk thread would be more appropriate in her own work-box rather than among Johnnie's growing and grubby toolkit. Wrong, Mrs. Gill. The box of 'thingamejigs' had included a book on 'Fishing Tackle and how to make it.' Johnny had instantly recognized the purpose of the bobbins and the little scissors. He quickly recruited his sisters, his mother and even his father as collectors of suitable feathers.