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.

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