by Victor Sullivan © 2015 Money, Drink and Ribbon
While the demand for rat traps would be everlasting, Johnnie's interest in manufacturing them faded, the same was not true of chairs. Johnnie had sold his chairs as far away as Bantry, having appointed a nephew of the very satisfied Mrs. Lynch to act as his agent, payment strictly on a commission basis. Thomas Gill felt he could no longer lay claim to his own workshop above the cow-stalls as Johnnie's work-in-progress filled every available corner. Wood shavings and sawdust covered the floor and chair-components were tied in bundles that hung from the roof. Johnnie had developed a production line system. No longer did he make one chair at a time from start to finish. Instead, he would make only left front legs for two or three days, then change to right front legs and so on. In the interests of space saving, he only assembled each chair and wove the cording of the seat immediately before delivery to a customer.
It became clear, even to the most casual observer, that the family cripple was earning substantial money from the combination of his chair manufacturing enterprise, his popular fishing tackle creations and the sewing machine services he provided. His brothers and sisters were getting an irregular pittance from their father for their traditionally expected free, (almost), labour on the farm. Jealousy smouldered beneath the surface for many months and the little acts of kindness that Johnnie had grown used to from his family members could no longer be relied upon. The matter reached boiling point in the Gill household late one evening.
For many months Johnnie had been frequently journeying to town on Eureka, availing of a friendly tow from any horse-cart that passed him. Occasionally he would borrow Nancy and her cart to deliver chairs either directly to local individual customers or to meet the little steamship at the pier for delivery to his chair-agent in Bantry. Whenever he had Nancy and the cart, it became his routine to visit the Hardware and Timber merchant to replenish his stock of raw materials. It had also become his habit on such occasions to visit the Corner Bar for a pint or two before setting out for home, a practice frowned upon most heavily by both of his non-drinking, pious parents.
Johnnie Gill undoubtedly had imbibed more than two pints on a cold, April evening in 1892, when he had to be lifted onto the cart by a couple of bar customers who noticed his hesitant predicament with some amusement. Being kindly and helpful men, they untied his horse, placed the reins in Johnnie's hands, turned Nancy towards her home and gave her a gentle slap on her rump. The old mare ploddingly navigated the two miles competently and safely until, on arrival at the Gill farmyard, Nancy tried to enter the open doorway of her stable with the cart still attached and her intoxicated driver snoring. The front end of one cart-shaft dislodged the stable door-frame and at the same time a wheel of the cart crushed the wooden water-butt beyond repair. Nancy would never drink from it again. Captain's frantic barking initiated a general state of pandemonium, the outcome of which was a severe chilling of the domestic climate towards Johnnie and he was barred from ever again taking Nancy to town without constant parental supervision.
'Necessity is the mother of invention' and, inspired by considerable desperation and motivated by much ill-tempered frustration, the next big ambition began to germinate rapidly in Johnnie;s head. The solution was staring him in the face every time he took to the road. There was always one to be seen somewhere. In fact they were everywhere, dozens of them, in most cases they were driven and owned by shawl-wrapped women taking butter and eggs to market or going to Mass. On Sundays there would be scores of them lining the roadside hedges near every church. DONKEYS! Donkeys with their carts. A donkey and cart would suit his requirements perfectly. A few modifications to the traditional design of the cart would make life much simpler for loading both Eureka and himself. But it mustn't be just any old donkey. Extremely careful selection would be needed. Some donkeys were known to be very temperamental, obstinate, dangerous even. He would have to choose his animal very carefully. Could there be such a thing as a wise donkey? The Postman would be the person most likely to be aware of the potential for a quiet donkey transaction. The Postman would know who might have one for sale; he would be aware of those unfortunates who no longer needed their donkey due to permanent incarceration in the Workhouse, in a terminal sick-bed or in a coffin.
Within a few weeks of Johnnie's first discussion regarding available donkeys with the Postman, the Workhouse door had opened for elderly and feeble Molly O'Hanrahan and, consequently, Molly's donkey, named Ribbon, needed a new owner. Molly had nieces and nephews who drove a hard bargain for Ribbon and her traditional cart. They demanded separate payment for the meticulously cared-for harness. Finally, after much haggling, the transaction was completed and Johnnie arrived at the Gill's farmyard, lying on the floor of the little donkey-cart, proudly driving Ribbon, with Eureka on tow behind. Johnnie announced that this was HIS donkey and cart, not merely something he had borrowed for the day. He reminded everyone that it was the 23rd of June, his 30th birthday, and Ribbon and her little cart was a birthday gift to himself. His sisters, Susan and Ada, admired the placid donkey, stroked its nose and patted its neck; his brother, Richard, seethed with ill-concealed jealousy. Standing in the doorway some distance away, Johnnie's mother wondered how many new problems and embarrassments would follow the arrival of this donkey with the silly name of Ribbon.
Johnnie's father had no objection to the new addition and the seldom-used, thatched, building known as 'The Welcome Inn,' became Ribbon's stable. The adjacent lean-to was cleared of rubbish and rubble and it provided shelter for the donkey-cart. Johnnie devised methods for cart and donkey management that ensured his total independence. He constructed a platform inside Ribbon's stable from which he could handle all the donkey's harnessing requirements. With the help of a couple of modified spade-handles with hooks at the end, Johnnie was able to back Ribbon under the tipped up shafts of the cart, pull the shafts down, guide the back-chain into it's place across the straddle, then, with the help of a short pole with a hook at one end, he could secure both draft and britchen chains. Result: One efficiently tackled donkey and cart. Ribbon proved to be obedient, gentle and it was obvious that she had been well-trained. She was quickly accepted, befriended and frequently petted by everyone in the family, even by Richard eventually.
On the days that followed the arrival of Ribbon there was much sawing and hammering going on at the foot of the workshop steps where Johnnie was making modifications to his donkey-cart. Richard, watched the operation for a while and later reported that Johnnie had sawn the entire floor out of the cart and that such destruction of a perfectly good cart shouldn't be allowed. Nobody agreed with him. Johnnie must have had good reason to do such a thing; he always had good reasons for doing the unexpected. And so it was with his donkey-cart floor.
He had arranged the right hand side of the cart floor to pivot like a see-saw so that when it was tipped backwards, with the help of a knotted rope, Johnnie could haul Eureka, with himself on board, up the inclined floor. On reaching the balance point the floor tipped forwards into the usual cart-floor position, placing Johnnie, still on Eureka, in what was to be his prone, Ribbon-driving position. Donkey driving would be like that for decades to come. A couple of wooden pegs secured everything safely while traveling. On releasing the pegs Johnnie moved Eureka backwards until the floor began to tip, and, controlled by the knotted rope, Johnnie, on Eureka, trundled down gently and safely to the ground.
"Didja ever see Johnnie Gill getting in an' outa his dunkey-cart?!" was a common question around Castletown Bere. On his visits to the town he was sometimes followed by a group of children, curious to see how the agile cripple managed the feat.
Their curiosity never bothered Johnnie, he seemed to enjoy showing off his strange skills to an appreciative audience. He was proud to be IN TOTAL CONTROL and he became a well-known character as he and Ribbon travelled the roads and lanes, delivering chairs, repairing harness, adjusting and repairing sewing machines and occasionally making fishing flies for the aristocracy.