John’s chairs will last a lifetime, but he is also passing on his knowledge to a new generation, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
John Dowling owned a shop in Listowel, Co Kerry, when he was inspired by a chair his wife had had since childhood to try his hand at súgán chair making more than 15 years ago.
Súgán chairs were once a familiar sight all over Ireland and beyond; the wooden frame, made from a variety of woods but most commonly ash or larch, joined with mortice and tenon joints, is held together with a sturdy woven seat of ‘súgán’, the Irish word for straw or hemp rope.
Now, John combines working his 70-acre dairy-beef farm with making súgán chairs in the workshop adjoining his house.
As a young man, he trained as a carpenter and worked in the UK before returning to his family farm.
Rather than being a fully professional craft, súgán chair-making was something many in rural families could turn a hand to in the past, John says, standing in his workshop, where sweet-smelling piles of sawdust lie on the floor and templates for chair frames, tools and balls of twine all lie within easy reach.
“Traditionally, súgán chairs were made by the man of the house,” John says.
“The best timber they could get was often ash. They were often made for children.
“A neighbour who lived across from us made a table and two chairs when he first got married. Then they had nine children, and they raised two more, and as the children came along, he’d make another chair.
“My first introduction to súgán stools was two brothers by the name of Tom and Billy Kitt below in Curraghchase in Co Limerick. I had a public house and I sent down to get súgán stools made and they made them. That was 30 years ago.”
Renowned for their durability, súgán chairs and stools have a unique design feature that helps make them so tough: Because the seat is woven from rope, the weight of someone sitting on it actually pulls the frame of the piece of furniture slightly inwards, strengthening it.
“They’re very structural and strong chairs,” John says. “I’ve seen and been asked to repair chairs that are over 100 years old. People often bring me the chair to replace the weave.”
While the patterns of the weave and the overall design of the chairs has remained virtually unchanged over time, John says there’s one interesting difference between older chairs and the ones he builds today: Chairs in the past were smaller, not because previous generations were shorter, but because people were used to a lower seated position, “with their knees higher than their hips, which is the proper way to sit, by all accounts.”
Today, John is working on a chair for a small child; the first-born of a family he knows. There’s about a day’s work in each chair, he says, reaching fora ball of rope to begin the process of weaving the seat.
Although súgán is often translated as straw rope, in fact, it was often hemp: From at least the 17th century on, records show that hemp was grown in Ireland as a material for making sails and ropes, but growing hemp, which is a close relative of the cannabis plant, was banned by Dangerous Drug Act of 1934, and so the súgán material itself is no longer made in Ireland.
John uses sisal from Brazil, a good hemp-substitute derived from fibres from the agave plant.
“Sisal is a natural fibre too, so there’s not really much difference”, he says as he begins to weave the rope around the seat’s frame.
There are different patterns of weave found in súgán seats, and some were traditionally more common in some regions, he says.
“This is a box weave, and there’s a traditional weave for a kitchen chair, which is narrower at the back. There’s the honeycomb weave as well, that forms a pattern in the middle.”
However, regional differences can be taken with a pinch of salt, he says with a smile.
Keeping the craft alive means a lot to John, who has four children ranging in age from 16 to their thirties, and who has recently become a grandfather for the first time. In the kitchen of his house, súgán chairs take pride of place around a sturdy table of larch wood that John also made himself.
He points out one of his fabled Kerry chairs.
“That chair will be there longer than I’ll be around for,” he says.
“The Kitt brothers I was talking about are long dead and gone and it’s like a prayer that I’m still talking about them; I hope somebody will be talking about me in the same manner. It sounds morbid in a way, but I’d like to be remembered this way. I favour everything traditional.”
As well as selling his own work and repairing the chairs that people bring to him, John has given advice to more than 40 secondary school woodwork students who have opted to make a traditional chair.
“I’ve helped Leaving Cert students, sometimes with phone conversations, but some have come out to me and watched me make a chair from start to finish,” he says. “Keeping the knowledge alive is important.”
Despite a recent commission that’s his largest yet, which will see him assemble 40 chairs for a community centre, he’s dubious about whether a revival of the craft could ever see súgán chairs become as popular as they once were, in an economy where mass-produced imported furniture is readily available at a cheap price.
In traditional Irish homesteads, súgán chairs were often reserved for visitors or honoured guests such as story-tellers, he says.
“At one time, they were the most comfortable chair there was; the other option was a wooden seat,” he says.
“Times have moved on; comfort has moved on and people want cushions and foam seats.
So why is it so important to keep the craft alive?
“It’s a part of who we are,” he says. “Our ability to look back in time is being lost. The hardship that people endured mightn’t be passed on, but it made us who we are and it’s very important we remember.”