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Distinctive collection of Irish chairs goes on display for first time at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life in Co Mayo

Chair made by Thomas Durkan. NMI Collections F:1931.114

A new exhibition exploring the design and exceptional crafting tradition of an engaging Irish chair type - and the creativity it continues to inspire - has just opened at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo.

Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited gives visitors the chance to see a special group of Irish chairs, which have been collected by the Museum for almost a century. This is the first time the Museum's full collection of 16 of these three-legged chairs has gone on display together. 
The Tuam or Sligo chair has an enduring appeal that has inspired makers and designers for decades. It has a triangular seat and a narrow back that is immediately distinctive. One leg extends in a single piece of curved wood to form the back of the chair. The chairs are typically made from oak or ash and some have armrests. 
The first known recording of the chair was in the Dublin Penny Journal of 1832, where it was described as ‘an ancient oak chair’ from Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo. In 1841, the chair was also recorded in Co. Galway, as noted in Hall’s Ireland. Irish writer, WB Yeats, commissioned a local carpenter to make some of these chairs for the renovation of his tower house, Thoor Ballylee, Co. Galway, in 1919. 
Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited explores how the tradition of making the three-legged chair has passed down through generations of craftspeople such as Tom Dowd, who made these chairs for many years and was central to the success of Corrib Crafts, a handmade furniture business set up by Al O’Dea in Tuam in the early 1960s.

Tom established his own business, Dowd Furniture, in Kilconly, Co. Galway, in the 1980s, and continued to make the chair until his retirement in 2010.

Meanwhile, on the site where Al O’Dea’s Corrib Crafts once stood, twin brothers Gabriel and John Blake, who were apprentices of Tom Dowd, have revived the Corrib Crafts business, where they are keeping this chair-making tradition alive. 
A number of modern interpretations of the Tuam/Sligo chair will also be on display, alongside a public art project from the town of Tuam. This includes an intaglio map of the town, photography, and miniature Tuam chairs, by artists David Lilburn and Jan Frohburg. 
The ‘Carlow Chair’, designed and created by Carlow native Sasha Sykes in 2005, is also featured. It was acquired in 2005 by the National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History and is normally on display at Collins Barracks in Dublin.

Interpretations of the chair designed and crafted by students of the National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology at GMIT Letterfrack are also on display.

 Speaking at the launch, Lynn Scarff, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, said:

This Irish Chair has been a source of inspiration for designers and makers for decades and, with Irish craft and design enjoying a resurgence in recent years, this exhibition is a timely reflection on sustainable handcraft of the past and future. Never before has such a number of these chairs been on display together, and we are encouraging visitors to see the exhibition and enjoy the craftmanship of the older chairs and the wonderful modern interpretation given to this classic design by makers in more recent years.” 

Welcoming the opening of the exhibition, Rosa Meehan, Curator of Our Irish Chair, said: 

I hope that this exhibition will open conversations on Irish furniture design and traditional skills. This exhibition demonstrates how Museum collections are not things of the past but inspire designers and makers. This chair collection is a part of our living tradition. They can evoke memories and are part of our identity.”

 Tom Dowd, craftsman and maker of the Tuam chair’ said:

The chair at the centre of this exhibition is unusual - with the three legs and the single back piece - and yet it is so simple. But it was a difficult and complex process to make the Tuam chair look so simple - there was so much care and attention to detail required. Today we are preserving a very old tradition and it is rewarding to see the chair appear in many places – from an office to a church. It’s especially rewarding when I come across one that I know I made. It is wonderful to see this exhibition in place and the focus on this chair, which has become a part of the history of the region and Irish furniture and design."

Speaking about the NMI and GMIT partnership for this exhibition, Paul Leamy, Head of Centre for GMIT Letterfrack, National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology, said: 

We were delighted to work with the National Museum of Ireland on this exciting project. Our students were challenged to respond to a stimulating design brief. The final chair designs are impressive contemporary interpretations of the original Tuam/Sligo chairs, but yet are thoughtful in paying respect to the masters of the past.”

Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited is open now at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar. Admission is free. Book your free, timed entry ticket to visit.

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