A preview of a section of the extensive exhibition, 'Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited,' which has opened at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar.

Distinctive collection of Irish chairs goes on display in Mayo

16 traditional and modern interpretations of a distinctive Irish chair type feature in 'Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited'

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, will see a group of Irish chairs, which have been collected by the Museum for almost a century, on display together for the first time.

'Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited' considers the place of the ‘Tuam’ or ‘Sligo’ chair in the story of Irish design through the decades.

Launched today, the exhibition will see the NMI’s full collection of 16 of these three-legged chairs.

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 will also explore how the tradition of making the three-legged chair has passed down through generations of craftspeople.

Galway craftsman, Tom Dowd, was commissioned to make one of the chairs by the NMI in 1996, and it will feature in the exhibition.

Tom 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.

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.”

Rosa Meehan, curator of Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited, 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.

Paul Leamy, Head of Centre for GMIT Letterfrack, National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology, stated: “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.”

The cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, Councillor Michael Smyth, congratulated everybody involved with putting the exhibition in place and encouraged the people of the county to make a point of viewing it.

Our Irish Chair: Tradition Revisited is open now at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar.

Admission is free.


Tom Dowd, Dowd Furniture & John and Gabriel Blake, Corrib Crafts

Corrib Crafts in Tuam, Co. Galway, began making the three-legged chair in the 1960s.

The company was set up by Al O’Dea (1912- 2000). Tom Dowd was a carpenter there and recalls that an old chair was used as a template, or design, for the Corrib Crafts three-legged chair.

In the 1980s, Tom Dowd established his own successful business, Dowd Furniture, at Kilconly, Co. Galway.

He continued to make three-legged chairs until his retirement in 2010. He was commissioned to make a chair for the NMI in 1996 and it will form part of the exhibition.

The original site of Al O’Dea’s Corrib Crafts, in the Mall School House, Tuam, was established as a new company by twin brothers, John and Gabriel Blake.

They were once apprentices to Tom Dowd and continue to make this type of chair, along with other bespoke furniture.

This year, the Irish Folklife Division acquired one of the Blake brothers’ chairs which can also be seen in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life.

Public Art Project

History links the three-legged chair with Tuam in Co. Galway.

A public art project builds on this strong connection.

Artists David Lilburn and Jan Frohburg realised that the chair could provide a recognisable emblem for the town.

With the help of the National Museum, they researched the chair’s origin, its exact dimensions and the way it is made.

In 2016, the artists installed 12 sculptures throughout Tuam, a few perch high on ledges or windowsills. Some can be seen tucked into corners or on piers in the river Nanny.

Small chair sculptures draw attention to places that are otherwise easily overlooked. They called them ‘Tuam chairs.’

Cast in metal and painted red, these sculptures were modelled on the ancient Irish chair.

Sasha Sykes

Artist and designer Sasha Skyes created a chair inspired by the Sligo chair in 2005, and named it after Carlow, where she is from.

The ‘Carlow Chair’ is made of different materials and by a different process – specifically of sheet, acrylic, cast resin and mosses. Its gently curved back is embedded with mosses, lichen, grasses and twigs collected by the artist.

The Chair is usually on display in the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks.

GMIT Letterfrack Students

Second year students at GMIT Letterfrack - National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology, have created pieces in response to the Irish Chair, and a number of them are be on display as part of the exhibition.