A small wooden chair that moved me to tears

Just a week or so ago, it was a normal, everyday conversation on the mobile phone with my stepmother, Anne D’Alton from Knockcroghery, whom I and my mother am privileged to be very close to.

“Oh,” Anne kindly said in passing, “I found an old desk chair of your grandfather’s in one of the sheds the other day and I thought you might like it for your study. I’m restoring it for you”.

It turned out to be more than just a chair. Horseshoe-shaped, mahogany, ornate spindles throughout and a back rest as solid as granite, yet as comfortable as a newly-made bed, this chair brought back to me a flood of memories which, I won’t deny, on more than one occasion has made me shed a tear.

The arm rests are wonderfully gnarled and etched from the years of use, like a weathered, well-used shillelagh, and the more beautiful for all of it.

You see, from 1953 my late grandfather, Dan D’Alton, was Principal of Ballagh National School, near to our old family home in Kilrooskey, and opposite Ballagh Church. To this day, men of my age – which isn’t that old! – remember him as ‘Master D’Alton’.

A fierce old Fianna Fáil man, he went on to become Cathaoirleach of Roscommon County Council until his sad passing in 1981. Having been brought up in England from a baby for so many years, I barely knew him, a distant figure but one whom I was aware, even at a very young age, was a hugely respected and admired local personality after he’d come to Roscommon to teach at Ballagh from his home county of Mayo.

So when I first sat in the restored chair, now proudly ensconced in my study in our house on the outskirts of Roscommon town, I thought of how many hundreds of local children he had affectionately – and also respectfully, I’m told – tirelessly educated from this very chair, many of whom remain friends and neighbours of mine to this very day.

But the chair has even more sanguine memories for me. After retiring from teaching, the chair sat by the range in our Kilrooskey house until, after grandfather’s passing, my late father rehoused it at the well-known pub, D’Alton’s in Fuerty.

Always placed by the fire, it was from this chair that my father, Don, famously sang a duet with Bono – the ditty was ‘Three Wheels on My Wagon’ – after the rock star had been invited to the pub with our mutual family friends Sean Mulryan and the late, and great, Des Whyte from Oran, a dear friend.

It was from this chair that famously Dad, oblivious, had asked Bono: “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a singer,” Bono replied.

“Are you any good?” asked Dad.

“Not too bad,” said Bono, and so they sang their song, Bono kneeling by the chair as they both belted the tune out in perfect harmony.

Even more notoriously, it was from this very chair that on one winter’s night, having after-hours drinks with a handful of friends at the pub, that Dad had to arise to answer a loud knock at the door.

It was the Gardaí. Eventually, taking his time just to spite them and the lads drinking doing a dash out the back to the sheep sheds behind the premises, pint glasses in hand, Dad eventually opened the door.

“Mr. D’Alton, you have people drinking in your premises at this time of night,” said the Sergeant, “I can hear voices and conversation”.

Unperturbed, Dad replied: “I was talking to my dog,” who was Rambo, his beloved Jack Russell.

“And was the dog talking back?” the Sergeant asked incredulously.

“He was,” said Dad.

A summons was issued, the lads returned from the sheds with their pints, and when it came to court, the Judge, a good friend of Dad’s, asked Gardaí if they could prove that Rambo The Dog couldn’t talk.

No, they could not. Case dismissed!

The story made the front page of the New York Times and Irish Independent.

Two weeks later, the Judge landed in to see my Dad, and asked Dad: “So, Don, where’s this feckin’ talking dog?”

My father pointed to this very chair. Rambo The Talking Dog was sitting pride of place in the chair. As the Judge went to move Rambo so the Judge could sit on the throne himself, Dad quickly advised him: “Oh, I wouldn’t do that. He gets very upset when people move him out of that chair”.

There was many a laugh on the bar stools around the chair about that.

But as I write this, sitting in the very same chair now at my desk, behind me is a wonderful oil painting of my father done by the well-known Castlecoote-based artist Bob Attenbury. It shows Dad sitting in his chair by the fire in the pub, with his favourite scarf and Barbour waistcoat.

So glancing behind me to look at him, then turning back and sitting in my chair, I think to myself: grandfather, father and son have used this chair for generations, for learning, for writing and for the craic. Three generations seated in one chair for nearly 70 years.

And, call it winsome folly, or sentimental nostalgia, but I feel comforted by my grandfather and father. They are here with me, through the high and the lows that we all go through, a sense of visceral embrace, almost cuddled, by our mutual, beautiful ancient chair.