The Irish ‘Fool’s Chair’

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There are lots of vernacular stick chairs styles out there if you do a little digging. Researcher Suzanne Ellison has been turning over a lot of rocks lately to find stick chairs in countries such as Sweden, Germany and Italy.

Today she sent over a load of images of Irish chairs, and this one stuck in my head. It’s a fairly common form and common paint scheme. Interestingly, these chairs were referred to as “fool’s chairs,” “famine chairs” or “hedge chairs.” Sometimes this form is called a “Gibson chair.”

I need to do a lot more digging to learn about the names of the chairs. I couldn’t find much on the origin of “fool’s chair,” except for a reference in “A Dictionary of English Phrases: Phraseological Allusions, Catchwords” (1922). That book defined “fool’s chair” as:

A chair with a leg missing, on which fools attempt to sit and consequently fall.

The origin of the name “famine chair” is said to relate to the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852), during which the great poverty of the country resulted in furniture that was made by tenant farmers that was on the crude side.

I haven’t been able to dig up much on why it would be called a “Gibson chair.” So more research is ahead.

While this particular chair doesn’t grab me as much as some Welsh designs, it does have its charms. I particularly like the front-on view and the dramatic lean to the back sticks.

— Christopher Schwarz

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12 Responses to The Irish ‘Fool’s Chair’

  1. NR Hiller says:

    And that grass green! Lovely.

  2. Kenton says:

    I believe it’s referred to as a Gibson when you use pickled onions in its construction rather than olives.

  3. pogo930 says:

    The Irish are now referring to the “great famine” as the Great Hunger since there was always sufficient food to feed everyone. The English were exporting grain and even potatoes during the period.

  4. Rick De Roque says:

    On many of these stick chairs there are no stretchers or under seat support but they are hundreds of years old. When are stretchers or under seat supports needed?

    • Jeff Faulk says:

      I am no chairmaker, but I would say stretchers and seat supports are needed when either a.) your legs are not sufficiently rigid when tenoned into the seat, or b.) you need the stretchers to hold the legs in tension. Both can apply at the same time.

  5. wilburpan says:

    Why would a fool’s chair also be called a Gibson chair? Because Fender players are too smart.

    *ducks*

  6. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    Hedge chair ? Maybe for the same reason MDF furniture is referred to as pavement furniture , that’s where it ends up , out on the pavement

  7. Judith Katz says:

    could it be it’s a fool’s chair because if you dozed off in it, you’ll find yourself on your back on the floor.

  8. Michael O’Brien says:

    Hi Chris, I have just sent an email to John Hoffman with attached photos and info of the Gibson Chair and also info on the so called “Famine Chair” which is a name applied for Antique Dealers convenience and but field studies have not confirmed that this term was used by householders themselves.
    I just returned a month ago from my second trip to Ireland always looking for historical wooden tools and furniture . Please refer to the email I sent for a reference Book on the topic of Irish Country Furniture.
    Michael W. O’Brien
    Valley Head, AL

  9. Bob Jones says:

    It looks like it was made for a lazy man who tended to lean to his right.

  10. What has jumped out at me is the mechanics of this chair. The timber type is impossible to say as it is coated with what looks like two coats First being a Country white (cream) and the main paint being green ( not the normal dark green we find on Vernacular chairs) but the evidence the paint tried to mask. This timed has not been riven its been sawn. As I have been restoring and conserving a number of early vernacular chairs of late 17th and early 18th Century they are showing more physical evidence of being saw cut timber not riven which is preached to us part of a antiques dealer/historians mythology of period furniture.
    The other interesting observation is back to the paint. This cream colour was used more than we realized in 18th Century for garden chairs e.g. to sit on uneven ground, painted to protect against the weather and not for use indoors other than a orangery. By the early 19thC they became more into homes.

  11. Simon Honing says:

    You might also be interested in the Jimmy Possum chair from early colonial Tasmania. It has much in common with the Welsh chair. Some guy in Tasmania is running small classes now to bring the chair back into ( albeit very limited) production.

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