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Monday, December 17, 2012

The Sensuous Rocker: An Irishman and Master Furniture Maker Provides Seating Commentary

The year at BAM draws to an aptly titled close this week with All That Fall, a darkly comic radio piece from legendary Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. This production from Dublin group Pan Pan Theatre Company seats audience members in their own personal rocking chairs—a staging that seemed to call for some context. And lucky for you, dear blogophiles, we traipsed the rolling hills of eastern Ireland to find you just the man for the job.

Charles Shackleton hails from Dublin, and is a master craftsman of handmade furniture—not to mention a champion crumpeteer, a devotee of Irish oats, a fountain pen enthusiast, and a descendant of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. He currently resides in Woodstock, Vermont, where he and his master-potter wife Miranda Thomas own and operate ShackletonThomas fine handmade furniture and pottery (visit their website here for more info and to ogle some gorgeous goods). We managed to pin Charlie down in between crumpet competitions to ask his expert opinion on the significance of the rocking chair. Here, for your enjoyment and erudition, his musings.


In Ireland, the rocking chair is most often associated with babies and grandparents—often the latter knitting for the former, keeping an eye out whilst the parents were out working and doing chores. The rocking chair makes one think of the settle* and the open fire, perhaps with bread in the bastible* in the background.

Perhaps the rocking chair itself was the soothing device that allowed the young and old, at the entrance and exit doors of life, to feel some sense of peace and comfort—an ease that was not afforded to the younger and middle hard-working stages of life.

The slow rocking beat resonating with the pulse of the human heart makes the rocking chair one of the most anthropomorphic of objects. There is always a sense of timelessness and serenity associated with it, a feeling which belies the hard life and strife of the beautiful but raw Irish west, and the harsh economic and physical conditions associated with that region in particular.


In the olden days, when things were primarily made by hand and the cost of labor was low in relation to the cost of wood, the craftsman would have made each part individually.

A properly made rocking chair is not just a chair with rockers on it; the design has to “flow” as the chair moves back and forth. The stress on the joint between the rockers and chair legs increases enormously over time—and with various sizes of people—so the legs are designed to absorb some of the mainly backward motion. It is also important to have a seat back that will rest the head and shoulders when the body is rocked backwards.


Of course, the rocking chair is a beautiful object in itself, with its long sinuous rockers, curvaceous arms, and seat and back that enfolds the human body. All carved from locally harvested wood—and with a seat woven from the twisted oat straw left over from the grain used for the making of bread and oat cakes—the traditional Irish rocker was truly of a piece with the land.

—Charles Shackleton


*Bastible was the lidded cast iron pot that is the precursor to the modern day oven, that hung above the open fire.

*The settle was a bench against the wall that could be pulled out and converted into a table for the purpose of saving space.

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