Local Faces: Robert Dowdall

By Hayden Moore

THE CRAFT of woodturning, driving handheld tools into a piece of wood that is spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute on a lathe, is a dying artform that is incredibly challenging to master.

Being blind brings its challenges but conquering the challenge of mastering the artform of woodturning is something Robert Dowdall is passionate about.

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Robert Dowdall

Originally from Tymon North, Robert is believed to be Ireland’s only blind woodturner having lost his sight in a car accident in 1989.

“The accident happened on September 11, 1989,” Robert tells The Echo from his home in Kilnamanagh.

“I was a barman in the Penny Black, only 18 at the time, and me and a few friends had decided we would drive up to Blessington.

“There’s a turn on the way up that’s known as Doolan’s Corner.

“We hit Doolan’s corner, my friend took the corner too sharply and a branch came through the window, shattering the glass.

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From climbing Kilimanjaro to writing a book and becoming a wood turner, Robert Dowdall sees blindness as a challenge rather than a hindrance

“Back in the day windows exploded on impact. I lost sight in both my eyes and my friend lost an eye.

“I don’t look at my blindness as a hindrance though, it’s a challenge for me.”

After losing his sight, Robert underwent rigorous training in Torquay in England to equip him with the basic skills of life.

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As part of the training, different skills courses where offered to Robert at the training centre including woodturning – but he didn’t fully take to it until years later.

Afterwards Robert trained in psychical therapy and is now an acupuncturist by trade.

“Wood turning is a hobby to me now not my actual profession, I work as an acupuncturist,” he explains.

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“Similar with my wood turning people would be saying to me ‘how does a blind person do acupuncture? How can a blind person do wood turning?’

“Touch, touch, touch, absolutely everything is through touch.”

For the 20 years after his accident, Robert continued to battle the perceptions that people had of blind people and consistently challenged himself.

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As part of the Terracotta Ramblers group, Robert set foot on the summit of Kilimanjaro in 1996 before toppling base camp Everest in ’98 – all in aid of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland the Brain Research Institute.

Robert spent most of his summers with his mother’s family in the beautiful Glenasmole – something he misses.

“My mother’s side are from Glenasmole, so I was basically raised on their farm,” he recalls.

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Robert Dowdall

“Tymon would have been viewed as a bit rough in the ‘80s so every Summer I was sent up there.

“I miss it. The beauty of it all, the scenery, the comradery with my uncles.”

In 1996, Robert went out on his own, moving out of the family home in Tymon and into his own house in Kilnamanagh.

“It was a huge step, daunting of course but I needed to move into my own place,” he details.

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“I had done all of this training to be able to get through life on my own but when I got home, my mother, just being a typical Irish mammy, would be trying to take care of me and help me doing things like putting sugar in my tea for me again.

“I wanted to put the skills I had developed to use and there was a steep learning curve, cooking, cleaning and just maintaining the house really but we got there – going around the house is a dawdle for me now.”

Constantly challenging himself to keep himself busy, life eventually caught up with Robert in 2008, when he finally checked in with himself.

“It wasn’t until 20 years later, after the accident, that I realised when I was writing my book Beyond the Darkness that I was suffering with depression.

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Robert Dowdall

“It all sort of caught up with me, the depression just hit me like a tonne of bricks.”

In recent years, Robert has homed in on perfecting the craft of woodturning – getting his own lathe in his workshop.

Late last year, Robert received a lot of attention when he began advertising his crafts online after his work as an acupuncturist began to slow down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I put a lot of time into the wood,” Mr Dowdall says.

“My cousin was actually down with me and she said to me ‘God Robbie these are actually really good, you should sell it’.

“I didn’t think much of it but she took some photos and threw them on Facebook and the response was just incredible.

“I started off selling a few pens, then it was lamps and bowls. The response truly has been overwhelming.”

The amount that Robert has achieved has been remarkable and despite not thinking much about inspiring others, he wants sighted people to be more open to the blind community.

“People see disability as a liability.

“After I lost my sight work was the biggest challenge and an absolute nightmare – people look at the cost of insurance when employing a blind person as too high.

“There’s this misconception that you’re a liability and that’s just not the case.

“I wanted to break the mould and that’s why I started my own business.”

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