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Forgotten Irish clown gets new life in Barabbas show

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: {J}

A real-life 19th century clown, who was born just before the Great Famine and who was murdered on stage in Tralee in 1889 is the inspiration for the latest show from Tuam based writer, actor and musician, Little John Nee.

Johnny Patterson, The Singing Irish Clown will be on the stage of the Town Hall Theatre on May 11 and 12 in a production from Barabbas Theatre.

The show, which was critically acclaimed on its first outing, at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, is directed by Raymond Keane of Barabbas and the cast features Little John, along with Roger Gregg and Bryan Burroughs whose performance won him the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actor

Little John, Barabbas and Johnny Patterson is a relationship made in heaven. Since it was set up in 1993, Barabbas has specialised in theatre of the clown, putting mime and physical theatre at the centre of its shows. Little John’s own shows mix physical comedy, stories and music to great effect and before he took to the stage, he was renowned for his clown-style street performances.

And while you might not have ever heard of Johnny Patterson, chances are that most Irish people over a certain age will know some of his songs. The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door, Goodbye Johnny and The Garden Where the Praties Grow were among the compositions from this man who went from humble beginnings in Clare to become one of the most acclaimed clowns in America.

Barabbas began their national tour of this play in Tralee, the town where Johnny Patterson was murdered in the circus ring and, says Little John, the warm response there “was exactly what we wanted”.

Patterson’s own visit to Tralee in 1889 took place at the height of the tension in Ireland between Nationalists and Unionists over Home Rule. There, he sang a song that he had written urging the two sides to work together for the betterment of all. A row broke out after Do Your Best for One Another and he was hit by an iron bar, dying two days later in the local fever hospital.

It was a tragic end for the 49-year-old who had held audiences in the palm of his hand from his teen years, when he first joined the circus.

Barabbas will finish their tour in Ennis, where Johnny Patterson spent his boyhood, having moved there from nearby Feakle following the death of his parents, explains Little John.

Patterson worked for his uncle, a nailer, and demonstrated a passion for music that led his uncle to enlist 14-year-old Johnny as a drummer boy in a British army regiment based in Limerick. There he learned how to play drums and piccolo as well as other instruments and got a part-time job with a circus. He later bought himself out of the army and joined Swallows Circus on a fulltime basis.

He played music but also had an ability to sing and tell jokes and it was these skills that led him to being so highly regarded. He worked with several other circuses before moving to Liverpool with the Pablo Franque Circus in 1869, where he met Selena Hickey, the woman he would marry and with whom he would have three children. Later he left his family, seeking fame in America with major circus Cooper’s and Bailey which had headhunted him. Years later his wife died in a poorhouse.

In the United States Johnny became one of the best known and highest paid entertainers of his day, although he suffered personal misfortune when one of his daughters was killed back home in Ireland by an elephant.

He eventually returned home, a wealthy man, joining forces with an Australian Joe Keely to set up Keely and Patterson’s circus. And it was while touring with this company that he met his tragic end.

Little John had first heard of Johnny Patterson in 1993 through musicians Mícheál Ó Suilleabhain and Mel Mercier who gave him some of the clown’s songs for a one-off show about Johnny Patterson in Cork’s Everyman Palace in which Little John played the clown.

Years later Barabbas’s Raymond Keane – a friend and fellow performer – told John about a Jack B Yeats painting he had seen called The Singing Clown. That had been inspired by Patterson. Raymond had never heard of him until then, but thought that Little John – given his style of writing and performance in previous shows such as The Derry Boat – would be a perfect singing clown.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

Judy Murphy



A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.


For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Ruby ready to rock again and Bob is worth a big flutter in Gold Cup

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 06-Mar-2013

New edge to Galway hurling championship title pursuit

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Archive News

A battle of talent and the ability to pull in public votes

Bernie Ni Fhlatharta



Date Published: 11-Mar-2013

Here is a question. And there is no holiday or grand prize for getting the answer. But can anyone name the people who have won The Voice of Ireland and what has become of them?

Over across the water in the UK they have The X Factor and while I hate the concept of it, it has produced a few stars even though they don’t last long in the whole scheme of things.

But The Voice of Ireland seems to generate false excitement with the winner ending up become more anonymous than they already were. And it is costing families a fortune in the process.

While the programme is a ratings winner, strangely, it has resulted in those getting through to the final stages investing huge amounts of money in the hope that they will receive enough votes to get through to the next stages.

So, suddenly, it is not about the voice or the talent involved, it is all about votes and who the participants can convince to pledge their support for them. So it is obvious that talent goes out the window.

It means that someone with half a talent could realistically win the whole thing if they generated enough support behind them. From now on, the judges will be taken out of the equation and it will be left to the public to generate income for some phone operator.

Those who get through to the live performances have to engage in a massive publicity campaign in an effort to win votes which makes this whole effort a pure sham. It is no longer about their ability and just an effort to win appeal.

While the initial process does involve some vetting of the acts, now it becomes a general election type exercise in which the most popular will win the competition and the judges will have no say whatsoever.

It is a bit like the recent Eurosong in which the judging panel across the country voted for their favourite song, which incidentally was the best of a very bad lot, but then this was overturned by the public who chose a relatively crap song to represent us.

But again, this was all down to convincing the public about who to vote for rather than having any bearing on the quality on offer. There are times that genuine talent becomes overlooked because of the need to extract money from the voting public.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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