The Travelling Roadshows

Some memories of the Travelling Roadshows that visited Skehana up to the mid 1960's

Gerry Costello

Swing Boats
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Mullin
McFaddens Roadshow
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Mullin
McFaddens Road Show
Photo Courtesy of Irish Press
Rifle Range
Photo Courtesy of Irish Press

Another early memory of the 1960’s were the travelling roadshows that travelled the countryside and arrived generally to the same locations in every parish usually every year or so. They would arrive unannounced in Skehana at an open site that was about 50 yards from my home house at about 8.00am, move in their mobile homes, set up a large tent and other accompanying  side shows like swinging boats, a rifle range (strictly for adults only), or bumping cars. Some would have a large closed in trailor that would house a generator while others would have the ESB arrive by the afternoon to give them a temporary connection. It’s funny how they could arrive in Skehana at about 8.00 am and have the ESB connected to the site by 3.00 or 4.00 in the afternoon. Today, such an operation by the same simi-state body would take weeks ……. if not indeed months to install such a service. Thinking about this poses many questions on how much we have moved forward !

Anyway. by about 8.00 pm or 9.00 pm they would be ready to put on the first show  ………. doors open at 7.30pm. This usually began with the showing of a black and white film, followed by a short play, usually two acts with a raffle during the interval. I can remember well that the Lyons Family used to have six prizes in six boxes and if you had the winning ticket you picked a box. One would contain a booby prize and I can remember one night when Patrick Commins was presented with his prize – a baby’s dummy teat  ………  “Jesus ….. what the hell would I be doin’ with a yoke like that” was what we heard all around the tent followed by laughter and applause!

While these shows were never really heavily promoted ….. a car with a loudspeaker on the roof went around the villages during the day to let people know that it was show time again  ……..  the word spread quickly throughout the outside villages and outlying areas also that the “Show Crowd” had arrived. People met each other on the roads as they travelled on bicycles, at the local shops, chatted at the local water pump or well so news spread quiet quickly in this way.  As a result of this “intense” local communication and word of mouth even on that first day, the opening night, a large crowd would be present. Local communities were starved for entertainment in those years as television was not available to the masses and even though radio was available, it was not in every house. Even then you had only one Irish station, Radio Eireann. The station opened at 8.00am but only ran until 10.00am. It then closed until 1.00pm, opened for a short time and closed again from 3.00pm until 5.00pm when it recommenced broadcasting until 11.00pm when it closed down for the night. The music played was mainly classical, the majority of the content was not suited towards country folk so people usually just turned it on for the news. Digressing a little here for a moment …….. there was a very popular programme on radio at the time called “Take The Floor” presented by Din Joe (Denis Fitzgibbon) which was Irish dancing on radio ! All you heard was music in the background with feet tapping the floor as the guest artists danced the reels and jigs. Hard to believe that Irish dancing on radio was a big attraction. One other little thing I noticed in the 60’s was that if a priest died ……….. in any parish in the country ………….. it was announced on the radio news bulletins at 6.30pm and at 9.00pm at a minimum. I well remember when our PP, Canon Loftus died in Menlough, it was announced on the Friday news at 1.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.00pm, together with a short resume of his life as a priest. Menlough Carnival was cancelled for the weekend (Friday, Sunday and Tuesday nights – dancing, of course, was not permitted by the Bishops on Saturday nights in Ireland at that time). This was common practise back then. The church had the power !

So …… the travelling roadshow was a very important part of Irish life, Irish culture and a welcome diversion and an uplifting and fun experience to people in remote communities whose only outing each week may be to Sunday mass, the local shop and a few pints in the local pub for the men folk. The roadshows were usually family owned and run. While the usual show was a film and play some shows would run added extras such as a local talent competition for singers, dancers and local musicians. I remember also seeing a rifle range at one show. Another popular feature were the Swinging Boats. There may also be some gaming machines in the tent but it was by no means what one would class as gambling.

Once I remember the Hayes Travelling Show doing a sketch to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Kennedy song, “South Of The Border”. It was done against a completely dark set, in the darkness and both Frank Hayes and his sister, Martha, wore black costumes trimmed with luminous material, studs, sequences and buttons all coated with phosphorus, with similar head gear. All of the trim on the garments was phosphorus coated also and glowed in the dark. The act went down a storm. First, the song was popular as it was banned on radio because of its storyline, (a man and a girl who was about to join the nuns falling in love). Songs in those days were banned for little or no reason at all. The audience were also seeing something that was ghost like in appearance and magical for its time. For the rest of the two weeks or so while they were on location, people came in their droves from far and near to see the magical dance portraying the man and nun falling in love. The Hayes family then left for Kilkee which was their usual routine each year.

Other family’s who travelled with their shows to this area in my memory were The McFaddens, The McCormacks and The Lyons family, The last shows I remember were the Hayes family and then the Lyons Family being the very last one to ever arrive in Skehana. They did about 11 days in October 1967. Television had arrived and the Roadshow was on the way out.

 

Click here to view a documentary on the McFadden Roadshow

The short documentary was shown on RTE on September 12th. 1963 and gives a good insight on what the travelling Road Show was about. This is really worth wiewing ! You will also notice that the interview process for television has also changed since 1963. James McFadden died on May 26th. 2014 at Rocky Valley, Kilmacanogue, Co. Wicklow. He was pre-deceased by his wife, Phyllis, and daughter, Sharon.

 

 

The following is a story told by Helen Corley about the arrival of McFaddens Road Show to Athlone. This would be typical of every village in Ireland.

“So little ever happened in our village that anything out of the ordinary was greeted with great enthusiasm by all. I was eleven when the hand-written notices were displayed in the shop windows. McFadden’s road show was coming to the parochial hall. Starting on Sunday night, we were to be treated to five nights of music, song, dance and drama. The excitement was unbearable.

On Sunday evening, rows of bicycles lined the Chapel railings and the wall down to the hall. Dozens of girls and fellows from outlying areas converged outside the hall, even the
corner boys, anxious to experience excitement, abandoned their positions and headed towards the hall.

The hall, with green painted walls was filled within minutes. Every available hard backless bench and form was filled to capacity

The show started with five dancers dressed in glittering suits and dresses tap-dancing
and singing “There’s no business like show business” This opening night was a “Variety show”, We watched a magician make an egg disappear. HE MUST HAVE BEEN VERY DISHEARTENED TO HEAR THE BOO’S AND SHOUTS TELLING HIM THAT IT WAS UP HIS SLEEVE. The troupe of dancers returned and were followed by a comedian who reeled off funny stories. Next came a man , who we were told had a very famous brother. He sang “fraulein” “The old house” and “Mother Machree”. The whole hall erupted into a cacophony of cat-calls and piercing whistles as a girl in a tight lurex dress who was introduced as the niece of a famous actress sang “If i was a blackbird” and “My bonny lies over the ocean”After the final tap-dance there was a stampede towards the door.

The following night, THE HALL WAS SO FULL THAT ANYONE LEANING AGAINST THE WALL WAS DRENCHED from the condensation. THE PLAY BEING STAGED WAS “MARIA MARTIN and MURDER IN THE RED BARN”.We saw Maria meeting her LOVER AND ARRANGING TO ELOPE WITH HIM. WE HEARD A SHOT AND SAW HER LYING DEAD AS HER LOVER FLED BUT HE DIDN’T GET FAR BECAUSE THE LIGHTS WENT OUT AND HE FELL OVER THE BOX THAT HELD HER GOING AWAY CLOTHES. WE REMAINED IN DARKNESS WHILE A MAN PLAYING AN ACCORDION SAT WITH TWO FLASH LAMPS TRAINED ON HIM.

THE FOLLOWING NIGHTS “WILLIE REILLY and his Colleen Bawn” and “East Lynn” passed without mishap. For me, the highlight of the week was the “Talent Contest”. I cringe with shame when I remember standing on the stage belting out “The happy wanderer” while the compère looked into what he called the applause meter and declared me the winner. I got two little china dogs and a clip on the ear from my mother, when I arrived home, for making an exhibition of myself.

Recently I found those dogs and I was transported back in time to that dismal hall where people SO HUNGRY FOR COMPANY AND ENTERTAINMENT TRAVELLED MILES TO SIT ON HARD FORMS AND ESCAPE FOR A FEW HOURS THE LONELINESS AND DESOLATION THAT WAS RURAL IRELAND IN THE FIFTIES.”

 

Another article that gives an insight into the lives of the Show People and what life on the road was like

 

The greatest show on earth:

A perfect double act, Mikey and Tara Gerbola grew up playing clowns in family circuses, says Andrea Smith. Many children used to threaten to run away and join the circus at some point, but there was never any danger of that in Mikey and Tara Gerbola’s case. They were already there! The Gerbolas seem tailor-made for one another: they both grew up in family circuses; their first roles were as clowns as children; and neither could ever imagine doing anything else in life. “Although Tara is the complete opposite to me,” says Mikey, who grew up in Fossett’s Circus. “I’m more of a listener than a talker, but we always know what each other is thinking. She’s gorgeous, and she gets better looking every year.”Circus and funfair people tend to know one another, but Tara and Mikey were barely aware of each other’s existence. Tara once came to the show with her aunt, prompting Mikey to remark that she was gorgeous, but too young. She was only about 15 then, and he was seven years older. As a child, Tara was part of her parents’ travelling roadshow, The McFadden’s, which was a circus at one stage, and would later become a funfair. Her parents, George and Alice, had a house in Killenard, Co Laois, where the family lived from October to April. She recalls life being tough at times on the road, particularly when there was pressure to catch up at school for the time missed.”I loved it though, and always felt that the circus was a magical place,” she says.Having started at the age of five as a clown, Tara moved on to aerial, wire and roller-skating. When she completed her Leaving Cert, she trained in trapeze in the US and, upon her return, went to work at her uncle’s circus, Big Top. Meanwhile, Mikey grew up as the youngest child of a very large extended family in Fossett’s Circus. He had a great childhood, living alongside all of his cousins, and his winters were spent living with grandparents in England. Aged eight, he began performing as part of a clown act with his dad and uncle, who were collectively known as Bobo, Tony and Mikey. When he was in his mid-20s, Mikey’s sister Caroline began getting worried about his reluctance to socialise, so she persuaded him to attend the annual Showman’s Dance. “I was kind of a recluse for a while, because I just worked and didn’t socialise,” he admits. “I had no time for anyone, bar me and my work, and life was pretty boring. As soon as we arrived at the dance, I saw Tara there looking fantastic, She was wearing this little bustier, and there was me with no dress sense at all. I looked like a hick.”

They finally got talking at some point of the night, although Mikey recalls being too shy to kiss Tara goodnight. They started dating, but for the first six months of their relationship, Tara’s mother Alice was seriously ill with a terminal brain tumour. She died aged 45, when Tara was 19, and prior to her death her family nursed her through her illness. Tara found it difficult to accept her mother’s illness, because she was so lively, vivacious and full of life. “It was so hard for us as a family, because my younger sisters were only 9 and 12,” she says. “It was almost a relief when she died, because we couldn’t bear to see her suffer any more. Mikey stuck by me through thick and thin, and he kept me sane all through that time.” After Alice passed away, Tara went back to work at Big Top, and Mikey drove miles to see her after work as often as possible. This was difficult, as they never seemed to be in the same end of the country.

Such was life on the road in the Road Show.

 

 

This page was added on 20/10/2014.

Comments about this page

  • This has been recently added to our website:

    Hi my dad is Harry McFadden (88 since 18/3) and my mum Eileen (nee Mirth). They have some amazing stories to recall and a wealth of information of this timeframe. This should be recorded and I would like to start doing this. I am now I the funfair business and it’s the start of our touring season but I hope to start putting something together as this is a vital part of irish heritage with little information on record. We have two living legends and their stories should be preserved.

    I agree totally and will help you in whatever way I can. It would be a pleasure to be part of this project.

    By Gerry Costello (28/04/2018)

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