Lyons Family Roadshow
One family's history of the Travelling Roadshows.
The following story has been written exclusively for me by Maurice Lyons who was born into the Travelling Roadshow and has lived through, and experienced life behind, the bright lights and the glamour that we, the public, experienced and were entertained by them during a time when life was simple but tough for everybody. I am extremely thankful and grateful to Maurice, who now resides in Australia, for sharing his life’s experience with us and recording this story as it is a valuable piece of history and heritage of everyday life for the show people that we enjoyed and looked forward to so much during our childhood.
The Roadshow. By: Maurice Lyons
There have been show people travelling Ireland since the 1800s, some were small circus, some were theatrical troupes and others would perform tricks or strongman acts at fairs. They all spent time in small villages or towns making a living. In 1905 my grandfather gave up teaching to embark on a dream he had, that was to have a troupe of actors and tour Ireland. He gathered actors and actresses. One of the actresses was a lady from England called Elizabeth Stevenson who had answered an advertisement in the actors equity pages. They toured for a few years before they decided to get married and so George Lyons and Elizabeth Stevenson became Mr & Mrs Lyons, my grandparents. They had four children three boys and one girl – Hubert, Brian, Ronald. Still touring they moved from town to town staying in digs wherever they went. Around 1916 George collapsed on stage in a town called Middleton, alas, he did not recover and died. Soon after that, the troupe broke up and went their separate ways leaving my grandmother to fend for herself and four children. In those days there was not any government handout or Social Welfare.
Making a living in difficult times.
One had to make a living in some way and the way that she choose was to acquire a Magic Lantern slide projector with slides of various plays and songs. These she mounted on a bicycle and while her children were left in the digs she would cycle to small villages that had a hall where she set up the projector to give a show. I do not know how much she charged at that time but it would only be a few pennies. If the hall had a piano she would play along with the slides and if no piano was available in a hall, then she would play and sing to the sound of her mandolin. She was an accomplished musician on lots of instruments. I am not sure how long she used the magic lantern for, but she later acquired a silent 35mm projector plus some films. By now all this was too much to carry on a bike, so a trap and horse were purchased. This allowed her to move around more and do some of the more remote villages where folk had never seen movies. She still sang and narrated during the showing.
Around this time actors equity informed her that, as she was a widowed member, they would educate her children at their college outside of London. So the two eldest were sent off to England, coming back to Ireland at holiday time. So my father Brian and my uncle Hubert used to travel by rail and sea to the college located at Langley. As they were both quite young and travelled alone they both had labels pinned to their clothes letting people know where they were going. My father told us that they never had any trouble as people were very kind and helpful to them on their trips. My grandmother who was very British was often asked if she was worried about touring in the country as this was during the troubles of 1918 but she would look at those that asked and say, “why should I be worried, I am raising an Irishman’s children”. Once in a village in county Cork she was preparing to leave her digs to travel to another town when her landlady told her that there were two men wanted to talk to her. When she saw the men, one asked how long before she left. She told them it was none of their business. Then the fellow said that they were going to blow up the bridge and were waiting until she had passed over it and they would like her to go as soon as possible which she did. Then they blew it up. She always said that she was treated with great respect wherever she went and she had great love for the Irish people.
Life with the Lyons Roadshow.
Whilst my uncle and father were been educated in England, back in Ireland during the winter and summer my grandmother continued to tour with the two remaining children. She did find the drag of finding digs for the family very hard so she decided to buy a horse drawn caravan to house the family. At a later stage she told us that it was more like a tin shed than a caravan but it was still better than digs. As she toured she amassed a number of 35mm films including a few that I remember her telling me about, Uncle Toms Cabin, The Volga Boatman, The Sheik and some comedy ones, Charlie Chaplin, Andy Gump, Hal Roach and there were more but I have forgotten their names.
Upgrading the show.
At some time my aunt Hilda was also packed off to England to get her education leaving only Uncle Ronnie at home. Alas, he never was sent to college, something that annoyed him for a long time which I can understand. At 18 years, uncle Hubert left Langley Hall School and went on to become a Christian brother. My father Brian also left shortly after that and returned to be with his mother on the show. Soon after that they built what was known as a booth. The sides were wooden panels bolted together the roof was canvas laid on rafters. It was 30 feet long and 20 feet wide at one end was a white screen and at the other end and outside was a wagon with the projector inside. Seating was basic flat benches for about 100 people and standing room for about the same. It could be erected in a couple of hours, was water proof and in winter freezing cold. Dismantled it all would fit on one trailer which was towed by a Ford Model B lorry. Journeys were short between three to five miles from one village to another. We remember that at that time very few cars were around and cinemas were only in the larger towns out of the reach of most people. After my father got home, both he and uncle Ronnie started to upgrade the show acquiring more films which were available to buy, but could not be shown to the public without getting the rights to do so, but that never stopped them and as they only stayed a few weeks anywhere they were hard to trace. This was common to all the picture shows of the time.
In the early 1930s they got projectors which run on 110 volts and had sound heads on them, (the early projectors were hand cranked). Of course they also had to have generators to power the projector. Times were very tough in the 1930s as there was a recession. Lots of men had no work making them angry and at times this caused groups to stand outside the show at picture time yelling and sometimes stone throwing took place. They were never very bad but it was annoying.
Marriage and war.
1936 my father married my mother who was from a family of show people called The Mullins. She was one of 5 daughters. They all stayed with the original show for a few years, but then mom and dad split from the others and formed their own picture show building with their own booth and having all their own equipment. By modern standards some of the shows looked primitive but back in the 1930s it was really good looking. The show consisted of two living wagons, one projector wagon and a lorry and the booth. When the war began petrol was rationed and they were only allowed 20 gallons per month. It was not enough to run the generator never mind a lorry. Even buying on the black market, they only managed to get enough for the generator, so the lorry went and horses were acquired. This was a pain, as the horses had to be found grazing for their stay in all the villages and many a time some young brats would have fun by opening gates and letting the horses roam. Dad reckoned the best day ever was when petrol rationing ended and he rushed out to get a lorry and car. As soon as the lorry came, the horses had to go which was a bit sad as they had served us well over the years
From 1930 until about 1946 most showmen’s wagons were very basic as there was a limit to what horses could pull, but when rationing ended better wagons began to appear on many of the shows. In the late 1940’s ours were still boxes on wheels. We did had three living wagons, one was the kitchen, one was the children’s wagon and a trailer for mom and dad. In winter they were cold places except for the kitchen wagon which had a Stanley No. 7 range in it. This was used for heating and cooking and it was also where we kids played games like Ludo, Draughts, Chess and card games. Up until about 1957 we only had Tilly lamps in the wagons. Around that time we started to hook up to the ESB which made a great difference. Mind you we were not alone as a great amount of the country folk were just getting power to their homes.
Most schools had no power and their heating was just turf fires. The toilets in these schools were very primitive just open drop boxes which stank. I remember going to school down the Castletown/Bearhaven peninsula in a few places where they handed out slices of bread covered in jam and a glass of milk to every kid and whether you wanted it or not you had to take it. This was because lots of kids had no breakfast before school and no lunch. Money was scarce so the local council made sure at least the kids had food.
The post war years.
Now we will jump to 1949, we were in a place in west cork called Rosscarbry. One day we had a visit from a newspaper wanting to know if we would agree to have a feature in their paper. This was THE TIMES PICTORIAL. Dad agreed and a few days later two people from the paper came along. One had a camera and lots of photos were taken. A week on the later front page was the Lyons family. We felt very proud of this. Mind you Rosscarby had another happening, the local parish priest did not like his people attending a picture show and he forbade them from the alter from attending the show. One night he even drove his car in and tried to block the way into the show. He failed in his efforts and the people just walked past him. Later that night as the people were leaving he drove his car down the road with headlights blazing on the people shouting at them. Dad hopped in to our car and drove right up to his bumper and gave him a lecture (no bad language as dad never swore). the next day dad wrote to the bishop and the following Sunday the priest had to apologise from the alter. This was one of many run-ins we had with the church who felt they were in charge of everything in the parish. Most of them never gave any trouble, it was just a few. Later that year in the town of Blarney my youngest brother Hubert was born. He was born in mom and dad’s trailer. Our cousin had come to help with the birth as both mom & dad did not want a hospital involved due to the state of the hospitals in those days.
Going to school.
Schooling was by the local national school. The day after we set the show up, if it was a school day we were sent off to the nearest school. We would face up to the master and explain that we were from the show and would attend school while we were in town. We were always treated with great respect and treated as if we had been there for ever and given the same lessons as the rest of the kids except we explained that we did not do the Irish language as it did vary quite a bit from county to county. I don’t know how many schools we went to but it was at least 14 per year and never had a bad experience and the rest of the kids were always friendly.
Every summer dad would always try to have the show by the coast so we could get to the beach every day (when it didn’t rain). We only spent one summer in Clare and I must admit we loved it. Denis, our eldest brother, even jumped in to save a young fellow from drowning in Liscannor. I will always remember Liscannor for the boiler they had on the green on a Friday. They would fill it with crabs and boil them. Then anyone could help themselves. We had some great times in county Clare where the people were the best in the country. Galway people were very distant and the worst were the Kilkenny folks. Sour and miserable is my memory of them or maybe it was just me. It can’t be all bad as one brother and one sister was born in county Kilkenny. Most of our time were spent in Munster where every few years we would revisit places that were good for us as regards customers. The show would consist of two films one was the main one then shorts or a serial over 4 nights. Admission was 1s 6d for adults and by now we could seat 250 people and in winter we heated the booth. In some areas we would run a shooting gallery after the films were over, sometimes staying to 2-3 o’clock as the locals loved to compete with each other for a trophy. We also had swinging boats which were a good money maker though dad never really liked them he was a picture show man. Every now and then we would meet other shows. It was always nice to meet with families like Roses, Mullins, Courtneys, Cullens, Costellos, Hudsons, McCormacks and lots more but my memory is fading.
Up until about 1953 we had a workman with us to help on the moving days and around the show during the week. There was never a lot for them to do except on the days we were moving. Those that I can remember were nice blokes who usually stayed for 12 months with us before they got bored and left. They got 30 Shillings (€1.88 in Euro today) a week and full board. Mind you their quarters were fairly cramped but the food was good. One fellow used to eat 12 potatoes at a sitting. I remember that we as kids buried his hat when we were at the beach one time. We got into trouble with dad when we could not find it again. Another man who came and went a few times was a gentleman named Ned Lane. He was a hell of a nice guy who was AWOL from the army but it did not worry him. When we visited the army camp at Nad, they knew about him in fact, and didn’t want him back. Over the years we met Ned many times. The last time we met him was in Kiskeam, Co. Cork where he settled down with his wife and child. I remember him telling us his father was a sailor on a ship that went to the Antarctic .
Over the years we had many cars but only two trucks. One was a Fordson model B and the other was a 2 ton Bedford. Now as they did very little mileage, dad hated paying the road tax on them so a few months a year he would dodge paying it. He never got pulled up for it.In 1957 we changed our old Fordson Model B lorry for a Bedford 2 ton (not new) lorry which was quite an upgrade for dad the old model B had a crash gearbox so you had to get revs right to change gears, plus it had a hand operated wiper on it (actually a vacuum operated one, but it never worked well).
That year (1957) we had just finished the ring of Kerry. We left Sneem and pulled into the next place whose name I have forgotten. We set up all the show and had it all ready to go when dad was talking to a local and found out that a polio case had been reported just down the road. Not wanting to be tainted with coming from an area where polio was, we pulled down the show right away and early next morning headed down the Castletown/ Bearhaven peninsula to get far away from it ending up in a little place called Ardgroom where we set up. A week later the Little Duffy’s circus passed by. They were also escaping from the polio outbreak.
Coming into the 1960s.
We had a good time down the peninsula. One little place we were in was called Cahemore. We got patrons who used to row from Dursey island, get a local taxi and come to our show. Some had never seen a movie before. After the show they walked about five miles to the shore and rowed back to the island. They were great people on the island. Next to where we were set up, a travelling creamery would set up to collect the milk from the farmers every morning. They mostly used donkeys and horse carts then and there were not many tractors around there.
Church v show.
Another run in we had was with the church was in Blarney. One evening at about 7.00pm, an hour before the show started there was a knock on the door. Dad opened it and there were two men outside. One said that he was from the priest and that the priest said that the show could not be on that night as he was running a concert in the local hall. The two of them left with a flea in their ear. Later on when the lights went on and doors opened these two men were standing at the gate stopping anyone from entering. For a while there were quite a few people standing outside afraid to pass them until two elderly women said to the crowd “To hell with them we want our fun too”. Then they pushed them aside and came in. We never heard any more about it.
One time we were in a place called Tower outside Cork when our uncle Tommy Mullins was passing with his picture show on his way to Courtbrack. He hated passing a show on moving day as he reckoned it would bring bad luck. Anyway after a short stop he went on his way. Two days later his show burnt down. The Booth, Operating Wagon and all his films were burnt. He was lucky that his living wagons escaped. It was all because his offsider lit a match whilst looking for a film. The head of match flew off and it resulted in the fire. Films were highly flammable. When dad heard about it we packed up and moved up to the same location as uncle Tommy and aunt Vera. Once we were operating, we began to help get him back up and running with help and donations of equipment from other show people. The Booth and a projector wagon were rebuilt and a projector fitted up. A selection of films found their way to him from lots of other folk. Three weeks later he was ready to roll. The sad part was that aunt Vera was expecting their first child and with the drama that took place she lost the baby. At times like this show people come together and helped out even if they had their differences in the past.
Winter could be harsh
We had, up until this time (1957), always travelled all year around. Winter could be hard with storms that made us sometimes get up in the middle of the night and remove the canvas from the roof of the booth to prevent it being blown away. In 1957 dad decided to spend winter in Ballincloher. Co Kerry in a nice location owned by some friends. We operated the show three nights a week for a couple of months. It was great to be in the one place for so long. The family who owned the land were a real old fashioned farming family and had hearts of gold. We had known them for a long time. I remember that once they had two sows ready to give birth and as the weather was very cold they put a divider in their big kitchen and had one sow either side where they gave birth to 24 piglets. The pigs stayed there for two weeks until they were strong enough to be moved to the sheds. Every day the kitchen was scrubbed and cleaned and I don’t remember it smelling. It would not pass today’s standards but these animals were valuable and these litters were money for the family. They had electricity to the house, but the old man would only allow one bulb in the kitchen. The rest of the rooms had oil lamps which was strange, but they were a great family.
Stories & anecdotes.
Over the years dad told us many stories which as kids reckoned were funny, but were not at the time. One was when they were still using horses. He had got a new horse a few week prior to moving the show through Cork city. The new horse was pulling a wagon with dad driving. Just as they were on the bridge over the Lee the horse decided to drop dead. Well there is not much you can do with a dead horse but to call the knackers who took a few hours to get there and remove dead horse at dads expense. Another horsey story was a fellow showman was having a hard time and asked if he could borrow one of dads horses for a few weeks. So horse and tackle were lent to him. A few months later we were in some place and dad was talking to a local fellow who mentioned he had bought a nice horse from a showman plus the tackle. Guess who the showman was …….. the same one we lent the horse to and yes it was the same horse. Lucky for him it was years before we met up with him again and by then dad had forgiven him.
There is so much that one could write about, but it would take forever to put it all into this story. My sister Hilda, was educated at boarding school and went on to teach and then to work in a bank. Denis, my eldest brother, who left the show after a row with dad went to work in Doncaster. My brother Brian left a few years later to go to England, but came back to show business. My young sister Betty Anne, went to England to be with Hilda. My younger brother Hubert John, had a great talent as a painter sign writer but never pursued it. He and I stayed with the show till the end. All of my family I have always loved and will for ever.
The coming of television.
Television, in the early 1960s put an end to the picture show as people no longer had to leave the comfort of their homes to be entertained. In 1963 we joined up with brother Brian to run Bridge Amusements which was owned by the Mac Donald family. We had a really great year. It was such a change from the picture show. The MacDonald’s did not want to run the show so we had it all to ourselves. Plans were made for the following year and our last gig was in Middleton but alas, MacDonald died and left a lot of complication’s behind, too many to be sorted out easily. We decided to give up and move to London, never to return to show business.
One little thing worth mentioning was that in 1966 I was lucky enough to marry my lovely wife Ruth who came from Middleton, the same town that my grandfather collapsed on the stage and died all those years ago. In 1968, my brother Brian moved to Australia. Two years later in 1970, Ruth and I followed suit and that is where we now live and will one day die there. There are many stories that will soon be lost about show people from the 1900’s. Most of the old timers have passed and only a few remain. There are so many stories out there that I have never even heard and lots that I could tell and maybe one day I shall write up a few more. Like lots of things in life, no one really cares until it is too late. So there it is, I was born in a caravan on the village green in Kiskeam, County Cork, twelve thousand miles from where I will die.
Maurice Lyons 22 June 2019
Note: In 1967 the Lyons Roadshow, which was being run by the Mullins family at that stage, was the last show to ever set up in the show site at Esker in the Skehana area. The name on the projector wagon was Ronald Lyons, who was an uncle of Maurice, and Maurice’s mother was from the Mullins family, so there were close family ties between the Lyons and Mullins families. While they were here in Skehana, Sally and Marie (cousins of Maurice) attended Garbally National School and Marie was in my class there. Maurice tells me that later on, Sally married Tom Duffy of Duffy’s Circus and still travels with the Circus. The Mullins family are still in the fun-fare business.
Many thanks and much appreciation goes to Maurice Lyons for writing this truly wonderful story of his life with the family roadshow. We are honoured to have been given the story and allowed the hosting of this historical gem on our website and again our sincere thanks and best wishes go to both himself and his wife Ruth in Australia. Good health and long life to you both.