The Singing Irish Clown

GALWAY’S OWN Little John Nee returns to the Town Hall Theatre stage next week with Johnny Patterson, The Singing Irish Clown, staged by Barabbas. The play was written by Little John and features himself in the cast along with Roger Gregg and Bryan Burroughs.

The play is a homage to the forgotten genius and extraordinary life of the real-life circus performer Johnny Patterson from Co Clare, who was known as ‘The Singing Irish Clown’.

Starting circus life at 14, Johnny Patterson’s unique talents saw him head-hunted from a regional touring circus by the world famous Cooper and Bailey Circus. He went on to become one of the highest paid entertainers of his time.

At the end of a life marked by great triumphs and great tragedies in equal measure, Johnny returned to Parnell’s Ireland to fulfil his dream of touring his own circus. Moved by the politics of his homeland, the idealistic Johnny penned a song urging Loyalists and Nationalists to put their differences aside. He paid for his political commentary with his life, as an angry and bitter reaction from the crowd turned to violence and retaliation.

With Little John’s characteristic easy mix of humour, poignancy, and lyricism, this beautiful and much-praised show throws light on the captivating magic and the harsh reality of a life devoted to performance and entertainment.

Becoming Johnny Paterson

Ahead of the show’s Galway run, Little John explained how it all came together; “I first came across Johnny Patterson through composer Micheal O’Suilleabhain,” he reveals. “In 1993, Micheal did a big show around the idea of ‘Patterson’s Homecoming’ and he asked Macnas to create the circus element of it and I portrayed Johnny Paterson who I hadn’t heard of at that stage.

“Then, two years ago, Raymond Keane from Barabbas was at a Jack B Yeats exhibition and he saw his painting, The Singing Clown which portrays Johnny. He had the idea that he would like to do a show about it so he approached me, not knowing I had already done something on Johnny Patterson.”

Little John continues with an outline of Patterson’s remarkable life.

“Johnny was born in 1840, Famine-era Ireland, near Feakle,” says Little John. “He was orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. At 14, he joined the British army. While he was in the army he started doing ‘nixers’, performing with travelling troupes at fairs and saved enough money to buy himself out of the army.

“His talent for singing, clowning, and engaging with an audience was immense. He was talent-spotted by Pablo Fanque, who The Beatles sing about in ‘Mr Kite’ – he was a famous black Yorkshire showman. He saw Johnny in Cork, loved him, and brought him to England.

“In England, Johnny was signed up by Cooper and Baileys, the fore-runner of Barnum & Baileys and he went to America and was a big hit. This was the golden age of circus when the great circus trains were travelling across the country and he was also playing the music hall circuit as well, he was a huge star.

“He eventually came back to Ireland and one night at a concert in Tralee he was singing ‘Do Your Best For One Another’ draped by both a Union flag and an Irish flag - this was at the time of Home Rule, a faction fight broke out and he was struck by an iron bar and he died a few days later.”

Patterson composed many songs, such as ‘The Gardens Where The Praties Grow’, ‘The Hat My Father Wore’, and ‘Johnny Dear’.

“His songs were very popular at the time,” Little John observes. “To our ears they might seem mawkish and sentimental yet they continued to be popular with the Irish diaspora up to the 1950s and 1960s. The songs are all that remains of Johnny’s art, the rest is hearsay and stories, so I’m lucky in that I have heard great arrangements of them by people like Mel Mercer and John Dunne that have really allowed them to shine.

“I knew in creating this show one of the things I had to deal with was the songs themselves; they are like the songs you would parody today so I decided it was important to give them a context.

“Yes these were sentimental songs but they were written for people who had left incredible poverty and hardship in Ireland, then moved to slums in England and America, and this guy’s songs were trying to bring some dignity to Irish identity at the time. Yes they may have been sentimental but these were tough, hard, people who were singing them, you wouldn’t say to their face they were mawkish!”

Researching a life

Previous Little John shows, such as The Derry Boat and Rural Electric, were informed by much historical research. Whereas those shows featured fictional protagonists, here Little John is portraying a historical personage – how did that affect his approach to the material?

“With the other shows you’re still dealing with someone’s story; the characters might be fictitious but you’re telling the story of a people and I believe there is a responsibility there to treat that with respect,” he replies.

“With Johnny, yes, I was dealing with an actual living person, with descendants - in fact his grand-daughter is coming over from Liverpool to see the show. Some of the facts about him might seem unpalatable, for instance Johnny was fond of the drink, his wife died in a poorhouse - so you’d wonder if he was rich why did his wife die in a poorhouse, but back in the 1880s there weren’t many hospitals so maybe a fever hospital was the only place she could go. So in the show I ask a lot of questions that I may not have answers for. His story is so fascinating I really wanted to tell it.”

Joining Little John in the show are Bryan Burroughs who plays Snowdrop, for which role he was named Best Supporting Actor in The Irish Times Theatre Awards, and Roger Gregg, of Crazy Dog Audio Theatre, who was shortlisted for an Irish Times Theatre Award for the play’s soundscape.

Johnny Patterson, The Singing Irish Clown plays the Town Hall on Monday May 10 and Tuesday 11 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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