Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Street Entertainer

The Street Entertainer
As a young lad growing up in Boyle in the 1940s and 50s the arrival in town of the street singer or showman could halt the shopper in his tracks and bring traffic to a halt. It was a treat of sorts when one of these colourful characters dropped in to display his hidden talents or skills to the local community. There was the Ballad Singer, the Whistler, the Preacher, the Strong Man, the Blade Man, the Bargain King, the Huckster, the Three-Card-Trick man, the Man-with-no-Name and others; all part of an old world order and tradition long gone and forgotten.

The first on my prize list would have to be our own ‘singing bird’ and town crier Ned Kelly, who like the perennial wet weather never left us till the Good Lord called him as heaven’s town crier. Ned and his bell were inseparable as he walked the streets of Boyle proclaiming the news of great events about to happen such as a political rally, Duffy’s Circus, McMahon’s Carnival, the Agricultural Show, a football match in the Abbey Park and much more. Ned was also good for a song, and particularly if he felt a thirst coming on. “Thirst can be a terrible thing,” Ned would say “if it’s not quenched”; and he knew that his many friends in Boyle would never allow their town crier to die of thirst. His repertoire amounted to two popular songs of the time, ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer Do’ and ‘A Bunch of Violets’. The voice of any ballad singer can vary in quality and tone and Ned was no exception, at times suffering the ignominy of a drop in pitch or losing key. But that never stopped his many admirers following on with their customary generosity. To the people of Boyle, Ned wasn’t just a town crier; he was the bearer of good news.

Another entertainer who paid seasonal visits to Boyle showed off his style of funnelling his voice to the audience by cupping his hand to his mouth to enhance or strengthen the melody. It was strange to watch, a little funny even, but must have paid dividends as he kept coming back offering more of the same!  Again, there was a strolling player who whistled his way through town with a unique style of whistling or warbling, an early but amateur version of the great Roger Whittaker who graced the world stage decades later with his wonderful rich voice and whistling expertise. This man, with his little canine friend tagging along behind him, reminded me of a 78 record I played regularly as a child at home (on ‘His Masters Voice’). The name of the record was ‘The Whistler and his Dog’ and the reverse side was ‘The Warblers Serenade’, two favourites of mine I’d play again and again. Oh, childhood memories!

Next to take the stage was The Preacher Man or Evangelist who brought the Good News to the very heart of the market place. The Rev. Gentleman stood on a chair to connect better with his congregation and with a great booming voice spoke about God, Heaven and Redemption. The man had little need of a megaphone to make himself heard; his voice filled every nook and cranny of the Crescent like a latter day Billy Graham, the great American Evangelist. Then came the super salesman who set up shop in the shadow of the Market Yard. As kids we nicknamed him ‘Billy Bassett’ of the Liquorice Allsorts fame due to the variety of bric-a-brac he brought with him. One item that captured the young imagination was a pack of Macs/Smile blades that showed on one side of the wrap a guy with a fierce angry look and a dirty grisly beard and on the other side the same guy sporting a beautifully clean face and a charismatic Macs/Smile. The packet of five blades cost the enormous price of a shilling, which in those times could get a young lad into the Abbey Cinema on a Sunday for the Matinee. More happy memories! Among the myriad of items this guy had for sale was a powerful superglue that could stick anything together. Even the fingers on your hand could be in danger. The strange substance had first to be heated over a flame before use and boy could it stick things! This bargain king would give an exhibition of its hidden strength by smashing cups, dinner plates and other items on the ground and sticking them together again. The mysterious substance needed the wearing of gloves when using it and carried a notice to ‘keep out of the hands of children’. History, they say, keeps repeating itself!

There is a particular rambling tradesman I choose to remember as Ozymandias ‘the traveller from an antique land’. He hit town pushing a type of rickshaw fitted with a great circular sharpening stone that looked capable enough to sharpen the sword of Damocles or the French guillotine. The little man, I thought, had a kind of oriental look about him but spoke perfect English and had no problem relating with his customers. He parked his strange machine on wheels (not by accident) in the very shadow of the Shambles Yard which was a daily hive of activity. As news spread that the blade man was in town the customers came running: hoteliers, grocers, butchers, barbers, housewives; all taking their place in a queue with their respective ‘tools of the trade’ to have them restored to their former greatness. At the end of what seemed a massive day’s trading, Ozymandias took to the highways again. The extraordinary little man must literally have clocked up thousands of miles in his lifetime, he and his strange contraption on wheels having made their appearance in town after town in County’s Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo over the years. 

A unique character again who paid a regular visit to town was a man named ‘Dan the Street Singer’. Dan graced the town dressed in an old shower-proof coat, a battered hat and a belt tied around his waist; all for effect. He could easily have been imitating the lifestyle of the famous Irish writer Padraig O’Connaire, the man who rambled the roads of the West of Ireland writing short stories about life there. ‘Dan the Street Singer’ however had a deep love for the Irish ballad rather than stories, so he was happy to cycle through town after town during the summer singing Irish songs, ‘the songs our fathers sang’. Some may regard the man’s obsession as a form of eccentricity, and if it was then what a wonderful way to share one’s love of music and it worked for Dan with his fine tenor voice reminiscent of a Brendan O’Dowda or a Frank Paterson. An added attraction of his was the quaint little holdall on wheels he had linked up to his bicycle fitted with an acoustic system, and no doubt food and wine to sustain him on his journey through the highways and the byways of the west.

Of all the strolling players and entertainers I recall from childhood, my personal favourite has to be a man who made his entrance to Boyle Town cracking a large whip; boy could he crack that whip! The bad guys that lashed poor Clint Eastwood almost to death in one of his famous western films of the 1970s wouldn’t be in the same class. His noisy arrival could be heard way in the distance long before he was seen in the flesh. From the four corners of the town the young (myself included) came running to the Crescent to see this extraordinary character; ‘The Man with no Name’ we called him.  Seasoned shoppers were known to leave goods behind them in the rush to see this guy and even the dogs on the street raced for cover from the terrifying sound of the whip. The great open space that is the Crescent, with its stately Courthouse and elegant Clock Tower (better known as the Town’s Clock), was the setting for this class operator. For the people of Boyle, the Crescent was the epicentre for all great events like political rallies, carnivals, outdoor entertainments and celebrations of different kinds. It was Boyle’s answer to The Forum in ancient Rome. Imagine the Courthouse as the great centre of power with its impressive array of steps leading up to it and the spacious area in front where the mighty Caesar might sit on his lofty throne to pay homage to his warring generals returning from the wars in Gaul or North Africa; or maybe rub shoulders with the great legal eagles of the day as they made their way to The Senate House, or be seen in the company of the most distinguished eagle of them all Cicero as he strode Toga clad to his Chambers. This was the Crescent in Boyle.

The Man with no Name, having arrived at his place of destiny, stripped to the waist to show off his great brawny arms and muscular chest. He then unfolded a table on which he spread a range of steel implements, the man’s stock in trade. First to hand was a heavy steel poker that he bent in two, almost in slow motion, and with gritted teeth gradually restored to its original shape. This was only a sweetener or a beginning of what was to follow. He followed on by bending not one but several six-inch nails to prove he was genuine. Next he hammered several nails into a length of timber and with clenched teeth and a fiendish expression extracted them one by one. The gathered crowd saw and believed. A glass of water and a short pause followed as he got himself ready for his next act which was even more fascinating. He announced to the crowd that he was going to swallow a length of chain he had spread in front of him. Before commencing he called for a volunteer from the crowd to come forward and grip his bared stomach or solar plexus so the volunteer could actually feel the links of the chain in the pit of his stomach. Having extracted the chain he next pulled a sword from its sheath or scabbard and slowly and cautiously swallowed it out of sight, all eighteen inches of it. Shock appeared on every face in the crowd. The next act was something new again and would require the assistance of a young boy. One promptly stepped forward as cool as you like (how I admired the lad’s courage) in front of the large crowd. A bicycle was wheeled into the arena and the boy was put sitting on the saddle of it and told to hold on tight. The strong man then lifted boy and bicycle above his head balancing both on his chin for a number of minutes having taken away both his hands. The applause afterwards could have made soundwaves among the deceased of Assylinn graveyard. Then followed the final act, the Crème De La Crème; the one that would not easily be forgotten. The act involved the use of a large flat rock heavier and thicker than a flagstone (placed there in advance).

Once again a volunteer was invited from the crowd. The ‘Man with no Name’ let it be known that this volunteer would have to be a brave man, a man of courage, a man who would not cower or pull back at the last moment! After a lengthy pause a man stepped forward. The ‘Man with no Name’ prostrated himself on the ground on his back with the volunteer placing the large rock on his naked chest. He then lifted a sledge hammer above his head and brought it down full force on the flagstone which broke into several pieces. Silence and disbelief showed on the face of the crowd as they wondered and waited to see if the man would rise again!  Seconds passed, silence hung heavy in the air accompanied by numerous intakes of deep breath. Then suddenly, the ‘Man with no Name’ moved, stood up, dusted himself down and smiled at the crowd. The show had come to a happy ending.

Christy Wynne


  1. I always read your stories another brilliant one .Gerry.

  2. Christy, You being a townie would remember all those characters. I do remember Ned Kelly.

  3. Such wonderful stories Christy. You should publish in a book for us exiles who can remember some of the wonderful events and character