The touring variety and repertory - Happy Days in hard times

The youth of today, may find it difficult to understand the rate of change in Ireland since the Second World War. Advances in communications, travel, living standard, and education have been enormous. More change occurred in that one generation than would normally occur over three generations elsewhere in the developing world. One wonders what kept people going; what kept their spirits alive in draconian food rationed days of little prospect, unemployment, censorship, fast and abstinence and "do as you're told". What warmed their spirits when the going was tough and helped them to think for themselves and start shedding the manners and habits of an enslaved past.

Days of Fast and Abstinence
It is doubtful if "the powers that be" in the early 1940's understood that for rural communities, a desirable social life was just as necessary as a tolerable economic one. Catholic Church rules clamped down on "company keeping" and frowned on the holding of certain entertainment functions; "fast" meant eating only one full meal and two collations (snacks) per day; "abstinence" meant "abstaining from meat" which presented little difficulty for some people who couldn't afford meat at the best of times. People were forbidden to eat food between midnight and receiving Holy Communion the following day; stomachs were slack; unemployment and emigration were major problems.

Hard times with an occasional remedy
The 1940's were days of compulsory tillage, candle light, paraffin oil lamps, margarine, lard and energy crisis. In our mainly agricultural economy with emphasis on self sufficiency, the future looked bleak for young and old. People worked hard and as summers wore thin without a holiday break, countenances of many folk grew austere. County folk needed cheering up. And occasional remedy was supplied by Touring Variety and Repertory Players on visits to towns and villages, playing in Court Houses, Warehouses, Lofts and reception halls of old County homes. They were warmly welcomed in County Cavan, renewing acquaintances on revisits to various locations, playing in an assortment of venues from Duffy's loft in Shercock to the new Saint Brigid's Hall in Gowna. Their well produced professional productions presented suitable material in entertainment deprived areas, and pictured for rural folk worlds outside their own and refilled their reservoirs of natural humour. The Touring Players, no doubt, had difficult lives flitting from one location to another, some dying young, but like good professionals, they helped put smiles on doleful faces on a few occasions each year.
Let the Show begin.
In the Spring decor
The actors pitch their tents
In a break of light
Begin their play.
H. Pinter

The Happy Players
Red neon lights at the entrance to Duffy's loft in East Cavan blinked "Happy Players" and enticingly reminded folk on way to evening devotions of the Variety Show later that evening. The Happy Players presented light entertainment and always commenced their shows with the entire cast on stage cheerily singing their opening numbers; their attractively clad young ladies danced as they sang -
Happy days are here again.
The skies above are clear again.
So let's tell the world about it then.

All together - shout it now!
There's no one who can doubt it now!
So let's tell the world about it now!
Happy days - are here again.

Is everybody happy here tonight?
Everybody full of gaiety?
Everybody happy gay and bright
Just as everybody aught to be?

Never let trouble, trouble you
For if you do you'll soon be turning grey
What's the use of worry?
Life is far too short
So join in this sweet refrain -

Here we are again
As happy as can be
All good pals and
Jolly good company.
Never mind the weather
Never mind the rain
As long as we're together
Ups she goes again
La de - la de la
La de - la de la
All good pals and jolly good company

The Carrickfords - Opening Scene
The stage bell rang, and the lights went out in the auditorium of Duffy's loft; the audience hushed as the stage curtains were slowly drawn revealing a drawing room scene in semi-darkness; barely visable was a grandfather clock which immediately commenced chiming; on the sixth chime, a sleeping male figure in a armchair the audience snored slightly as he commenced awakening; a newspaper fell from his lap as he stirred; on the tenth chime, the figure moved and was fully awake and looking around indicated annoyance. Speaking towards the right, he angrily called out, "Bella! Bella come heah"! A female figure half entered and in a timid faltering voice said, "Yes dear, you called?" The seated figure angrily snapped, "Switch on the light". She meekly said, "Yes dear," and moved towards the switch on the back wall; and brilliant light shone from a ceiling chandelier, fully revealing the two characters in an expensively furnished carpeted room, both impeccably dressed, he in a smart suit and she in a blue evening gown.
The silent attentive audience had just witnessed the opening scene in Murder in Thornton Square, produced and acted by the Nicholas Carrickford Repertory Company.

The Carrickford Company included Nicholas (father), and sons Bobby, (later a TV actor), and Jimmy, and also, Noel Dalton (brother of Louis Dalton, the playwright) who as well as acting lead roles in dramas, also recited a monologue each night during the interval. His repertoire included The green Eye of the Little Yellow God, Christmas Eve in the Workhouse, Dangerous Dan McGrew, and the Cremation of Sam McGee. Attired in dress suit, one hand in jacket pocket, thumb prominent (like Prince of Wales), and with stage lights dimmed, he delivered a monologue each night, in a strong baritone voice, to an appreciative audience. His monologues had dramatic opening verses, such as, The Cremation of Sam MaGee which commences -
There are strange things done in the Midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold
The artic trails have their secret ways
That would make your blood run cold
The northern lights have seen quare sights
But the strangest they ever did see
Was that night on the barge by Lake Labarge
I cremated Sam MaGee.

Noel Dalton played lead roles in the Dramas, such as, Murder in the Red Barn, East Lynn, and Springtime in the Rockies (written by a member of the Company). The acting ability of the leading lady was much admired; they were excellent combination. To keep the local "Holy Mary's" happy, a play with a religious theme, such as The Song of Bernadette might be produced. A night's programme for the Carrickfords usually commenced with a 3 act drama, after which bows were taken by the cast, the two protagonists - perhaps, the beautiful "murdered" lady and the "murderer" holding hands as they came centre stage - to applause of the audience; then followed some light entertainment, usually a monologue while scenes were prepared for the final item of the night - a humourous sketch which sent everyone home happy.

The O'Reilly Company
The O'Reillys' produced a mixture of Drama and Variety. One of their drama productions was Willie Reilly and his Colleen Ban. They had good singers, including a very good baritone whose songs included, The Miller's Daughter. Popular with the teenagers was their young Country and Western singer; dressed in a white cowboy outfit, high black boots with silver spurs, he sang lonesome songs, to his Guitar accompaniment; the words of one were -
And she was only seven
When she was called to Heaven
That little kid sister of mine.
God decided she was meant for a star
And so he sent for
That little kid sister of mine.
They needed a new star up yonder
And they couldn't find a brighter light to shine
God decided she was meant for a star
And so he sent for
That little kid sister of mine.
The words of his equally sad encore were -
They cut down the old pine tree
And they hauled it away to the mill
To make a coffin of pine
For that sweetheart of mine.
They cut down the old pine tree.
But she aint alone in her dreams tonight
Cause there my heart will always be
For they cut down my heart
When we drifted apart
And they cut down that old pine tree.
When the troop returned the following year, his young admirers sadly learned that he had died.

Charles Borone's Travelling Cinema
An Italian gentleman, Charles Borone, together with his wife, two daughters and son provided Cinema plus variety shows. He had his own marquee with boarded sides which he erected in appropriate locations, such as, Fair greens. Power and light was supplied by an old generator. Admission was 4 old pence. His films such as, The Four Feathers; Roy Rangers featured in his Westerns (Indians always waited for him to finish his song and guitar strumming before attacking); at the interval his wife sang and played the accordion and his children performed acrobatics. Occasionally his generator stopped and consequently, the film stopped and the lights failed, but power was quickly restored. These unscheduled moments of darkness were enjoyed by the boys at the back who took the opportunity to throw clods at those seated in the front rows; an ideal target was the local schoolmistress. His shows were popular in East Cavan, particularly in the Mountain Lodge area.

Legacy of the Touring players
As soon as the Touring Players departed, children commenced "producing" drama and variety shows in the back yards and sheds for the benefit of their pals. They imitated the Travelling Players, singing their opening numbers and mimicking their Master of Ceremonies at the end of performances, with the words "Thank you for your attendance here to night. Now tomorrow night, we have a complete change of programme. A very good play entitled The School Burnt Down, (cheers from audience), followed by a hilarious sketch. If you enjoyed our performance here tonight, tell your friends about it, and encourage them to come along tomorrow night and enjoy an evening of superb entertainment" these rural children thespians later participated in school plays for the Cavan Drama festival.

Rural Schools successes at Cavan Drama Festival
The first Cavan Drama festival was held in March 1946. The competition that year for Irish Plays by children under 14 years combined both urban and rural schools. Shercock National School were the first rural school into the winners' enclosure being placed third behind urban school winners, Killashandra Girls School and the Poor Clare Convent School, Cavan; the gold medal for best performance by a boy who went to Shercock's Seamus O'Sullivan and the the gold medal for best performance by a girl went to Seosaimhin Ni Chairagain of Crubany N.S (rural). In 1947, schools were divided into urban and rural sections; Killashandra won the urban section and the gold medal was awarded to their Nancy Braiden. The cup for rural schools was won by Shercock, and their Kathleen McCabe took the gold medal. In 1948, the coveted GAA cup for rural schools went to Farnham National School, with a certificate of merit awarded to their Thomas Simpson for his performance as the Leprechaun; second place went to Crobany, and the medal for best individual performance was won by to their Mary T.Smith.

Yes! Rural audiences had seen great productions by the Touring Players which encouraged a high standard of local drama for young and old.

Some years later, I attended a Drama in a major city theatre; I thought the performance good but I was somewhat disappointed. I afterwards realised that subconsciously I was comparing it with the high standard of some of The Touring Players of my boyhood years; back then, we country kids had witnessed the best but we weren't aware of it at the time. A great debt is due to the Strolling Players of rural Ireland.