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Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe - Chapter 10 - That's Entertainment

By Declan Burke
 Damian Mac Con Uladh

Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe

Chapter 10 – That's Entertainment

by Declan Burke

There was no TV. There were really only two radio stations, Radio Ιireann (RΙ) and the BBC Light and in later years, Radio Luxembourg. Telephones were rare and nearly impossible to get, so urgent messages were sent by telegraph.

Mainly middle-aged men frequented public houses (pubs).

So, what did we do for fun?

It would appear we must have been bored to tears, yet I remember those years as full of interest.

Conversation reigned supreme. Talk went on and on and with a little help from the "creathur"* was entertaining into the wee hours.

Card playing was very popular; especially "110" or its cousin "25" or its second cousin once removed "15". Feelings could get very involved over the playing of "15" and tempers flared sometimes. Inappropriate "reneging" would result in brothers not speaking to one another for months on end.

Whist Drives were held regularly to pay for the heating of the school with modest prizes and I did reasonably well at them.

My father told ghost stories that left us afraid to go to bed and yet we begged him for more, knowing full well the horrors of the shadows on the stairs. There was a painting of a religious figure in my bedroom and I was certain its eyes followed me around those nights.

Books and radio

The town library was in the old Workhouse. It was a huge room with a large table in the middle, surrounded by bookshelves. The young peoples section was far down on the left side under a big window with leaded diamond panes of glass and it had several thousand books on display for borrowing. Every chance I got, I renewed my selection and I believe I read every last book there, especially those that contained adventure. I traveled the Southern Seas with "Shark Gotch" who could draw his pistol so fast that the bad guy was dead and the gun back in his shoulder holster before anyone could even see it. (Just a lazy wisp of smoke hung in the air). I raced in chariots in Ancient Rome and I flew with Bigglesworth in the RAF. Jules Verne became my travel guide.

The golf of PG Wodehouse was my sports delight and I recall his hero being emboldened by the fluorescent Plus 4s he wore while he played great golf, at least till he got his inevitable "come-uppance".

I have often wondered what a "mashie-niblic" was.

The BBC had a detective series our radio at home could not receive, so I went next door to Beegan's to hear The Adventures of Dick Barton, a mystery whose explanation was a radio controlled model airplane which nobody had heard of before.

The BBC during the day was nearly all comedy and music, the music being fast paced to encourage factory workers to "up-tempo" their production and the programme was called Music while you Work. (I suppose originality was not at a premium.) I wondered a lot about the audience as they laughed uproariously at very weak comedic material. Arthur Askey was one of the stars.

I was innocent about "canned laughter" in those days.

Broken records

The delicate "78" records were our recordings. They were the ones that frequently developed a crack and the result was the same phrase repeating over and over again, as in "stile Mary, stile Mary, stile Mary, stile Mary", an auditory experience no contemporary audience has experienced, I'll wager. Hence the phrase: "You sound like a broken record". (From the song I'm Sitting on the Stile, Mary). Modern CDs are about as fragile as a hockey puck compared to the old 78s.

John McCormack and Delia Murphy were very popular in Irish households and many a day I hummed Delia's hit:

I'm a Rambler. I'm a Gambler; I'm a long way from home,

And if you don't like me, just leave me alone,

I'll eat when I'm hungry. I'll drink when I'm dry,

And if moonshine don't kill me, I'll live till I die.

Some of the old record players needed to be wound by hand so they could play and had a great big megaphone to reproduce the sound in sufficient volume. You can still see one in "His Master's Voice" logo.

Somehow we survived.

Every Sunday night, at 11.00, Radio Luxembourg, a pirate radio station based in the Grand Duchy played the

If you went straight home after the 8.30 movies you could pull up a chair and follow the fate of the 20 top songs over the week on ‘208' over a cup of tea.

Ghost Riders in the Sky and They call the wind Mariah are titles that spring to mind. They were played in order interspersed with commercials for Brylcreem hair oil and the like. We waited with bated breath to see if a favorite had held its place or if it had slipped, or if it had actually climbed a rung or two.

Radio Ιireann had a very popular series in the form of Question Time which had a huge following. Teams competed with some individual distinction and the quiz was divided into two, four, and six mark questions. The phrase "that's a six mark question" (meaning a "hard" question) still lives on in contemporary Ireland.

Elaborate ruled forms were made up and the score followed closely and the answers discussed intensely. Woe betide anyone who missed a good question or answer while getting a supply of turf for the fireplace on those chilly winter nights when Question Time was airing.

Excellent Plays were produced by RΙ too. Sadly enough, some were based on the scourge of the times, tuberculosis.

The dramatic situation was based on the capriciousness of the disease and the outcome of the hopes and fears of a group in a TB ward was explored. Some would rapidly decline and die and others would get better just as mysteriously. Playwrights had a field day with that.

I remember one sour note from those years, and I will be the first to admit it probably was my own fault.

That was the radio programme called Poetry Anthology with Austin Clarke.

That piece of work did for poetry what the Russian novelists did for popular writing, and it was presented with a voice that could not be more boring than if they actually tried out for the part.

The work presented probably was culturally elevating, (I wouldn't know) but it certainly was "off-putting". I was turned off Irish poetry from that time until I began to read of Seamus Heaney's pencil stub pushing across the paper. On the other hand, we read The Lake Isle of Inisfree at my brother's funeral and I choked up after the first line. The beauty of that poem is stunning: "I will arise and go now …"

In my mind, one of the great sorrows of Irish history was the demotion of the bards. Ireland is probably the only country in the world with so many poets they became a nuisance. As a fault, I can safely say there are more grievous ones.

If you want a good funny read, get Drunken Thady by Michael Hogan, the Bard of Thomond. It can be found on the Internet. This is a long piece of doggerel that he wrote and made his living by when he sold his efforts on the street. No government hand-out, just his talent. I understand they are erecting a statue to him now in modern Limerick.

The hole or the head?

An incident that comes to mind is in regard to a programme called The School around the Corner, based on the song of that name. It was written by Paddy Crosby and the song itself was immensely popular.

Paddy was able to leave his teaching job and become a broadcast entertainer with the show which involved schoolchildren and the format was that Paddy would ask the selected children from various parts of the country about their summer holidays and life at home.

Now, young people of that age are not the most malleable, and what with stage fright, the fact that a summer holiday was an unknown quantity to some and Paddy's city manner, sometimes there was a glitch.

This one programme, Paddy was questioning a country boy in the usual manner and this time the kid spoke with unusual slowness, which appeared to irritate Paddy.

He was putting pressure on him and rushed his questions which had the effect of slowing the responses even more.

He eventually got to the question about what the little lad had done this summer.

Boy: "I … went … to … my …Uncle's … farm".

Paddy: "Did anything happen on the farm"?

Boy: "Yes, … Sir. … Their … cow … got … stuck … in … a … boghole … and … they … had … to … shoot … her".

Paddy summarized: "I see, they couldn't get the cow out and they had to shoot her in the hole".

Boy: "No, … Sir. … They … shot … her … in the head".

This line was removed from the repeat broadcast much to the chagrin of the entire country. We all thought Paddy got his comeuppance there.

The Town Hall had fairly frequent concerts and musicals laid on by (mostly) local talent and visiting artists showed up as well.

One of these was a hypnotist (Harry Golden) and he wowed the natives. "Susceptibles" lay between two chairs for hours on end with only their heels and top of their heads touching and people sat on them like they were a bench. And the post-hypnotic suggestion had some of them crow like cockerels as they stood up to leave. He got his "susceptibles" by suggesting the audience lock their fingers together and those who couldn't unlock were invited to the stage where they were props for the entire performance.


Anew McMaster had a touring Shakespearean company by that name and it showed up once or twice a year and played in a tent on the Fair Green. Ballinaslovians knew their Macbeth and their King Lear and their Midsummer Night's Dream and he had good attendance.

St Joseph's College, Garbally,** put on a yearly Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, unisex of course. At least we learned:

The flowers that bloom in the Spring,

Have nothing to do with the case
tra la

[From The Mikado]

One occasion a bunch of us bicycled to Athlone to see another operetta, The White Horse Inn, which was well worth the effort, if only for the refrain:

And so, I go

to fight the savage foe,

Although I know,

I'm sometimes missed

By the girls I've kissed.

We belted that one out all the way home that moonlit night. The hero was "Sigismund" but the character had a lisp so it was pronounced "Thigithmund".

The Ballinasloe Choral Society (and the indomitable Lavinia "Breezy" Sheridan) was a major cultural force in the town and in those days there was even a Ballinasloe Brass Band, complete with uniforms and recitals on summer evenings, usually beside the Town Hall.

I think our summers in the 50s had better weather than later as we played a lot of tennis at Cleaghmore Lawn Tennis Club, now sadly defunct. I know my parents played there and there is a photograph of them (with me on board) in the summer of 1938. I was born the following November. I know I played tennis many a sunny day and evening there in the 50s.

The Whigham Hall, behind the Presbyterian Church, was made available for table tennis. There were four excellent tables there and the click of the ball and the crack of the paddle went on well into the night. I remember a pot-bellied stove that heated the place those cold nights till a good game with both players ten to twelve feet behind the table attacking and defending for long rallies made them sweat profusely.

The flicks

It cannot be denied that motion pictures were a major part of our entertainment those days. The two picture houses were Swanicks' and the Town Hall.

Swanicks' was a dedicated cinema and the Town Hall was adapted to the occasion and could be adjusted to plays and concerts and dances and various community events. It also contained a club for billiards and snooker with a peep hole from where the current event in the other part of the Town Hall could be viewed.

Swanicks' had the first showing of The Quite Man but the Town Hall had Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Magnificent Obsession, The Ten Commandments and Odd Man Out, possibly because of its larger auditorium.

An unusual aspect of that time concerned the change-over to Cinemascope that occurred. All the projectors had to have the special Cinemascope lens attached and they were not available locally, only in the USA, so travellers back from the States were prevailed on to carry the lens in their hand luggage, presumably for some compensation on their safe arrival on Erin's green shores.

What did I omit? Possibly the handball alley in Derrymullen. It did not get its glass back-wall till the 60s.

And now, the six mark question: Are things better now than then?

* Creathur: usually whiskey but it may refer to any spirits.
** Garbally: a secondary school attended by the author.

Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.

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