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Michael Portillo, in his television train journeys shows, carries around his Bradshaw's Guide of railway timetables and travel notes, to compare modern trains and travels to days of yore.
It has struck me on more than one occasion that a series could be developed, based on Cathal O'Byrne's entertaining book As I Roved Out, to seek out places and stories of interest throughout Belfast's history. As I Roved out was first published in 1946 by the Irish News, and reprinted in 1982 by The Blackstaff Press. It's full title is As I Roved Out: A Book of the North - Being a Series of Historical Sketches of Ulster and Old Belfast. So, for the next few blog posts, I will dip into the book and highlight some of the stories within. I was born and raised in Belfast and O'Byrne's tales and recollections have always informed and entertained me.
I love watching old clips of music hall acts and variety shows. The life of the troupers was far from romantic as they hauled themselves around the nation’s theatre circuits, but to audiences and, eventually, television viewers, there was a ton of entertainment to be enjoyed. Dancers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, ventriloquists, singers, magicians and more did their turns time and time again. Live entertainment was, and probably still is, a tough gig.
I was born too late to see many of the great variety stars, although I did chuckle my way through a Tommy Cooper show at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet in Essex in the late 1970s. One gag concerned a white gate amongst his stage props. He would do a daft trick, tell a silly gag and walk towards the gate, stopping himself from opening it. Trick, gag, gate, trick gag, gate. On and on it all went, with the audience in stitches. Then right at the end of the show, trick, gag and gangly walk to the gate. He paused, looked at the audience, laughed the Cooper laugh, opened the gate, marched through and closed the gate behind him. The audience roared and gave him a standing ovation. Pure magic.
I was reminded of this story in the As I Roved Out chapter, Old Belfast Goes to the Play. I will come to the specific trigger shortly. Cathal O’Byrne wrote about serious theatrical productions, noting that the first mention of a theatre in Belfast was in a 1758 newspaper advertisement for The Drogheda Company of Comedians who were appearing at a place called The Vaults in Ann Street. In 1778, the New Theatre opened in Ann Street, and attracted an array of well-known actors of the day. Shakspear (sic) plays were very popular, although general comedy and farce attracted audiences too.
As far as variety was concerned, there was one particular act that caught my eye, and reminded me of the daftness of Tommy Cooper. At the Market House, Belfast, in 1754, in amongst a ‘celebrated company of rope dancers and tumblers’ was Monsieur Dominique who, according to the playbill, ‘will support himself by one arm on the back of a chair, which hath never been done in Europe by any person but himself. Price 1s 1d. The door will be open at five and the performance begins precisely at seven o’clock. He performs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays each week.’
Cathal O’Byrne concluded: ‘One feels inclined to wonder exactly what the early comers did during the two hours from five to seven, but we are quite sure that Mr. Dominique’s marvellous one arm act on the back of a chair made up for all the tedium of waiting.’
Take a bow, all you players from the past, wherever you are.