Chapter 15 - Circuses and Other Interesting Performances
Kathleen walked home from Agnes' house with the Whooping Cough Cure knowing Duffy's Circus was in town. It was a source of delight to young and old. For the three nights and days of its stay the Circus was always full. The field was next door to the Police Barracks and an easy walk for the O'Hara children. She spent all her time watching the caged animals.
"Imprisoned", she thought, "When they should be roaming the jungles free". It would have been a different story if one of them had got loose!
[ Chapter 16 ] or [ Table of Contents ]
There was a lot of banter between the showmen and the customers as they peered into the caravans with their highly polished brasses and watched acrobats practising their stunts. That evening Kathleen took her three younger sisters and elder brother Patrick to the Circus. Seamus was too young and he had a touch of Whooping Cough. When they arrived at the Ring it was empty but a band played beautiful music. Soon the tent was full and the Ring was filled with artistes. A girl acrobat swung into the air in spangled tights and a spangled skirt. Up there, under the big top, among the glaring lights, she shone like a star, twisting and tumbling and swinging from great heights. She won enthusiastic applause and a murmur of ecstasy escaped Kathleen's lips. Looking down from that great height that young lady knew she had an audience at her feet and gloried in the applause.
There and then she decided. This was her burning ambition. She wanted to be a Circus acrobat and a performer. Her ambition was put into practice in their large and spacious loft which stretched out over their outhouses in the yard. After much persuading, her Daddy rigged a rope swing to the timber rafters high under the roof. The loft had a beautiful polished wooden floor which Kathleen and her friends kept bright and shiny. Her mother kept complaining,
"Here we are again, short of polish. Will that one ever get any sense? Polishing a loft instead of the house indeed!"
To reach the loft they had to summon up courage and climb a fourteen bar ladder standing against the loft wall. The fourteenth step was in line with the loft door. If the door was opened it was impossible to get in and those not allowed the privilege of admission were obliged to climb down again.
The swing hung in the middle of the loft with a window at the far end and overlooking the garden gate that led into the field behind. When Kathleen announced at School that there would be a concert in their loft and it would cost them a halfpenny if they wished to come, she didn't expect a full house but a full house she got. The boys and girls came streaming across the field and along the road, all carrying their ha'pennies for admission. The boys pushed ahead of the girls saying they wished to be sure of the front seats when Kathleen did her aerial display.
These were impromptu shows with never a rehearsal and only one Star! For the first show her brothers and sisters helped her to decorate the stage area with hawthorn. When she saw this, their mother was very agitated.
"Don't you know it's bad luck to bring hawthorn indoors?"
"It's only play acting Mammy and we'll soon get rid of it".
Just the same the hawthorn was brought in and used to separate the audience from the stage.
The "Dressing Room" was curtained off at the back by her mother's old red curtains. All her mother's old clothes and some not so old were taken surreptitiously to the loft at decent intervals and placed in the Dressing Room. When these were felt to be insufficient, some of their special friends in the audience were inveigled into smuggling out some of their old curtains and clothes.
Kathleen and some of her companions danced and sang a popular number, aided by an enthusiastic audience. This was always followed by a solo song by Kathleen. After this, Aileen, who was "Master of Ceremonies" would announce,
"Now Boys and Girls, you are about to witness a most breathtaking display performed on the swing by Kathleen O'Hara".
This brought tremendous applause since many of the audience were of the opposite sex, a fact which had not entirely escaped Kathleen's notice. She wore her mothers best blue silk panties, with a ribbon of elastic tied round her middle to keep them up. These were always smuggled out specially for each performance. She was aware this spectacle prompted a number of the boys to clap their hands in great anticipation. She loved the applause and showing off came naturally to her.
She had no fear of heights whatsoever and her aerial display and acrobatic skills were always a big success. She swung herself up close to the rafters and with one leap caught the rafters above her with two hands and waited for the swing to return to her. Another leap and she was safe on the swing again. While swinging, she tumbled over and over and twisted her body while her head hung downwards. She even managed to hang from one foot completing a corkscrew movement with her head brushing the floor. She finished her act bowing to an enraptured audience. She felt good! She was the Star of the show and the looks on some of the boy's faces told her she was pretty too. They clapped and shouted their applause while Kathleen took many bows and Aileen ushered them from the loft and down the ladder.
On just one occasion the concert was marred. Aileen was an angel. Kind in spirit and heart, and, some might have said, long suffering. One day she arrived at the loft door and knocked. It wasn't easy as her arms were full of clothes and she found it hard to balance. Kathleen was in the middle of one of her songs and interruptions spoiled her act. She jumped over one half of the audience sitting cross legged on the floor, made a rush for the door, saw who was there and quickly closed it in her sister's face. Next she heard screams coming from the bottom of the ladder. It was only then she realised what she had done. There was poor Aileen, lying hunched on the floor, clothes scattered all around her and her cries could be heard a mile away. A contrite and very upset Kathleen picked her sister up. By then their mother had appeared on the scene and a dejected Kathleen forgot all about her audience and followed them through the Wash House and into the kitchen.
Her mother's face had gone scarlet, her concern showing in the way she cradled Aileen,
"Kathleen O'Hara you're the scourge of my life. You could have broken your sister's back or even killed her. Your cavorting and play acting will be the death of me yet".
Aileen was still sobbing and wasn't play-acting. If she was hurt, Kathleen realised she would have lost her best M.C.
"I'm sorry Mammy. I didn't mean it and I'm willing to take me punishment now".
"Indeed you won't my girl. Your father will have something to say about this when he gets home tonight. Play-acting indeed! What a pity you didn't join the Circus when it was in town and give us some peace".
Their mother could read Kathleen like a ha'penny book. She still lived in her dream world where fashion and acting in all its variety and form dominated her life. Since the Loft was now out of bounds, her own house was the stage. Each room held its own enchantment for her and it was quite normal for Mrs O'Hara to walk into a room and interrupt her act. When she dressed soberly and wore a hat she was on her way to Church and on a few occasions Mrs O'Hara was invited to attend Mass in one of her bedrooms. Here Kathleen made a little altar with two lit candles and a bunch of wild flowers to give atmosphere, just like Rosie's altar. When Kathleen knelt down in pious supplication with her hands joined and her eyes elevated to heaven, what could Mrs O'Hara do but follow suit?
When she chose to wear a long red evening gown with high-heeled shoes, her brothers and sisters were invited to attend the ball. Since the O'Hara brood had reached six, it wasn't easy to find high-heeled shoes for all the four girls. Kathleen solved that one. She informed Aileen she could have her shoes.
"And what are you going to wear?"
"Don't you trouble yourself any more Aileen. Sure I can wear Mammy's new shoes. I've got bigger feet than you".
Mrs O'Hara's new shoes were commandeered. They didn't fit as well as she expected but they were gorgeous black suede high-heeled shoes that had never seen the light of day let alone town or country roads. Their soles were still shiny and unstained and the shoes nestled side by side in their new box. She tried them on but found that when walking up the stairs she was inclined to leave one behind her. This quite spoiled the dignity of the occasion and it was an irritating thing to happen but she soon solved the problem. With a big four-inch nail she bored a hole in each side of the shoes alongside the instep. With great ingenuity she proceeded to put through the holes a black shoelace which she tied across the instep.
"This will surely keep them on".
She took to the road where she paraded up and down before the neighbours. She held her head high and the skirt of her red frock was held just high enough to expose the new shoes. It was only when she saw Sergeant Boyd coming along she took to her heels. He had an awful habit of laughing at her.
She told Aileen,
"I don't suppose he'd ever think of buying his wife a nice pair of shoes. Anyway I'll not have him laughing at me when I'm out on a mannequin parade. He can go to the dogs and leave me to do me modellin'".
When Sunday morning came there was great commotion in the kitchen when her mother decided to wear her new shoes. It wasn't often they heard their mother's voice raised in anger and their Daddy doing his best to placate her.
"One actress in the family is one too many".
Her mother's heated words stopped Kathleen in her tracks. She was half way down the stairs, ready for Mass, when she realised she was the cause of the trouble. She rushed back up the stairs to escape punishment, with Aileen sharp on her heels.
"Daddy wants to see you downstairs immediately".
That was a command which had to be obeyed. Aileen held the door open for her as she faced her tear-strained mother, still clutching the shoebox.
Kathleen's gaze followed her mother's action as she produced the black court shoe compete with black lace and those ugly holes made by the nail, staring at her.
"Kathleen, how could you do this to your mother?"
She gave her Daddy her own special look of pleading, and whispered,
"I was only playing". And it worked!
Her Daddy turned to her mother
"Mammy it's not the end of the world. I'll see to it you get your new shoes in time for next Sunday's Mass".
The scene was over. Smiles radiated from all their faces as they stepped out of the house and walked briskly to Church.
From time to time their young nursing Aunt sent them parcels and they were greatly appreciated by the children, though no doubt intended for their mother. Their Aunt was a snappy dresser and the clothes she sent were useful as well as being a delight to Kathleen who tried everything on. However, she always found she needed to grow a bit more. Her mother cut a skirt from the top of a beautiful blue frock. The material was as light as a feather and gossamer fine. Impatient as usual, she just had to try that skirt on, held up with a piece of elastic and some pins.
"You're really dressed up to kill!" her mother remarked, as she set off for Martin's shop, wheeling the pram, to collect their four loaves. She covered the skirt with a light overcoat.
She felt just as if she was walking on air and every so often gave a wee tug to the skirt so that it dropped slightly below the coat. She meant to make sure the neighbours could see the beautiful skirt. She marched down the Culloville Road, pushing the pram and felt she was walking like a mannequin. She passed the Police Barracks, where she knew there was a new young policeman and crossed The Square to Martins, their old neighbours. On arrival, she was invited in and sat down to a glass of limeade, while Cissie and Dolly made a great fuss of the baby. Cissie asked,
"Have you done any more cures lately?"
"No I doubt if I ever will again. There's too much competition around".
When they had parcelled the four loaves, she placed them on the front of the pram and started back across The Square, with their voices still ringing in her ears,
"Don't be so long until you come back and see us again. We've missed you all". Kathleen turned her head to reply and had the uneasy feeling that something wasn't quite right. She could feel a movement around her knees and looking down, saw her beautiful skirt fall around her ankles. There was no way she could pull the skirt up again with her overcoat on and she dare not take it off. There she was standing in the middle of The Square. It was too much! In the end, she stepped out of the skirt while her cheeks flamed. She heard Dolly call,
"Hadn't you better come back for a minute Kathleen and re-adjust your dress?" It was said so politely too. She turned slowly round and gazed at the ladies standing in the shop door smiling, picked up the skirt from the ground, manoeuvred the big pram round and returned to the Martins. She thought to herself,
"I hope auld McCluskey didn't notice me downfall or I'll never live it down".
Cissie and Dolly were kindness itself. Cissie escorted her into the back room, just beyond the men's bar and Dolly held on to the pram. Kathleen was seething inside and her embarrassment grew as she had to pass a few men holding up the bar. She could tell they had seen what happened from their grins and smiling eyes. Her eyes focused on the window and the yard beyond. She was relieved there weren't any men out there. Nevertheless modesty insisted she pulled across the curtain.
"Thank God Willie McIlroy wasn't around to see me disgrace". She thought, as Cissie closed the door behind her. Then in bitter disgust she stamped on the once beautiful but now obnoxious skirt that had caused her so much embarrassment.
She took off the coat and put the skirt on again as best she could, this time making sure the elastic was tight and enduring and took a few deep breaths to regain her composure ready to face the world outside.
There was a knock on the door.
"Are you ready Kathleen? The babbie's getting restless".
The door opened for her. She almost ran through the bar and made a quick exit.
"That's right Miss Prim. Up to your auld tricks again! Some mannequin you'll make with your skirt twisted round your ankles! You'd be just right for the stage. God help us all".
She was mortified. So he was there after all. Why couldn't he find another pub to drink in.
"Mind your own business, Willie McIlroy".
Where on earth did he come out of? It was as though he had eyes in the back of his head.
She walked across The Square, ignoring the baby's crying while she pondered over this latest mishap.
"Why was I such a fool to put it on in the first place? Why didn't me Mammy stop me wearing it?"
She walked home passing Martin's field full of yellow turnips. This field was regularly invaded by a number of children including the O'Haras. They picked their turnips and then had the audacity to go back into Martin's yard. A large iron gate opened into the yard where chickens roamed. Pigs were kept in a sty and cattle in the stalls of the cow shed. There were pieces of machinery lying around including a turnip slicer. They sliced their turnips and enjoyed eating them.
Kathleen reached home and leaving the pram by the front door, went inside to tell her tale of woe to her Mammy. She couldn't see her mother but could hear her. She opened the door to the kitchen where the noise seemed loudest and there was her Mammy standing on top of the table screaming her head off while looking towards the yard.
"What are you screaming for Mammy and why are you standing on the........?" She didn't finish the question but followed her mother's eyes looking towards the yard. Then she saw it. A great big rat moving around close to their back door. She picked up the broom and gave chase and it disappeared down the back field towards the river.
When she got back, her mother had returned to normal and was no longer standing on the table.
"Imagine you being afraid of a rat Mammy. I suppose you'd be afraid of a mouse too".
"Kathleen you know I can't stand them. They only bring dirt and disease with them".
With that little incident, she quite forgot to tell of her own discomfiture with the skirt.
Her Mammy settled down to knitting, working the needle very fast. Kathleen asked her what the hurry was about.
"It will take me all my time to get you lot fitted out with woollen jumpers before the winter arrives".
"You must be expecting a cold one then".
"You know in these parts you never can tell what to expect and if you had kept your eyes open all through the autumn you would have seen all the signs of a bad winter ahead and that's not all old wives tales either".
Kathleen soon discovered she had never spoken a truer word.