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Page 6 of 15
Of Concerts and Movies, i.e. Pictures
"Now measure from the Commons down to each end of the Purt,
Round the Abbey, Moy and Knather--I wish no one any hurt."
One man who had learned early in life how to cope successfully with worldly pressures was Patrick Slevin who lived in the West Port and was engaged in the road transportation business. His fleet, of which the Ford Motor Company was to boast in later years, consisted of one Model T lorry which he drove daily between Ballyshannon and Sligo, carrying goods and stuff of all kinds, but seldom any passengers. The reason for the latter was simple. The truck never exceeded more than 10 miles per hour, in fact frequently less, giving rise to the inevitable story of the man on the road who, on being offered a lift, replied, "Ah, no thanks, Paddy. Sure I'm in a hurry. I'll walk!" Thus and forever more was Paddy dubbed "Paddy go Aisy", a simple jibe at the reckless speed with which he drove.

It suited Paddy, who was a gentle man by nature, known to every mortal soul along the twenty-six mile route that he travelled twice a day, and many of whom he obliged by picking up various bits and pieces from one house on one farm, and depositing them as requested, some miles further along the way.

When I was growing up he had settled into middle age, a heavily built man, not tall, with powerful arms and shoulders, and dressed always in overalls and "perpetual" cap, an adjective often associated with votive candle lamps in churches, or commemorative gas flames in public places. But whereas candles and gas flames in public places are apt to fail for one reason or another, wind or a sudden draft, Paddy's Model T continued to run, day after day, week after week, year after year, until it achieved legendary status, and the Ford Company made much of the engine's durability. In fact the company, happy to publicize its longevity, made "Paddy go Aisy" a nationally known personality, and, for free, replaced the original engine with a new one.

Paddy kept using his old lorry, and covered the old engine with a tarpaulin to protect it from the elements, a tarpaulin he would lift, almost with reverence, to display the old engine to many a visitor who had heard of it and wanted to see it.

In his prime Paddy was a very strong man, and had the proof of his strength commemorated by a public plaque on a wall in the Port of Sligo, attesting to a prodigious feat of weight-lifting that had astounded the local dockers.

Ford was proud of "Paddy go Aisy", and so too was Ballyshannon, his native town.

But, of all its inhabitants, Patrick Slevin seemed unlikely to achieve lasting recognition outside the boundaries of his native land. Life, however, contains many surprises. Lo and behold the sheer joy on opening "The Economist" magazine of October 21, 1995, and discovering on page 71 a photograph of the exterior of a public house somewhere in Europe, its name gloriously proclaiming it to be the "Paddy Go Easy". The title underneath the photograph read "Looks almost real".

Apparently Guinness of Ireland are supplying new turnkey pub operations, with "authentic Irish heritage themes", to entrepreneurs all over the world. If only they could convey the authentic "Aisy" of the Donegal accent. "Almost real" is right!

First adopted by Ford, and now by Guinness, "Paddy go Aisy's" reputation rests secure for generations to come.

There were others of that particular Slevin family of whom the Purt, in general, was very proud. Paddy had two charming daughters, aspiring thesbians, who graced many a local concert hall and variety stage. Their successes were mainly achieved in the Rock Hall which, prior to the construction of not one but two cinemas, the Erne and the Abbey, served as picture-house, lecture hall, and venue for the production of amateur theatricals and concerts from seemingly time immemorial.

The hall itself stood adjacent to the graveyard that lay beside and behind St. Joseph's Church. In fact, to gain entry to the hall, patrons and performers had to enter through a side gate to the church grounds and cemetery.

Church, cemetery and concert hall in such proximity were a seeming incongruity, but in combination they served the living and the dead. Generations had worshipped in the church, had been entertained in the Rock Hall, and were buried in the adjoining cemetery, a triple-service unit providing food for the soul, food for the mind, and food for the soil.

"Your father (grandfather, grandmother, or maybe great grand-dad) would have been proud of you tonight", was a compliment sometimes uttered by patrons as they made their way past the graveyard to the roadway, the same father or grandparents sometimes lying only scant yards away in the dark earth. "To be sure, he must be laughing in his grave!"

Much of the laughter generated in the Rock Hall was due to the efforts of Frank Rogers, already mentioned, and Paud McCloskey, both of whom lived in the East Port. They were an unlikely Rogers and Hammerstein, not given to self-promotion, but somehow, somewhere, they were stricken with the stage bug. Each year they mounted an ambitious concert and variety show that gave zest to the town during the long winter months, in its planning, preparation, writing, casting, staging, rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and culminating in glorious performances that drew packed audiences of, believe it or not, the living and the dead, the latter being more or less guaranteed, though non-paying.

Paud McCloskey, sometimes called Paddy, and Frank made annual visits to Paris, this at a time when taking a holiday of any sort, and especially on "the Continent", was beyond the reach, and daring, of the majority of their townspeople. Naturally, in furtherance of their local theatricals, whenever they were in Paris they felt obliged to study the latest stage production techniques, and religiously visited the leading showcases, the "Folies Bergeres", the Paris Opera House, the "Folies Bergeres", the "Grand Musique", the "Folies Bergeres", et cetera, et cetera, from whence they returned laden with ideas for the production of their next show in Ballyshannon's Rock Hall. Little did they know that my own maternal grandfather, Pa McAdam, had blazed the trail from Ballyshannon to Paris in the 1890s, and was eventually to marry "a lady of the stage" as his second wife, part of a story which must wait for another day and another volume.

McCloskey and Rogers imparted their enthusiasm to a lot of young people who were tempted to appear before the footlights, "tread the light fantastic", combine in duets, become members of the chorus, or star in solo roles.

The Slevin sisters were leading lights. Memory fails to recall complete cast lists, but among the highlights remains that of Eddie Gallagher singing in duet "Love and Marriage", and a terrible time spent by all trying to determine the exact pronunciation of "Sappho" which, decades ahead I have discovered to be "Say-pho". Wisdom, 'tis said, comes with age. Knowledge should come earlier.

Years later a backdrop of New York city at night, painted by my father on the back wall of the Rock Hall for one such production, was pointed out to my brother Barry by Terry McDermot, latter-day sexton, hall and graveyard caretaker.

Amidst the preserved lore of the Rock Hall there stands out one incident from a prior generation of concert-givers. James Rogan, the fly-tier and rod maker, was a concert master who conducted various singers during their renditions of favourite songs. He was, in his way, a tyrant, and rehearsal or actual production made no difference to him. If he detected one false note, or a wrong emphasis, pity the unfortunate singer. Accompaniment would stop, voice would falter, and without a word on either's part, singer and accompanist would restart.

There came a memorable night when, to spare her memory, Hetty -- began to sing, only to be stopped by the redoubtable James: "A little bit higher, Miss Hetty, please!"

Miss Hetty began again, this time higher.

"A little bit lower, Miss Hetty, please!"

The poor lady was mortified, but game. She began again. Unfortunately, the wags in the audience saw the levity in the situation and, as one, chorused, "A little bit higher, Miss Hetty, please!" "A little bit lower, Miss Hetty, please!"

A Neapolitan opera claque could not have been crueller.

The baby grand piano that was used for these accompaniments was not part of the hall's furnishings. In fact its real home was in a drawing-room on the second floor above the "Vindicator" office in the Purt. Whenever a concert was to be held, three men had to remove an upper window and lower the piano by rope and pulley to a horse-drawn dray in the street below. The process was repeated in reverse the day following the concert.

In pre-war, that is pre-World War II times, the Rock Hall also served duty as the town's only cinema. To my daft and well-meaning uncle, films, flicks, movies, call them what you will, were not real life but "shadows on the wall; shadows on the wall". But what shadows! A kaleidoscope of imagery, the silver screen cast a spell on childhood imagination.

Between the ages of eight and fourteen the Rock Hall was the Sunday afternoon mecca of every child who could scrape together the four pennies that gained them admission to the front row benches, wooden benches, no backs, no arms, that sat on the worn plank floor directly in front and beneath the projection screen. Late comers found the back-benches already filled and had to sit close to the screen, with heads tilted back at forty-five degree angles, which threw the whole focus of the picture out of kilter, elongating faces, distorting the sizes of trees, horses, actors, and causing a crick in their necks that took two days to go away.

Sunday morning Mass, Sunday afternoon the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, Buck Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy (Wm. Boyd), Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger (the real hero); James Fitzpatrick of sonorous voice with travelogues of far-away places, Fiji, Tasmania, the Greek islands; a weekly news reel from Pathe, a cartoon, a full-length feature film, "Geronimo", "The Four Feathers", "Gunga Din", "The Song of Bernadette", "Tarzan", the list goes on and on. But the big thrill, the real draw, eagerly anticipated, laughingly remembered, was the weekly serial, with hero or heroine left facing certain death, or worse, at the end of each episode, only to surmount their dire straits in miraculous fashion at the start of the next Sunday's episode.

For an expenditure of fourpence the imagination could run riot. Pirates, cowboys, indians, princesses, pesky varmints and trusty old side-kicks, these were not shadows on the wall, these were the stuff of dreams that some day might carry their viewers over the face of the globe, perfectly oblivious of the seed that had been planted in their childhood whence sprang their wanderlust.

Who didn't want to emulate Robert Donat in his masterpiece "Mr. Chips"? And what a pleasure it was in later years to rediscover that wonderful voice recording poems and songs from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats". Yes, Catherine, there was life before Andrew Lloyd Webber and his version of "Cats"! An unopened, sealed vinyl record of a Donat voice recording is one of my most cherished possessions.

Then there were the Sons of the Pioneers singing around the campfire, with Gene Autry, "the singing cowboy"--what a shock to discover Autry in later years to be the multi-millionaire owner of the California Angels baseball team, a far cry from our first encounter in the Rock Hall on Sunday afternoons. But enough of the present. The past retains centre stage.

On the other side of town there was the '98 Hall, named to commemorate the patriots of 1798, and more associated in memory with political meetings than with concerts, although as a ten-year old I dutifully took part in the boys' choir conducted by Rev. Brother Fidelis at one such event in that commemorative edifice.

Concerts were also given by the good people of St. Anne's, members of the Church of Ireland, in their own hall on Church Avenue. There one of the hardy annuals that always appealed to the audience, and in which they joined with gusto, was "Mick McGilligan's Ball", with its rhythmical lines, "Where they had to tear the paper from the wa-aa-l, To make room for all the people in the ha-aa-l." On a winter's night, with wind and rain slashing around Mullaghnashee, the hill dominating the town and site of St. Anne's, merriment, happy faces, and strong voices united in chorus were always a hearty tonic.

The Methodists also staged annual productions, and the voice of the Reverend Marshall's wife singing "Velia, oh Velia, the Witch of the Wood" still carries a haunting, enchanting echo at four decades' remove and an ocean in between.

The Methodist church stood on The Mall, where the Presbyterians also had their church, and on occasion their siting on the same street led to confusion about whether "So-and-so" was a Presbyterian or a Methodist, since both congregations walked the same route on Sundays.

"Velia" was the Methodists, but which was "Blaydon Races", sung with vigour and bounce by an otherwise staid and somewhat stout young minister, growing redder of face verse by verse, and ending up sans jacket, sans collar, in shirt, braces and trousers? That question will be answered sooner or later, if not in this life then in the next.

A final cameo comes from a political meeting in the '98 Hall. Joe Brennan at the time was a young T.D. A publican from Dunkineely, 26 miles away, he later had a long and successful career in Dáil Éireann, ending up becoming the Cathaoirleach, or Speaker.

Following the success of the Schuman Plan and the setting up of the European Coal and Steel Community, an effort had been launched to establish a united Europe, and with it came the Council of Europe, headquartered in Strasbourg. At the time, to the farmers and fishermen, weavers and cattle dealers of Donegal, Strasbourg could well have been as far away as Samoa, Tonga, or Timbuctoo. All right, it was in Europe, but had anyone in Ballyshannon, Ballintra, Rossnowlagh, Pettigo, Donegal Town, Mountcharles, Inver, Creevy, or "Killybegs for rotten eggs" ever been there? No. But Joe had, as part of a parliamentary delegation. And for months thereafter not one speech did he begin, in any of the aforementioned centres, without the phrase, "When I was in Strasbourg". No wonder he soon became tagged "When I was in Strasbourg Brennan". "I'll Walk Beside You" at last had a five-word rival. Joe first uttered the immortal phrase in the '98 Hall in Ballyshannon.

In later years I had the opportunity to observe all three local constituency T.D.s at work in the Dáil, namely, Cormac Breslin, an old St. Eunan's graduate; "Pa" O'Donnell, and Joe, from the unique vantage point of an official reporter of the Dáil debates.

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