Thursday, August 4, 2011

Caroline Robinson and Cassells Carnival

At 90 years of age Caroline Robinson, formerly Caroline Casserley, remembers with fondness her early life as a member of the touring Cassells Carnival.  Carnivals were a huge part of the summertime entertainment of provincial Ireland and for many decades were a substantial source of funds for local Catholic Church developments and local G.A.A. clubs.  The earliest carnival I remember was held in the Dominican field where an added attraction was river barge trips, courtesy of one of the local Canal boat owners.  Later on carnivals were held in Geraldine Park and I can recall carnivals held in the Leinster Street end of the People’s Park. 

The Cassells Carnival was started by Thomas and Jane Casserley, both from Northern Ireland, in and around the turn of the 20th century.  The name I am told was chosen so as not to associate the family name Casserley with a travelling show, an important consideration when one of Thomas’s sisters was a Poor Clare nun in a Belfast Convent.  There was not a county in Ireland where the Cassell’s Carnival was not to be found at some time during the season which generally ran from Easter to October.  The birth places of the 11 children born to Thomas and Jane Casserley confirm, if confirmation was needed, that travel is the essence of carnival life.  The first of the Casserley children arrived in 1914 when the carnival was in Callan, Co. Kilkenny and over the years Casserley children were born in towns as far apart as Tralee, Killucan, Co. Westmeath, Limerick, Co. Armagh, Co. Tipperary and places in between.  The same geographical spread was evident in the schooling of the Casserley children who attended whatever school was available while the carnival was in town.  In the early years of the Cassells Carnival the carnival equipment and the caravans were hauled by horse, later to be replaced by lorries.  As the children grew up the living accommodation which originally consisted of one caravan was extended to three caravans, one for the boys, one for the girls and one for the parents.

The summer of 1940 saw the Cassell’s Carnival at the Chapel well, opposite the Parish Church in Athy.  Business was so good, even during the harsh economic times of that war year, that the carnival stayed for a month before passing on for Ballitore.  It was in Athy that year that Caroline Casserley, then 19 years of age, met Michael Robinson who was working in the local I.V.I. Foundry.  Romance blossomed and grew as the carnival returned to Athy in 1941 and 1942.  In that latter year the young couple married.  Caroline’s youngest sister Nora also found romance in Athy where she met and later married ‘Thrush’ Kelly of Janeville Lane.  ‘Thrush’ was a great favourite of the Athy musicals of the late 1930s and early 1940s and acquired a nickname which acknowledged his skill at mimicking bird calls.  The young Kelly couple emigrated to England and lived in Stockport, Manchester where I understand their 3 children are still living.

Caroline Casserley and Michael Robinson settled down in Athy where they reared 4 children, Michael, Caroline, George and Victor.  Many will remember Caroline’s husband Michael who was the subject of Eye on the Past No. 187.  ‘Robbie’, as he was generally known, possessed a fine singing voice and in the late 1940s and early 1950s he featured as the lead singer with the Ivy Band which was led by Mona Sylvester of Emily Row.  Robbie died in 1997 and last week I met his wife Caroline and her sister Ruby, both of whom talked to me about Cassells Carnival and their memories of a travelling life through the Provinces of Ireland 60 or more years ago.  They were undoubtedly difficult times but viewed at the remove of so many decades, the joy and pleasure of those days filtered through bringing only happy memories.

None of Robbie or Caroline’s children continued the travelling showman’s life but some of their cousins, by dint of marriage, today carry on the tradition.  Cassells Carnival closed sometime in the mid 1960s, but those members of the extended Casserley family who married members of the McCormack carnival families continue today to tour the country with the different McCormack Carnivals.

Caroline Robinson’s daughter, also named Caroline, organised the 90th birthday celebrations last weekend and brought together many of the children and grandchildren of the Casserley family members who toured the country with Cassells Carnival all those years ago.

I’m sure many of the older readers will recall Cassells Carnival on their annual visit to Athy, Ballylinan and Ballitore.  I’d like to hear from anyone who would like to share their memories of those times with me.

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