Christmas was not far away when posters appeared on the streets of Athy advertising Fred Leo and his famous Irish concert party. The year was 1917 and Fred and his company were to give performances on the 6th and 7th of December in Athy’s Town Hall. The performers had earlier showcased their talents in Kilbeggan and after Athy were scheduled to travel to Goresbridge.
The detailed information we have today in relation to these wandering troubadours comes to us courtesy of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The R.I.C. was enjoined to report on the performances which the authorities felt bordered on the seditious. For that reason the Public Records Office which holds the State’s archives has a range of interesting reports filed by local R.I.C. Officers on the shows put on by Fred Leo and his players.
The advertising poster commandeered by the R.I.C. and forwarded to Police headquarters with almost daily reports was headlined ‘We 6’. This was the number of artists involved and included Carroll Malone, described as Dublin’s youngest tenor, Miss Josie Dene, soubrette and dancer and Miss A.C. Sheehan, soprano and pianiste. Fred Leo was described as a comedian, with Miss Annie Tucker as a champion dancer, Feis Ceol medallist and Oireachteas winner. It was the artist whose name appeared at the end of the poster who most interested the R.I.C. Seamus M’Donnell promoted himself as ‘Ireland’s Lightning Cartoonist’, with a promise to feature ‘your history from Owen Roe O’Neill to de Valera’.
Admission prices varied from 8 pence to 2 shillings and 4 pence and the advertised programme of ‘Irish – Ireland Songs, recitations and skits’ was rounded off with the call ‘Éire óg Abú’.
Athy based R.I.C. Sergeant Thomas Traynor wrote a report on 10th December 1917 for his superiors, following the performances on the 6th and 7th of that month. He attended both night’s performances with Constable James Power from the local barracks and reported that the ‘most objectionable part of the programme was the sketching and speeches by Seamus M’Donnell which had a tendency to cause disaffection and to injure recruiting for the Army’.
About 100 attended the show, mostly boys, on the night of the 6th to see M’Donnell drawing a sketch of Countess Markievitz and commenting on her role in the previous year’s rebellion in Dublin. Traynor reported M’Donnell as saying, ‘she was a dead shot and did for one anyway. I would back her against anyone in giving the peelers or men in khaki their medicine.’ M’Donnell was reported as praising the Irish Rebellion for stopping conscription and threatening that ‘should John Bull attempt a dirty trick on us we would not leave a bit of khaki in Ireland.’
Constable Power’s report confirmed that the most objectionable part of the programme was the sketches and remarks of Seamus M’Donnell. Referring to the separation allowances then payable to wives of soldiers fighting overseas M’Donnell was reported as claiming that ‘the separation allowance people were despicable wretches taking the blood money and they should be ashamed of themselves for having anyone belonging to them fighting for John Bull.’
For the audience whom Constable Power described as ‘young lads all having Sinn Fein tendencies’, the cartoonist patter went down well and on the second night a larger audience was in the hall. Interestingly Constable Power noted in his report that ‘no respectable people were present’.
The separation allowance women of the town were unlikely to be in the audience on either night and if they were present the R.I.C. would undoubtedly have had a riot on their hands. The same women were often reported, particularly towards the latter end of the 1914-18 war, as being involved with altercations with local Sinn Feiners whose anti-recruiting meetings in Emily Square they sought to disrupt. I can recall reading a local newspaper report of the time which described the wives of soldiers fighting overseas shaking their ‘ring’ papers at the Sinn Feiners, while loudly shouting down the platform speakers. The ‘ring’ papers were the separation allowance books, so called because of the circular stamp embossed each time the weekly allowance was paid to the local women.
The National Archives hold a vast treasure of documents which sometimes helped to provide an insight into life in provincial Ireland of generations past. The report so carefully prepared by Sergeant Traynor and Constable Power in their barracks at the end of Barrack Lane, Athy in December 1917 gives an interesting account of a time when Irish Nationalism was becoming more prominent in the South Kildare area. The Easter Rising and the release of the Irish prisoners in December 1916 created a momentum which would gather pace, culminating in the start of the War of Independence in January 1919. What part Seamus M’Donnell played in whipping up support for the Nationalist cause as he toured the country with Fred Leo’s concert party we will never know.