Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The Pyramids of Kenmare,
award-winning work by
a Kerry-born sculptor

The Pyramids of Kenmare … award-winning sculptures by James Scanlon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Sneem in Co Kerry is known for its public sculpture.

‘The Pyramids of Sneem,’ below the bridge at Sneem, between Saint Michael’s Church and Goosey Island Caravan Park, form an unusual and unique collection of sculptures on the Ring of Kerry.

The pyramids are part of a project that began in 1988, with financial support from the Arts Council of Ireland, inspired by Sneem winning the Tidy Towns Competition the previous year (1987).

The artist James Scanlon was inspired by the people of Sneem and the place. He felt the workers involved in the project became the medium more than anything else and the idea.

He believes it was their character and their way of doing things that became the core of the endeavour. Using stone and coloured glass, ‘Scan’ and his team created what they believed was a magical effect, marrying the natural and the human world.

James Scanlon was inspired by the people of Sneem and the place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

James Scanlon, who works in a variety of media, was born in Brosna, Co Kerry, in 1952 and now lives in Ballinspittle, Co Cork. He received the Cork Arts Society Award for Sculpture in 1976 and studied at the Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork, where he received his Diploma in Sculpture and Film-Making in 1978. He later studied glass techniques (1981), and received the British Film Award for film, The Cage in 1982.

He was once told by a gallery to go away and come back when he knew what a portfolio was.

He worked with stained glass for a number of years and established a stained-glass studio with Maud Cotter in 1982. He has received critical acclaim for his revival of the art of stained glass in Cork as a contemporary art form. He has also worked on complex environmental sculptures and received several public art commissions, including Seem, Co Kerry, in 1990 and Saint Moling’s Well, Brosna, Co Kerry in 1998.

His other works include stained glass windows in Glenstal Abbey and the Europa Building of the European Council in Brussels.

James Scanlon has been a member of Aosdána since 1991. His primary concerns meditate on embodiment, morality and faith.

James Scanlon named the pyramids ‘The Way the Fairies Went,’ and his work won the National Landscape Award and in the 1997 Tidy Towns Competition.

I walked around the Pyramids in Sneem last week, with the sound of the River Sneem behind me, the sound of birdsong all around me, and blue skies above.

The pyramids are set beside River Sneem, below the bridge at Sneem, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The link between ‘The Stone
Outside Dan Murphy’s Door’
and Sergeant Pepper in Sneem

‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door’ … a song and a pub in Sneem, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Daniel Murphy, a builder from Bantry, Co Cork, and his son, William Martin Murphy, seem to have laid the foundations for their family fortune while they were building Saint Michael’s Church in Sneem on the Ring of Kerry.

As I strolled around Sneem last week in mid-autumn sunshine, I wondered whether there was any connection between the builder from Bantry and a public house in Sneem called Dan Murphy’s, which rejoices in the connection between its name and a well-known Irish ballad, ‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door.’

As I read a little more, I learned that the song has no connection with Sneem, but heard the story of the song and its composer Johnny Patterson, the self-styled rambler from Clare – and a connection with Pablo Fanque, celebrated by the Beatles in Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

John Francis Patterson was born in 1840 at his father’s forge house in Kilbarron, near Feakle, Co Clare. His father, Francis Patterson, a nailer-gunsmith, was originally from the North of Ireland. His mother died after the birth of her fourth child and within a year his father also died, causing the Patterson children in the care of relatives.

The two girls were sent to Killaloe, the younger son Frank was taken by the O’Houlihan family in Feakle, and three-year-old Johnny was sent to his uncle Mark, a nailer in Ennis.

Johnny was apprenticed to the nailer’s trade, but his uncle enrolled him in the army as a drummer boy at 14, perhaps in the 63rd Foot, an infantry regiment based in Limerick.

His childhood days in Ennis, nevertheless, appear to have been happy, and his best known song was written about a meeting place in the town for boys and girls, ‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door’:

There’s a sweet garden spot in our mem’ry,
It’s the place we were born and reared;
’Tis long years ago since we left it,
But return there we will if were spared.
Our friends and companions of childhood
Would assemble each night near a store,
Round Dan Murphy’s shop and how often we’ve sat
On the stone outside Dan Murphy’s door.


With his army band training, Johnny became a competent musician on the piccolo and drums. After completing five years in the army, he bought himself out for £20 and signed up with John Swallow’s circus and his circus band.

He was offered a two-year contract as a clown and was billed as ‘The Irish Singing Clown.’

As he developed his act, he created a new style of clowning, appealing to the audience through Irish songs and wit, composing rhymes and stories such as ‘The Roving Irish Boy,’ ‘The Dingle Puck Goat’ and ‘The Garden where the Praties grow.’

Swallow’ eventually left Ireland and Johnny continued his act with Batty’s and then Risarelli’s circuses. In 1867 he appeared at The Theatre, Mary Street, Cork, with the Pablo Fanque circus, whose fame returned a century later with the Beatles on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Johnny moved to Liverpool in 1869, and there he married Selena Hickey, a circus bareback rider from Scotland.

They joined Lord George Sanger’s circus before returning to Ireland with Powell and Clarke’s circus. By the age of 35, Johnny was a national success, he joined Cooper and Bailey’s Great London Circus, and Johnny and Selena sailed for America, leaving their three children with his sister Betty in Killaloe.

In America, he wrote ‘Goodbye Johnny Dear,’ ‘The Rambler from Clare,’ ‘Bridget Donahue,’ ‘A typical Irishman,’ ‘The Hat my Father wore’ and ‘Old Ireland is the Country I was born in.’ He appeared before packed houses in New York at Gilmore’s Garden, now Madison Square Gardens, and in Chicago and in St Louis. Critics praised him for ‘his spontaneity of wit and his fresh and unconventional humour.’

While he was in America, his younger daughter Nora died in a circus accident involving an elephant. But his acts and output of new songs continued.

Johnny returned home at 45. Back in Ireland, he was reunited with his. He moved to Belfast with Selena, planned to put his own circus on the road, and joined Lloyd’s Mexican Circus as ‘the Irish clown from New York,’ reputedly earning £18 a week.

In Dublin, he played with Fred Ginnett’s circus at Earlsfort Terrace and at Dan Lowrey’s Star Variety Theatre, now the Olympia Theatre on Dame Street, before touring Ireland with Powell and Clarke’s Great Paragon Circus as the principal clown.

While the show was in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, Selena died of consumption in the Belfast workhouse. Their two children were sent to his sister’s home in Killaloe and Johnny continued the season.

He later became a partner in Keeley’s Circus and Keeley and Patterson’s Circus. When the show visited Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, Johnny met a young waitress, Bridget Murray, and they were married a year later in Saint Michael’s Church, Castlepollard.

His prolific output of songs continued from his winter base was in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh. He was a committed supporter of Parnell. But a political song, ‘Do your best for one another,’ may have been his undoing, along with his drinking habits.

The circus continued, but business began to decline. When he performed his new song in Tralee, Co Kerry, carrying a small flag in each hand, one green and embroidered with the harp, the other red with a crown, some people in the audience hurled abuse at him and a fierce fight developed. Johnny was struck on the head with an iron bar and then kicked before colleagues could rescue him.

A local doctor, Dr Fitzmaurice attended Johnny in Sullivan’s Hotel. He was admitted to Tralee Fever Hospital, and he died of pneumonia on 31 May 1889. The circus was performing the following afternoon in Adare, Co Limerick, and when the ringmaster announced that Johnny’s death, the audience fell to their knees and prayed and the band played a slow Goodbye Johnny Dear. He was buried on the following day in the New Cemetery, Tralee.

Joe Keeley and Johnny’s widow Bridget tried to keep the show on the road. But without their star attraction, business fell off and the circus disbanded. Joe and Bridget married six months later in Maguiresbridge, Co Fermanagh. Joe Keeley died some months later, and Bridget then married her third husband, Walter Brewer, who had been the second clown in Keeley and Patterson’s circus.

Johnny’s son, Johnny Junior, went to live with his sister in Killaloe. He later ran his own small circus in Ireland, England and the US, and died in Liverpool in 1950.

‘The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door’ … a song and a pub in Sneem, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)