Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown.

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown." Photo: Patrick Redmond

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown.

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown." Photo: Patrick Redmond

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown.

Barabbas presents 'Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown." Photo: Patrick Redmond

Mesmerising. Enchanting. Magical. Touching. Ingenious. Innovative. Quirky. Endearing. Experimental. Different and highly imaginative. All words that appropriately describe Barabbas’ latest theatrical offering. This time it’s a collaboration with Little John Nee, an inimitable and very Irish troubadour, storyteller, writer, actor and (even if he might baulk at the description) avant-garde clown, in the broadest meaning of our hitherto historically circus-confined red nosed buffoon. Actually, in the case of Little John Nee and this production, Shakespearean Fool and Patrick Kavanagh-esque village idiot aka parochial-meaning-universal poet is a more fitting appellation.

The ostensible subject here is the life and tragically premature death of arguably Ireland’s greatest clown, Johnny Patterson. A folk hero whose songs and wit regaled audiences in Ireland, England and even the USA in the second half of the nineteenth century, Kilbarron-born Patterson, who was orphaned at a young age when his parents died within a year of each other, was taken care of by his uncle, a nailer. Johnny was all set to follow his uncle into the nail-making business but for his aptitude for music. His uncle enrolled him as a drummer in an army regiment in Limerick and after a few years Johnny bought himself out of the military and set off on a life in the circus. Young Johnny quickly established a new role for himself as a wit and singer who interacted with his audiences and held them in the palm of a hand that would later develop alcoholic shakes when one of his daughters was killed by an elephant in a circus.

Patterson’s most famous song, 'The Garden Where the Praties Grow', is just one of many featured in this production. In a more organic way than any other Irish theatre company, Barabbas bring the imagination of European theatrical styles and experimentalism to everything they do. The musical and comic genius of Roger Gregg (Crazy Dog Audio Theatre) is brought to bear in the gloriously burlesque and surreal figure of Paddy Shoes, a one man idiosyncratic and eclectic orchestra of soundscapes weird, wonderful, inventive and downright mellifluous, as he insinuates his aural meanings and backdrops from the mostly stationary position of what appears to be a mobile front porch of a truncated wooden house.


Mesmerising. Enchanting. Magical. Touching. Ingenius. Innovative. Quirky. Endearing. Experimental. Different and highly imaginative.

Added to this Bryan Burroughs as Snowdrop, in glorious shaved head, looking like a mixture of a monk and a figure from the Comedia dell'Arte, etches out another space of meaning with his studied movements that can metamorphose into anything from an elephant to a drunken peasant, but that always complement and enhance or counterpoint the story as told by Little John Nee, who is both the writer of the tale and Johnny Patterson.

Patterson was also a source of fascination for Jack B. Yeats. One work by Yeats, 'The Irish Singing Clown', was the catalyst for the idea for the show in Raymond Keane’s mind. Thus, while this Barabbas production is on the surface about Johnny Patterson, it is also very consciously and overtly about the magic of all storytelling and artists and how they engage an audience or not, even as their personal lives crumble. Patterson was torn between his career and his family. After suffering the tragedy of losing his daughter and his wife, drink became an ever prominent companion.
Somewhat insanely, compared to today’s standards of restraint and etiquette, Johnny Patterson was killed whilst performing a song in his own circus. Johnny was an ardent follower of Charles Stewart Parnell and his Home Rule initiative but he liked to sing a song about reconciliation between the two sides called 'Do Your Best For One Another'. It was during one performance of that song in Tralee, with Patterson wielding a green flag and a red one, that a fracas broke out wherein Ireland’s beloved singing clown was struck by a crowbar. He died a few days later on May 31, 1889, at the age of 49. The death in the show is rendered with marvellous, time-stopping suddenness by Bryan Burroughs.

Reminiscent of something akin to an Irish Tom Waits, Little John Nee’s charming, skilled tunes and their, at times, Dylan Thomas-like lyrics and words veer magnificently from the sublimely poetic to the rough and vulgar as if to mirror the twin ingredients of gold dust and excrement that fertilise many a creative imagination. The set design, minimalist and dream-like with circus stanchions (support or barrier?) rising high into and beyond the ceiling of the theatre, espouses that same battleground between infinity and the mundane.

Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown is incestuously and erotically Irish at its core. Barabbas bring to this cocktail such knowing and eclectic avant-garde theatricality that the end result is a highly sophisticated further extrapolation on the theme of the tears of a clown, and the idea that the best comedy always has the rattle of the coffin haunting its laughter, especially when it’s Irish.

Patrick Brennan was chief theatre critic and arts writer with the Irish Examiner from 1990-2004. He is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Johnny Patterson the Singing Irish Clown by Little John Nee

September 30 – 3 October, 2009 (then on tour)

Produced by Barabbas
In George Bernard Shaw Theatre, Carlow

Directed by Raymond Keane

Set design: Kieran McNulty

Lighting design: Sarah Jane Shiels

Costume design: Marie Tierney

With: Little John Nee, Bryan Burroughs and Roger Gregg