Photograph of Johnny Patterson 1884. John (Johnny) Francis Patterson was an Irish singer, songwriter and circus entertainer. He was born in Kilbarron, Feakle, Co. Clare. Both his parents had died by the time he was three years old and so he was raised by an uncle in Ennis. At the age of 14 he enlisted in the 63rd Regiment of Foot which was based in Limerick at the time. He learned to play various instruments especially piccolo and drums. When a circus came to Limerick he got a part-time job in its band and so bought himself out of the Army. He was soon given a long-term contract and billed as “The Irish Singing Clown.” He worked for other circuses in Ireland before crossing to England. Between 1865-1867, he was a drummer performing in a circus run by Pablo Fanque, the English circus proprietor and John Swallows. He remained with Fanque through 1869, performing in Scotland, Ireland, and England. It was Fanque who effectively launched his career. John Nee, an Irish actor who portrayed Patterson in a 2010 stage production about his life said:
|“||His talent for singing, clowning, and engaging with an audience was immense. He was talent-spotted by Pablo Fanque, who The Beatles sing about in ‘Mr Kite’ – he was a famous black Yorkshire showman. He saw Johnny in Cork, loved him and brought him to England.||”|
In Liverpool he met and married a circus bareback rider, Selena Hickey. Around this time he composed the song The Garden Where the Praties Grow. His fame grew until he was offered a contract in America in 1876 having to separate from his wife and family. In the United States he became one of most famous and highest paid entertainers at the time. He composed several more songs includingThe Hat my Father Wore, Bridget Donoghue, Shake Hands with your Uncle Dan, Goodbye Johnny Dear and The Stone outside Dan Murphy’s Door.
Above; An American circus poster depicting Johnny Patterson. At the aged of 45, he was a wealthy man and so returned to Ireland buying a house in Belfast where he was reunited with his wife and family, but Selena died in 1886. He continued performing and created a circus of his own with an Australian man named Joe Keeley. In April 1888 he married Bridget Murray at Castlepollard Co. Westmeath.
Death and Legacy
His political opinions expressed in a song (he wanted Protestants and Catholics to live together peacefully) caused a fight at one performance. Patterson was hit on the head by an iron bar and was kicked. He died from his injuries in Tralee on 31 May 1889 at the age of 49. In 1985 the Irish Circus Fans Association paid for a memorial to be placed in Tralee Graveyard to commemorate his life Johnny Patterson’s songs have been recorded by numerous artists over the years, including his great-grandson Duncan Patterson and several plays have been produced about his life. He was a character in Stewart Parker’s play Heavenly Bodies along with the figure of Dion Boucicault representing two different sides of the Irish theatre. The Barabbas theatre group produced ‘Johnny Patterson: The Singing Irish Clown’ in 2010 and ‘Johnny Patterson the Musical’ was written about his life and relationship with Bridget Donoghue by Declan Mangan and Mick Jones in 2009. Johnny Patterson also had the honour of being painted by the famous Irish Artist Jack Yeats in the 1928 painting ‘The Singing Clown’.