Johnny Patterson

Johnny Patterson (1840 – 1889) The Irish Singing Clown

Early life of Johnny Patterson

Johnny Patterson was a famous Irish clown, known for his original songs, singing style and rapport with his audience. He was born John Francis Patterson in 1840 in Kilbarron near Feakle, County Clare, Ireland. His parents had both died by the time he was three years old. He was raised in Ennis by his uncle Mark, although his three siblings went to two different homes.

Apprenticed was in his uncle’s workshop, and already showed an interest in music. At fourteen years old his uncle enrolled him as a drummer boy in an army regiment based in Limerick. He learned to play various instruments but was particularly competent on piccolo and drums.

Johnny Patterson joins the circus

Johnny Patterson (1840 - 1889) The Irish Singing ClownWhen John Swallow’s circus came to Limerick Johnny got a part-time job in the circus band. Having spent five years in the regiment he bought his way out of the army for £20. While on tour in Cork with Swallow’s circus Johnny gave a solo performance where he told jokes and sang songs. His musical ability and his rapport with the audience were evident and he was given a two-year contract. He was billed as “The Irish Singing Clown.”

He created a unique clown character, discarding the traditional clown costume and replacing it with a tweed outfit embroidered with shamrocks and a Celtic harp. Johnny Patterson wore white knee length stockings and a cone shaped hat. A drooping handlebar mustache completed his image. His new style of clowning, his Irish songs, and his unique wit made him a popular entertainer. Soon he was composing his own songs.

He was a fluent Irish speaker and his first song was “I am a Roving Irish Boy.” Unfortunately, many of his early songs have been lost, though it seems likely that “The Dingle Puck Goat” was written during this period.

The Swallow circus left Ireland and Johnny found work with other circuses. In 1869, he met up again with a brother and sister bareback riding-duo from Scotland, James and Selena Hickey. He had previously worked with them at Swallow’s circus. By the end of the season, Johnny and Selena had fallen in love and were married. In 1870 a baby daughter, Bridget, was born and a second daughter, Nora, was born in 1872. The family returned to Ireland, and in 1875 Johnny was on tour with the Powell and Clarke circus when he heard the news that Selena had given birth to a son, Johnny Jr. In honor of the birth, he added another verse to “The Garden Where the Praties Grow.

Professional success for Johnny Patterson

At the age of thirty-five, Johnny Patterson was a national success and it was reputed that he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. News of his talent reached the American owner of a big circus, Cooper and Bailey’s. Johnny was offered a contract and departed for America in 1876. His three children were put in the care of their aunt Betty in Killaloe and Selena continued her own circus career.

In the United States, Johnny became one of the best known and highest paid entertainers of the day. He used “The Rambler from Clare” as his signature tune, a song which he had learned as a boy. He played to packed audiences all over America and was billed as “Johnny Patterson – the Rambler from Clare.” He bought a set of Uileann pipes and became a competent player of traditional Irish airs.

Personal tragedy for Johnny Patterson

At the height of his success in America, he received the tragic news that his daughter Nora had been killed by an elephant in her mother’s circus. Johnny remained in America but unfortunately, he turned to alcohol for consolation.

Aged forty-five, he decided to return to Ireland, and reunited with his wife and family. He was now a wealthy man and bought a house in Belfast which he used as a base while on tour. Though now drinking heavily he joined Lloyd’s Mexican circus and had hopes of putting together a circus of his own.

In June 1886 Selena died of consumption in Belfast and his two children were sent to his sisters home in Killaloe. The next year, he joined up with an Australian called Joe Keeley and the Keeley and Patterson circus toured Ireland. In April 1888 he married Bridget Murray at Castlepollard, County Westmeath.

Johnny was on tour in Tralee in May 1889 and decided to sing “Do your best for One Another” — a song which proved fatal. His son Johnny junior (who had also joined a circus) recalled the sad event:

“Johnny had two small flags, one was green with a harp, the other was red with a crown. He symbolically wore the two flags together but a small section of the audience objected to his sentiments. A row broke out and while making an effort to save the circus equipment, Johnny was struck on the head with an iron bar and then kicked, before the crowd could rescue him”.

Johnny Patterson died at Tralee Fever Hospital on May 31st, 1889 at the age of forty-nine. He was buried in the plot of his friend Ted Eager, in the New Cemetery in Tralee.

Songs by Johnny Patterson


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