Friday, July 6, 2018

Barney the Guide, or Ireland in America


I’ve found another man. On e-bay. His name is Robert Byrne. Or, sometimes, for he was a performer, Robert Byrnes, just in case – I suppose – that somewhere in Hicksville, in 1860s America, he might have got mistaken for Rabbie the Scot. But he’s theoretically Irish. Or Irish-American. Or both. Nobody really knows. Because, of course, that is probably not his veritable name. 

Anyway, this Californian photo turned up … and I see that googlepix has already jumped on it … but they will not have even the most minimal idea as to who the subject is, or what the inscription ‘Barney the Guide’ on the verso is all about. So I thought I had better find out for them. No, I didn’t know either … but, hey, that’s the fun. Finding out.

 Well, I didn’t find out much about Mr Byrne-Byrnes, apart from this one job (which lasted off-and-on over four years), but I got fascinated by ‘Barney the Guide’, so in between times and jaunts with the visiting family, over the last two days, I’ve dug a little. In my usual fashion. Primary sources only. And I got a nice little pile of information on ‘Barney’, his creator, and the history of a whole genre of entertainment that surrounds them.

An hour ago, I checked the secondary and omigod the tertiary sources, and found that yes! The University Thesis World had been there before me. There was a whole 380pp work from Washington on Barney and his kind … so I read (be truthful, Kurt, ‘skimmed’) it. Yes, typical doctoral thesis. A huge chunk of the 380pp is made up of arggggh! FOOTNOTES. And the work has endless curtsies to other people’s theses … for, alas, much of it is a mere patchwork of other folk’s say-so. It’s like a grown-up wikiarticle. I’m not saying it’s bad. It most definitely isn’t. The lady has found mostly the same sources that I have. And she has some extra bits, which I didn’t find. And, when footnote-free, she writes enjoyably … but there are things that I wanted to know that aren’t there. My Robbie isn’t even mentioned. And neither are the facts and figures which I wanted re: the M(a)cEvoy family.

Yes. That’s where we are going. And we’ll make it McEvoy. No ‘a’. It seems to have been real, which makes the changeable spelling – even in the same ad, review or music cover -- curious. The McEvoys were said to be from Dublin. Father John (musician and music teacher), mother Sarah, children Charles, Mary, Catherine, Theresa and John. Sometime between Theresa (1848) and John (30 November 1853) the family emigrated to America, for, whereas the other were all ‘born Ireland’, John jr was born in Lexington, Ky.

They seem to have begun their performing career in the early 1850s. I see (above) an advertisement in 1854, for MacEvoy’s (sic) Grand Panoramas of Ireland and Niagara featuring ‘the celebrated musical performers, the MacEvoy Children from the principal Theatre and concert rooms of Europe and America’. I guess in 1854 the ‘children’ would have been harpist and contralto Mary aged 13, violinist and pianist Charles about 14, and soprano-comedienne Kate. Kate ‘aged nine’ ‘the greatest dramatic prodigy of the day, will appear in her celebrated character of ‘Barney’ the Irish Guide …’ .

Europe? Well, well… now when was that? Bit o’ blarney there. I can’t even see the children performing in Ireland or England prior to their immigration. And as for panoramas? Well, painted scenes, static and then moving, accompanied by a lecture, music and sometimes song, comedy and dance had been popular in Britain since the turn of the century – notably at London’s Spring Gardens, and Sadler’s Wells (‘Panorama of New London Bridge’ with Miss Piccini’s infantine vocalism, The Village Ghost, A Trip to Paddington … ‘Panorama of Malta’), and were thriving by the 1840s, with entertainments typified by such as the Regent’s Park Colosseum Cyclorama (The Destruction of Lisbon with ‘effects and illusions’ accompanied by Beethoven, Auber and Spohr played on the New Grand Apollonicon). 

America had followed the fashion, and at the MacEvoys’ arrival the country was swarming with exhibitions of pictures or panoramas or georamas etc of the Mississippi, Ohio, the Prairies, New Orleans and Peoria, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more exotically ‘the Holy Land’, the Nile, China  … though Ireland appears not to have been a popular subject. 

I don’t know what made 40 year-old McEvoy go into travelling showbusiness. But I do know what was the gimmick was that eventually helped his show rise to the top of the heap. It was ‘Barney the Guide’. Barney the comical jaunting-car lad who, during the course of the evening, while showing his little bunch of tourists round the sights of Ireland, performed a virtual stand-up act. ‘Professor’ McEvoy did the educational commentary and the girls sang and harped the songs of Erin.

In the 1850s, they struggled. And in 1856 McEvoy ‘of La Salle’ was arrested on a charge of murder, when the grocer who supplied him (bills unpaid) with his canvas was killed. Fortunately, he’d been out of town at the fatidic moment. The case never was solved. In 1859, he and Kate took posts at St Mary’s Cathedral and Mary got a harping job in a church in St Louis. But, in 1860, the show and ‘Little Barney the Irish Guide’ were back on the road. The Professor, Marie and Kate, then later little John and Theresa joined in the performances, as well as the occasional ‘guest artist’, such as comedian John W Whiston with his burlesque phrenology lecture. The whole thing nearly collapsed when a tornado destroyed the Hall they were playing in Brockville, Canada, but they had done the get-out moments earlier…

Kate, the first ‘Barney’, gave way to little brother John – for whom big brother Charles composed ‘The Dublin Jaunting Car’ – before Charles returned for a while and took up the centre of affairs as a fiddling Barney O’Brallaghan. He was Barney for an 1868 season on Broadway, and then 30 November, at Baltimore, Mr Byrne (sic) ‘the popular Irish vocalist’ took over. Because Charles had gone. He’d gone to run a number 2 company, in which he did the lecturing, Marie Dalton McEvoy (his wife?) sang, and a certain Jerry Cohan settled in for a long run as ‘Barney’. Jerry would be, in the end, the second to most famous ‘Hibernicon’ player. One of the Professor’s earlier employees had been accompanist Charles E Pratt.

So.  Mr Byrne. I see him playing Philadelphia, Boston, the Apollo Hall, New York, San Francisco and Chicago as the ‘Hibernicon’ set out on its ‘tenth annual tour’, but in 1871 he went touring with Marchant’s Panorama, before returning to the fold in 1872, for a season at Tammany, East 14th Street. A Kate Byrne(s) turns up for a brief spell. Had Robbie married? 

At this stage a ‘Frank McEvoy’ has come on the scene, along with a Willie McEvoy … and then in 1875 the Professor advertises his latest Hibernicon for sale. He is, he says, going to Europe. He could afford to. His brand of entertainment, with its ever-improving moving pictures, and growing comic play and operetta elements had been coining it over the last decade.

 Of course, that meant that ‘spurious imitations’ of McEvoy’s Hibernicon, under slightly different names, had proliferated. One fraud named Healy rechristened his struggling outfit as ‘MacEvoy’s Hibernicon’ by ‘selling’ it to a Mr McEvoy and ‘purchasing’ it back with the right to use the gentleman’s name. Barney, too, was copied all round America. With a, sometimes slightly, different name, of course. But it was the comic, singing guide with his jaunting car, no matter what he was called. And he was the creation of John and 9 year-old Kate McEvoy.

Of course, John didn’t go to Europe. He started up a fourth version of his show as the Erinopticon, with as feature an operetta Corney O’Carrroll the Irish Genius, while son John joined the entrepreneurial ranks with a ‘panorama, marionette and variety’ troupe in which he ended up playing … Barney. Frank (who wasn’t a kosher McEvoy, but had ‘bought the rights legitimately) continued, Charles cooled along with the now-cooling demand for pictures of the Mountains of Mourne, but there were still McEvoys purveying entertainments from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks in the 1890s.

As for the Byrne(s) … well, I’ve found nothing yet.

I wanted to discover what happened to the McEvoy family – parents and children – when their panoramic days were done. I thought Michelle from Washington might have sorted that out, but no. So I’ve had a demi-semi-successful search myself. The easiest is little John, who had the convenient taste to be born in the USA. And be male. Little John’s ‘day job’ when he wasn’t being Barney was as a tanner. A ‘leather dresser’. He, unmarried, along with unmarried Theresa, lived with their parents in Westchester, then Camden … and after the elders’ deaths shifted to California where John worked as a shipyard bookkeeper and, surely not!, a solicitor. He died 1 December 1928, and Theresa seems to have followed shortly after.

John apparently died in 1893, at the age of eighty. I’m still looking for Sarah, and, as so often, the Library of Congress’s very faulty newspaper archive page is ‘out of order’. I imagine Marie/Mary and Catherine/Kate married … and Charles, well there’s a 70 year-old widowed ‘mineral water manufacturer’ (?!) listed in the 1910 census as born 19 June 1840 in Dublin …  I thought for a second that it said ‘minstrel water’. It is probably he. But who knows.

So that’s my story. Lots of loose ends … I haven’t tied them all up. But if you are interested in a wider (American) view, Michelle Granshaw’s thesis, complete with copious footnotes, is on line and the site has a wonderful reproduction playbill…

 OK, who is on e-bay tonight! 

Post scriptum: Barney Brallaghan was not 'original'. He was the subject of an 1828 song written and composed by John Blewitt.

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