Derek Cobbe pays tribute to an entertainer who had a magical personality and a gift of the gab
Published 31/10/2010 | 05:00
As mourners arrived at the Church of the Assumption in The Heath, Portlaoise, Co Laois, on October 20 last, they were met by a large American circus jeep parked at the entrance porch.
Airbrushed on the side of the brightly coloured vehicle was a larger than life illustration of the late Michael Courtney, a very unique tribute to a larger than life entertainer, who was making his final journey having travelled the roads of Ireland as a showman for over 70 years.
Michael's sudden death took place as his Circus Vegas show was visiting Limerick. If ever a showman wished for anything, it would be to end his days not in a hospital or nursing home, but in his own wagon on tour. Untimely as it was, for Michael that wish was granted.
A member of one of Ireland's best-known and oldest travelling show families, Michael took to the boards of Courtney's Roadshow just as soon as he could walk. He learned his craft the hard way, and, under the expert guidance of his parents, Jack and Martha, he joined his brothers and sisters performing in the villages of Ireland.
As the 'booth' was set up on the fair green to entertain the locals for the week, Michael was the comedian in the variety part of the show. In the melodramas, he played the monster in Frankenstein, or the priest in Kevin Barry, much to the amusement of the audience, who found it difficult to adjust to his pious role in the show's second half.
He organised a shooting competition with pellet guns and paper targets to find the 'best shot' in the village. The weekly heats ended on the final night of their visit, and a small silver cup for the winner took pride of place on a sharpshooter's mantelpiece.
Speaking to a packed congregation of family and friends, his brother Tom, the last surviving member of the Courtney brothers, reminded everyone that 'Mickey' had a magical personality and an undisputed gift of the gab.
In those roadshow days, while the rest of the family were erecting the wooden sided booth with canvas roof, Michael visited the local garda barracks for a chat and to drop off free passes for the show.
Next was the ESB man, who would connect the mains cable from the nearest pole to the show's fuseboard.
No generators in those days, and having confirmed that 'only a few bulbs' would be used, the free passes for the man and his family would seal the deal for a very nominal electricity charge.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies, with the advent of television, Ireland turned its back on the travelling shows, and no longer was there a living to be made from them.
Many of the touring players took whatever work was available in TV drama or theatre, but the Courtney brothers, Michael, Albert and Tom, decided to start a circus.
Their Courtney Brothers Circus was a great success, and as the next generation developed their own performing skills, the three brothers went their own way, and to this day their families each have a circus in Ireland -- Michael's being Circus Vegas.
He took a very active part in promoting the circus and, until recent years, he visited schools to publicise the show and introduce 'Tinker' the monkey to the children. Teachers were always impressed with the fluency of his Irish.
What they didn't realise was that this was the only Irish he knew, and for years he charmed his way into every school in Ireland with the 'cupla focal' -- but, after all, he was a showman, and he was an expert at his craft.
The tranquility of the graveyard was broken by the singing of I was Born in Sweet Killarney led by Jimmy Dunne, a fellow roadshow performer. It was Michael Courtney's finale song in his roadshow days, and a fitting tribute to him, as he was laid to rest.
He is survived by his wife Mona, sons John, Derek and Stephen, daughters Carol, Jacqueline, Elaine and Kerry, brother Tom, sisters Tessy and Martha and grandchildren.