19 Aug 2022

Out in the Open: 'Sad secrets of a strange grave near the roadside' - John B Keane

Out in the Open: 'Sad secrets of a strange grave near the roadside' - John B Keane

The circus arriving in Cappamore village, with horse-drawn carts and wagons, drawing in huge crowds upon its arrival

IN HOSPITABLE spots such as Athea and Glin I am often approached by friendly persons who ask me if I remember a particular episode from this continuing panorama known as Out in the Open.

It takes a good deal of time and though to recall a particular place and often I cannot recall at all. Athea on Sunday week last was crammed with people. Drinks flowed freely and would have flowed freer if there had been more room. I was lucky to secure four pints of beer in the round of the night. One of these I consumed in the less crowded atmosphere of the main street and it was here I was asked by a well-dressed, middle-aged woman from Knocknaboul if I remembered an article I had written on the subject of Hanratty's Circus. She informed me that her mother had wept copiously when she read it for she had been taken to see the circus in Listowel by her late father at the turn of the century.

Last year, while treating with the many fine specimens of dead cats and other unusual objects taken by rod and line on the Feale River, I recalled having mentioned, in passing, Hanratty's Circus. Readers of the article in question will recall how an RIC Constable by the name of Mortimer Wallace hooked and landed a size forty-eight female corset while fishing for trout in the Feale River in the year nineteen hundred and eleven.

Record catch

It was suggested at the time that the corset may have been the property of a stout lady who was a member of Hanratty's Circus, which ended a long and colourful career in Listowel towards the close of the year nineteen hundred and ten. The corset was a record catch for the river which is renowned also for having a record in the number of boots, shoes and Wellingtons caught there by a rod and line over the years.

The corset, however, was Constable Wallace's own and not the property of the fat woman as is widely believed. In an effort to restrain his huge midriff he had taken to wearing this whale-some restrainer but finding it uncomfortable decided to dump it in a deep hole in the Feale. He got rid of it late of a Tuesday night but hooked it early the following Wednesday morning while fishing for trout.

But enough about corsets. Let us look once more at Hanratty's Circus which, before your time and mine, was by far the most popular entertainment doing the round of the Irish countryside.


The owner and ringmaster was one Jake Hanratty, a man of indeterminate age, who was also a flame-swallower, juggler and bare-back rider. In addition, he was a stand-in trapeze artiste whenever his more temperamental employees failed to report for work. You could say that Jake Hanratty was a true all-rounder, a master of all trades and situations with the exception of one, to wit his marriage, which was consistently marred by strife and unhappiness.

His wife Eva was blond-haired, ageless wire-walker with an hourglass figure and a roving eye.

The rest of the circus consisted of a rather stout lady with a double chin, who was billed as the fattest woman in the world. There was a mustachioed knife-thrower named Spangooli who was said to have Hungarian origins. There was a buckling mule, an ancient camel, a monkey and a wagonmaster whose duty it was to look after the only wagon and pair of horses of the outfit. These were in fairly good condition. Hanratty was kind to animals and saw to it that they were fed at all times.

The circus drew reasonable crowds to Listowel and was about to move on to Abbeyfeale, where the Hanrattys enjoyed immense popularity when Jake Hanratty decided to hit the bottle. He was one of those uncommunicative drinkers who can floor half after half with no obvious effect.


Towards the afternoon of his third day on the booze he declared to the barmaid in Hourigan's pub in Church Street that he was going to demolish the Hungarian knife thrower with one of his own knives and that as soon as he had performed this chore he would strangulate his wire-walking wife on the grounds that the pair were having an affair behind his back. As the day wore on his threats grew more terrible and when he started to put an edge on a carving knife which he had concealed on his person it was obvious that he meant business.

The barmaid, like a sensible girl, informed the RIC and Jake Hanratty was taken into custody for his own good. After two days in the lock-up he was completely sober so it was decided to release him. He made straight away for the site of the tent in order to beg his wife's forgiveness and to resume his itinerary.

Hanratty, according to those who knew him, was a decent fellow at heart but unable to cope with the twin burdens of an unfaithful wife and a ferocious appetite for potstill whiskey.

Paid off

When he arrived at the site all that remained of his circus was the camel. During his sojourn indoors the wagon master was paid off by the wife in the city of Cork where she disposed of canvas, caravan, horses and monkey. It is believed that she and Spangooli later boarded a boat bound for America where she promptly deserted him in favour of a retired wrestler who happened to be on the make at the time.

Jake Hanratty's answer to his problem was to hit the bottle harder than ever before. His money, however, ran out and when it did he was no longer welcome in the public houses. All that was left to him in the world was the camel. He tried in vain to sell the creature but there were no buyers. Your North Kerry farmer, then as now, was a realist first and zoologist after.

Hanratty, therefore disposed of himself. He did it discreetly by immersion, in the Feale River one cold October morning. The camel, poor creature, was left to fend for itself.


Now comes the interesting part of the story. Some six years ago during Listowel's first Writers' Week I happened to be in the village of Duagh where a group of drama enthusiasts were foregathered to pay homage to the homage to the late and great playwright, George Fitzmaurice. After the ceremony I repaired to the hostelry of one Dermot O'Brien where I encountered a friend from the city of Limerick, who invited me to join him in a drink. He was none other than Paddy Lysaght, poet, printer, essayist and historian.

We discussed the history of Duagh and towards the close of our conversation mine host Dermot O'Brien asked us if we were aware of the fact that a camel was buried a few hundred yards away under the margin of a by-road. He very graciously guided us to the spot and there sure enough was a mound on top of which was a makeshift wooden cross put up the day before and bearing this inscription:

“A camel doth [sic] lie here. Ponder ere [sic] you pass me.” The mound was about twelve feet long and four feet wide which means that the camel was buried standing up and not sideways as is the custom. Over the grave daisies and primroses jostled in the summer wind for pride of place. The grass grew green warbled eloquently in the background.


At least the camel found a resting place which is more that can be said for its master whose remains were never recovered despite the fortnight long search during which no effort was spared. No relatives appeared when the word of the fatally spread, which proves true the old adage that he whose purse is empty will never be burdened with friends.

There was a high flood in the Feale River when Jake Hanratty submitted his body to its cocoa-coloured waters. He was quickly washed down-river to the seas where, no doubt, in the fullness of time his body was reduced to that golden sand for which he seaside resort of Ballybunion is justly famous.

In the main street of Athea, his passing was mourned by two who would not like to see him forgotten. I looked at the remains of my pint and saw that it had grown too late and too crowded for any hope of another. I lifted my glass and briefly addressed myself to the women from Knocknaboul:

“May the Lord have mercy on the dead”, I said.

“Amen,” said she and we went our separate ways while car-horns hooted and flying clouds contrived to conceal the stars in the roof of the sky.

This article by the late and great John B Keane first appeared in the Limerick Leader on in July 30, 1977.

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