Tramore, Sierra Leone and Johnny McGurk

In 1920, the British government decided to hold a major exhibition, on a world's-fair scale, to showcase the Empire.

The date, of course, was no coincidence: relief at victory in the First World War was accompanied by a sense that Britain's global power had been exhausted by the conflict. Drawing attention to the opportunities and perhaps also the responsibilities of its worldwide bundle of colonies and dependencies might help both to educate and to uplift the public. A site was chosen at Wembley, where a national football stadium was opened in 1923 – the only part of the project to have an enduring life, since the Empire itself disintegrated in the half century that followed. The British Empire Exhibition formally opened in April 1924, and ran until the end of October 1925. (The recently established Irish Free State had made it clear by 1923 that it would not participate, a refusal tactfully attributed "to the urgent need for economy and to the difficulty of making adequate preparations in existing conditions", a deft allusion to the Civil War.[1]) Although the Exhibition attracted 27 million visitors, it proved to be a financial disaster, the losses being recouped in very small measure by auctioning off some of the pavilions when the project closed. Its financial failure is the first step in explaining how one of those buildings came to the County Waterford seaside town of Tramore.

Britain's West African territories were grouped inside a "Walled City", inspired by Kano in Nigeria. It was intended to look "grim and rugged ... suggestive of adventure and the splendid romance of Empire-building." Sierra Leone's exhibit was "the replica of a rest house .... These rest houses are scattered over the country for the convenience of travellers." With a thatched roof and shuttered windows, it bore some resemblance to a traditional Irish rural home, and might even have passed for a cottage orné on an Ascendancy estate. In its subsequent incarnation as a ballroom, it could accommodate 200 people. Real-life Africans were imported to populate the exhibit, and were thoughtfully provided with stoves as they demonstrated local crafts, with some of them employed "to make music on strange instruments." Exotic tropical products such as ginger and chillies formed part of a display which was "full of all sorts of things, most of which are of a pleasantly tropical and dark-continenty nature". To provide security, the Sierra Leone colonial authorities sent a corporal from the West African Frontier Force and a police constable, whose uniforms made them favourites with photographers.[2] Nowadays, we should regard the whole enterprise with embarrassed disapproval, as a patronising and devalued appropriation of colonised cultures. In the context of the time, it probably had some value in educating the public about Britain's imperial responsibilities. With well-meaning insensitivity, The Times, Britain's most influential newspaper, warned its readers: "do not make the mistake ... of assuming that the natives of Sierra Leone are all benighted savages." Fourah Bay College, West Africa's first higher education institution, had produced 43 MAs and 138 BAs, using examination papers set by the University of Durham.[3]

The financial catastrophe meant that there was no chance that the exhibits could survive for the long term. They were sold off to be adapted for miscellaneous uses. Early in 1927, a New Zealand newspaper reviewed their mundane fates. "Ceylon is a coachbuilding factory in London. Nigeria is a garage in Preston. Palestine will soon be a laundry in Glasgow. East Africa has become a furniture factory at Letchworth. Sierra Leone is an Irish restaurant at Tramore, County Waterford."[4] The origin of the report seems to have been The Times, which had reported in January 1927 that the Sierra Leone pavilion had been "transferred to Tramore in County Waterford where it is now an Irish restaurant".[5] It is possible that the ambitious entrepreneur who had purchased the pavilion and shipped it across the Irish Sea was not absolutely certain what he planned to do with it.

John McGurk, generally known as "Johnny", was born in Belfast around 1873. He had a varied and lively work history, which included working as a huckster in Belfast's Smithfield Market and selling clothes at country fairs. He also opened a chain of photographic shops in his native city. Some time after 1901, he came to work in a fairground at Tramore. Calling himself "Uncle Joe", he operated a bagatelle table, a cross between billiards and pinball, in which competitors attempted to place balls within nests of wooden pegs. At a penny a time, the potential profits were very large, enough to enable Johnny McGurk to become a seaside entertainments entrepreneur himself. He launched the Uneeda dance hall, before moving to a larger marquee in the Strand Road. He certainly had the resources to fight off competition, and bring the Sierra Leone to Tramore. Like many a jovial entertainer, his public face masked private tragedy. He had married at nineteen, his wife Maryanne being two years older.  Five of their nine children were dead by 1911. Perhaps domestic tragedy helps explain his exceptionally devout Catholicism. "Intensely religious, he was one who never made a parade of his deep faith" . There were regular pilgrimages to Lourdes, usually accompanied by "some poor invalid" travelling at his expense, and he worked as a volunteer "brancardier" (stretcher-bearer), helping those who hoped for miracles at the famous shrine. His private charity was undoubtedly both extensive in amount and genuine in motivation. He also appreciated the utility of gestures of public generosity, making facilities available for charity events, and, for a time in the mid-1930s, paying for a lifeguard when the local authority had no available funds. In his later years, he developed fairgrounds at Rosslare Strand and at Bray in County Wicklow. It was while working on the latter project, the Eagle's Nest, that he died in November 1941. His obituary in the Waterford News went beyond the conventional tributes to write of him with real warmth of appreciation: "beyond compare, the most popular and genial showman that Tramore and Waterford have ever known."[6]

There can be no doubt that Johnny McGurk was a decent and generous person. However, it may be suspected that some part of his munificence was intended to ensure protective goodwill for his gaming business. In the summer of 1936, he was one of three local entrepreneurs who were prosecuted for operating games of chance. The austere Eamon de Valera had come into office in 1932, and in those days his Fianna Fáil party was a good deal more puritanical than it would later become. The mid-thirties saw a crack-down on a number of louche activities, including seaside amusements. McGurk obeyed advice to stop operating a roulette wheel, but put up a bold defence against other charges. A series of court sessions solemnly examined such pastimes as Tons of Money, Pongo, Cigarette Circle Skill, The Little Marble, Wheel 'Em In and Throw the Penny. Holiday-makers paid and played these games for small prizes. The defence claimed that they were games of skill, with McGurk claiming at one hearing that one customer had won so much money that he had begged him  to go away. The prosecution case was that the various attempts to throw a penny over a number or steer a ball into a hole all involved "pure chance", and hence were forms of illegal gambling.

The initial case was dismissed on a technicality in the early summer. Further charges were laid in September, by which time Johnny McGurk was in Lourdes. The District Justice took a dim view of his absence, regarding it as a delaying tactic that would enable him to continue with his money-spinning gaming until the close of the season. It certainly seemed odd that so engaged an entrepreneur would leave the country during the tourist season, but McGurk hit back. Sending a postcard of the Grand Hotel Moderne to the editor of the Waterford News, he contemptuously commented: "Anybody who knows anything about pilgrimages to Lourdes will be aware that any arrangements to come out here must have been made a considerable time ago." His pilgrimage had been arranged as far back as March, well before the gaming charges had been served upon him. It might be an exaggeration to say that he called the judge a liar, but he was anxious "to make clear the unfounded nature of [his] observations". He was fined £10 on each of two offences.[7]

 He certainly operated on a lavish scale, and saw no point in modesty when advertsing what he had to offer. "Great news for Tramore," he trumpeted on the eve of the 1936 holiday season. "John McGurk, Ireland's peerless entertainment pioneer, has purchased at enormous outlay a perfectly wonderful array of downright thrillers. Tramore visitors arc definitely in for the biggest fun surprises they have ever seen or ever thought possible to produce." The flying pigs and waltzing balloon were unique attractions. The mysterious "Thriller" was "an amazing piece of entertainment mechanism", purchased from the Olympia in London. There was a motor cycle, ridden with "incredible nerve" inside a wall of death in defiance of gravity. There were special amusements for the timid as well, such as skating. "Tramore is going to be on the amusement map this season. Never before in Ireland has such a banquet of innocent, endless fun been prepared as is now ready for all at Tramore's Fun Fair."[8] This was a personality who could not be cowed by a £20 fine.

If Johnny McGurk ever intended to open a restaurant in the building he transported from Wembley, he soon changed his mind. Re-erected on the east side of the Strand Road close to the railway station, the "spacious and firm structure" was formally opened on Sunday 20 February 1927. The occasion was a charity concern and dance held by an ex-servicemen's social organisation, the British Legion.[9] In April, it was reported that the Sierra Leone Hall had cost £2,000 to erect. It was equipped "with the latest steam-heating apparatus, and it is intended to have as a novelty during the winter months a series of up-to-date cinema pictures and concerts."[10] And that is the last we hear of Tramore's Sierra Leone Hall.

It has not been possible to trace any description of the building materials that McGurk brought from London. Contemporary descriptions state that the walls were made from sun-dried brick, but it is likely that its major attraction to a purchaser would have been a steel frame. There may have been little point in shipping the thatched roof to a corner of Ireland where thatching was a vernacular craft. In any case, insurance companies would probably have preferred slates or tiles in a busy holiday zone. In short, we cannot be sure just how much that was redolent of Sierra Leone actually travelled across the Irish Sea.  At Wembley the building was surrounded by potted palm trees, and the village peopled with Africans in traditional dress making ornaments from ostrich feathers. Reassembled under the doubtful skies of County Waterford, and with a dismal tract of bog behind it, the pavilion was no doubt markedly short of tropical atmosphere. Catholic Ireland might well have warmed to Sierra Leone as a field for missionary endeavour, but a large section of McGurk's clientele would not have shared the enthusiasm of the local British Legion for a name with imperial associations. There was, too, a simple practical problem: even the local newspaper could not spell the name.[11]

During 1927, the Sierra Leone Hall became the Palace Cinema and Ballroom. Unfortunately, the march of technology soon undermined McGurk's plans. With the advent, after 1929, of talking pictures, he decided that it would be too expensive to modernise his cinematograph equipment, and the Palace reverted to dancing and roller-skating.[12] However, following McGurk's death, the building was acquired by a Kerry businessman who had already built up a chain of cinemas. In February 1942, it opened bearing his brand name, the Casino Cinema.[13] Unfortunately, it proved unable to compete with a purpose-built modern picture theatre, the Rex, opened in 1945, and closed three years later. The building was still occasionally used for "events",[14] but its future became uncertain.

The Irish Tourist Board, established in 1939, had used its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire much of the seafront area in Tramore. This was resented locally, the more so as the inter-party government formed in 1948 cut back its funding.[15] Thus no progress was made on the Board's intention to renovate the Casino Cinema as a public hall.[16] In October 1949, an attempt was made to let the premises, which were described as "suitable for any class of indoor amusement". It was hoped locally "that some use will be made of the Casino during the coming year. The building has received a severe buffeting in the past two years, and is, in its present state, an eyesore."[17] In 1948, Tramore had acquired its first local council, the Town Commissioners, and it was suggested that the building might be appropriate for use as a Town Hall. But, by 1953, under the stewardship of the Irish Tourist Board, the one-time star attraction of the Wembley Exhibition had "lapsed into disrepair through being left vacant, to the chagrin of the townspeople and the wonderment of visitors."[18] There was further controversy locally when the Board sold its seafront holdings to a local consortium, called Tramore Enterprises Limited, with some claiming that public property should have transferred to the Town Commissioners. The new operation had its problems, but it did tackle the derelict cinema. "The Ballroom and cafe which is being constructed at the former 'Casino' is rapidly nearing completion," a local newspaper reported in June 1955, adding: "The building is to be re-named." One week later, its new identity was unveiled. The complex of dance hall and restaurant was to be called the Silver Slipper, "(formerly The Casino)". It had "been transformed beyond all recognition ... the last word in modernity."[19] How much of the Sierra Leone pavilion was incorporated into the makeover is unknown.

In its turn, the Silver Slipper was demolished in the summer of 1973 as part of a programme of renewal at a time when traditional seaside tourism was under pressure from foreign charter holidays.[20] The site became a complex called the Holiday Shops, one of which, the Donut Bar, belongs to a family with a sense of Tramore history. It is their helpful website that completes the journey from Wembley.[21] There is no physical trace of any earlier buildings. Perhaps it is a matter for regret that after coming to Tramore with such a fanfare, Sierra Leone should have vanished – at least in name – so quickly and so comprehensively.  Perhaps the links can be built afresh.

ENDNOTES

All websites were consulted during October 2018.

 

[1] Hansard, 23 April 1923 vol 163 col. 62. Ascension Island, British North Borneo and Gibraltar also did not take part.

[2] The Times, 23 April, 23 May 1924; P. Grant, "Sierra Leone at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924" on www.brent.gov.uk. All websites were consulted in October 2018. The Sierra Leone village is illustrated on https://tuckdb.org/items/41757.

[3] The Times, 23 May 1924.

[4] Otago Daily Times, 31 March 1927. Several New Zealand newspapers carried the story, traced through https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. Palestine had been added to the British Empire after the First World War as a League of Nations mandated territory. British rule was notably unsuccessful. 

[5] The Times, 14 January 1927. It is instructive that British and New Zealand reports could refer simply to "County Waterford", suggesting that Ireland was still not regarded as a fully separate country.

[6] Waterford News, 21 November; Independent, 20 November 1941. For the lifeguard, Irish Press, 10 September 1936.  The 1911 census was consulted via http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie.

[7] Irish Press, 10 June; Cork Examiner, 15 July, 9 September; Waterford News, 18 September 1936.

[8] Independent (Dublin), 8 May 1936.

[9] Cork Examiner, 21 February 1927.

[10] Waterford News, 1 April 1927.

[11] Waterford News, 1 April 1927. During the Emergency, the Irish Army found itself with a great deal of manpower but few obvious outlets. Soldiers were used to drain the bog behind the Promenade. The work was completed in the 1970s with the excavation of boating lakes. Munster Express, 1 June 1973.

[12] Note on the history of the Casino Cinema, Tramore, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/57514.

[13] Munster Express, 13 February 1942.

[14] E.g. Munster Express, 19 March 1948.

[15] D. Keogh with A. McCarthy, Twentieth Century Ireland... (Dublin, 2005 ed.), 153-4; J.J. Lee, Ireland, 1912-1985... (Cambridge, 1989), 308.

[16] Munster Express, 16 January 1948.

[17] Irish Press, 11 October; Munster Express, 28 October 1949.

[18] Munster Express, 16 January 1953. Speaking in Dáil Éireann in a February 1954 debate on the sale of Tourist Board properties in Tramore, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass, said: "There was an accumulation of shacks and objectionable buildings in the vicinity of the promenade. So unsightly was that collection of objectionable buildings that a very well-known English newspaper columnist who visited Tramore described it as 'like the back yard of a deserted mining village'." www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/1954-02-17/31/.

[19] Munster Express, 17, 24 June 1955.

[20] The demolition is described, with a photograph, in Munster Express, 15 June 1973. This account traced the building back to the Wembley Exhibition. By November 1974, Bord Fáilte (the renamed Irish Tourist Board) had spent £464,000 in a renewal programme at Tramore. www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/1974-11-28/31/.

[21] http://www.donutbar.ie/about-donut-bar-tramore/.

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