McGonagal at the Nethergate Circus

The “Poet” Under Fire

Mr Transfield, the proprietor of the Circus, Nethergate, and several members of his company, having decided to open at the Paisley establishment, gave a farewell entertainment last night, and by way of variety the services of Mr William McGonagal, “poet and tragedian”, were engaged. The announcement that Mr McGonagal was to take part in the entertainment attracted a large audience and during the early performances occasional cries were made for “McGonagal”. A “clowns’ club” was arranged, in which McGonagal was to take part. A table being introduced into the ring, the clowns one by one appeared and took their seats. Each, it was observed, carried an umbrella, the object of which was not difficult to divine. A taste of what was intended for the poet was given when Mr Transfield entered the ring. His “make-up” was of such a description that many of the gallery patrons mistook him for the “poet” and an egg whistled past his ear. Some of the clowns near were able to make way for the unwelcome missile, but one unfortunate did not observe the egg, with the result that he got it in the eye. A “distinguished visitor” was then announced, the curtains at the wings were thrown aside, and to the strains of “See the Conquering Hero Comes” McGonagal stalked into the ring with a lordly air. He was arrayed in a kilt, plaid and sporran, and wore a bonnet in which was fastened a feather which would have done credit to the wing of a first-class eagle. The kilt was a trifle short, but the “poet” wore “tights” which, however seemed to be rather wide for his limbs. The members of the “clowns’ club”, having evidently been warned of what might occur, no sooner saw the “poet” emerge than each unfurled his umbrella, and not a moment too soon, for scarcely had he entered the ring when eggs, herrings, potatoes and stale bread went whizzing through the air from all parts of the building, the point of attraction being the “poet’s warlike figure”. The “poet” paused for a moment and glanced hastily around, then made a rush to join the clowns; but these nimble gentry quickly retreated, leaving the McGonagal alone. Mr Transfield, thinking himself secure under a gingham of very respectable dimensions, stood near the entrance and looked on, but he had very soon to seek a more sheltered corner, for the half of a dry loaf aimed at the “poet” struck the umbrella with such force and carried about half of it away, while a handful of potatoes reduced the remainder to ribbons. An appeal to hear a recitation from the “renowned guest” was successful, and the “poet”, bracing himself up, and striking a dramatic attitude, with one hand on his breast and the other on his sword, at once launched into the recital of a wonderful “poem” entitled “Tel-el-Kebir“. Up to this point he had miraculously escaped the fierce fusilade that greeted his entrance; but his face, that had been liberally rouged in the dressing-room , now began to be streaked with white, and his tartan robes were bespattered with the yolks of eggs, and here and there pieces of shell clung to them. The first few lines of the “poems” were listened to, but when the “poet” raised his voice to a hoarse shout the gravity of his hearers gave way, and derisive cheers broke forth from all quarters, accompanied by another shower of flour, eggs and bread. Ignoring this byplay, the “poet” held bravely on, but a red herring for a second or two broke the continuity of his recitation. Wiping his face ruefully, he proceeded to relate how :-

“Arabi’s army were about 70,000 in all,
And virtually speaking, it was not very small.”

This information invoked uproarious laughter, and brought forth another dozen or so eggs. One hit the “poet” on the shoulder, and the result he for a moment gingerly surveyed with puckered brows. The climax having now been reached, the McGonagal unsheathed his sword, an furiously slashed the air for a short time. The recitation ultimately being concluded, the “poet” waved his sword triumphantly, and strode with a majestic mein from the ring., accompanied by a parting volley of eggs. A storm of applause followed and after a rather lengthy “wait” the “poet” reappeared, and, bowing, rapidly retreated. The unusually quick movements of the “poet” rather took the spectators aback, and he had almost reached the exit of the arena before he was caught in a shower of missiles. An encore was enthusiastically demanded, but the “poet” declined to comply, and the other items on the programme were proceeded with.

From a Dundee newspaper, 29th December 1888

Comments (1) »

  1. In the year 2016, on the 25th day of May at 12:59 pm

    […] poem was written in response to the Dundee magistrates’ decision to ban McGonagall’s riot-inducing circus performances in 1889. His attempt to move to Glasgow was aborted within the month – the climate didn’t agree […]

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