Jeanne Rathbone neé Egan (Newcastle, Galway City to Battersea, London, England)
Jeanne Rathbone neé Egan
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Jeanne Rathbone neé Egan had an idyllic Galway city childhood. Although she nearly ended up in Canada, Jeanne’s passion for the arts would follow her when she emigrated to swinging sixties London. Having lived and reared a family in Battersea in South London she remains an active member of a community in which she is deeply embedded.
Name: Jeanne Rathbone neé Egan
Now living in: Battersea, London, England
From: Newcastle, Galway City
I was born Jeanne Egan in 1946, in Headford, the third of seven children, six girls and a boy. I was born in a delightful two storey thatched house, which had belonged to the Protestant rector. We lived with my uncle Billy, who remained a bachelor. I was given the moniker, Jeanne, because my grandmother checked the saint’s day. It was the day of John of the Latin Gate, who apparently didn’t exist. Nobody seemed able to pronounce my name, so I’m known as Jean.
Growing up in Galway
My first convent school was run by the Presentation nuns, but to this day, I still don’t know what they presented. They seemed really old and wore a black chador called a ‘habit’ and sported a large jangly set of rosary beads. These nuns didn’t seem to have any legs, as they appeared to glide along the well-polished linoleum, as if they were on castors. We moved to Galway city to a rented house in Newcastle in 1950. My father was a civil engineer. His office in St Francis Street, which is now occupied by my brother in the same profession. I attended the Pres, walking past the university and along the canal. There I made my holy communion when they dressed us up to look like little Barbie doll child brides. As an atheist, I see it as cannibalism.
I went to Irish dancing classes in the Áras in Dominick Street (once the townhouse of Lady Gregory) when a woman called Mrs Simpson came from Athlone and taught most of the next generation of step dancing teachers.
In 1955, we moved into our new house that my father had designed and built in Threadneedle Road, which was once a famine relief road. I can still recall the delightful squeals from children on the beach on a hot day. We used to have to go to school on Saturday mornings waking to sounds of the donkey and carts as they trotted along the seafront carrying produce to the market in the city.
I had attended the newly established Scoil Íde run by the Jesus and Mary Nuns, which was housed in a run-down guesthouse. The nuns drove to school in a Volkswagen. Mother Stanislaus taught me to sing Kevin Barry and the romantic Italian ditty, Santa Lucia. Edel Quinn, the noted Legion of Mary missionary, was a first cousin of our mother and so I was paraded in front of visitors. I went on to Dominican Convent Taylor’s Hill and was fast tracked by a year, and so the result was that I only spent four years in secondary education before going to University! The Dominican nuns were very insular, they never left the convent and were not well qualified as teachers, so I had an easy ride and quite enjoyed myself.
We had long school Summer holidays. Visitors came, and time was spent swimming, on the beach, tennis in the club up the road, hanging around the amusements in the Arcade, going to the Park café, occasional shows in the marquee in Salthill Park, idyllic evening walks along the prom in June. I was espied once by parents walking hand-in-hand with Dennis from Trinidad and had a dalliance with a Spanish lad called Alfredo. As Galway was a University city, I attended student dances when I was a schoolgirl and so when us city girls became students, we felt rather sophisticated compared to other students. My friend Bill Sweeny, from Athlone, told me that the incomers thought us Galwegian students a cliquey lot.
Frank Mc Court wrote about ‘his miserable, Irish, Catholic childhood’ and added ‘the happy childhood is hardly worth your while’. Well, I had one of your happy ones and it was most certainly worth my while. The fifties were hard times in Ireland and my parents were making plans to emigrate to Canada. My eldest sister Ida, aged eighteen, was sent over to Montreal, but we didn’t follow as parents couldn’t get a reasonable price for the house.
I went to ballet classes, held in the Golf Links Hotel, then the Columban Hall Sea Road. I attended Mrs Casburn’s Academy of Elocution and Drama. I acted in plays that were entered into drama festivals, which were a great Irish tradition. These used to be adjudicated by people like Lord Longford and Ray McAnally, acclaimed film and theatre actors. I recall a farmer who attended our play ‘Mr. Hunter’ in Scariff as part of ‘Feile Luimni’ during the Limerick Festival, telling me I was the first actress he had ever met! It made me feel glamorous.
I used to go to my grandparents house in Castlebar where I was rather indulged by them and my aunt. As a visitor to the town, a blow-in, I seemed to have a certain novelty value. My old ballet teacher from Galway, Marie Langan, had relocated there. I danced with her daughter, Regina, in the pantomime Cinderella in 1960. She runs a wonderful ballet school in Galway. I next performed at the Linenhall doing my one-woman show, Sheela-na-Gig, in 1996.
When I was sixteen, I joined my two older sisters in London to work for the summer. I came to London again the following year – as the Profumo scandal erupted. I worked at Marks and Spencer in Oxford Street. I was asked to model some of the clothes! I remember walking along the street and some building workers shouting at myself and another girl, “It’s Christine Keeler”.
I returned home that year and became a student at University College Galway studying science. I was not cut out to be a scientist. It was my father’s fault. He thought an Arts degree was a waste of money. I asked what I might do with a BSc. and his reply was, “You could work in a jam factory”. I couldn’t think that far! Anyway, I failed some of the exams, passed in Botany and Chemistry, but I had a great time. I joined the Dramatic Society. I played Mrs Grigson in ‘The Shadow of a Gunman’.
I was winner of the “Gibs” (first years) public speaking contest, expounding on the exalted topic of jam jars and was co-opted onto the committee of the Literary and Debating Society. Michael D. Higgins was auditor – a preparation for his Presidential role. At the inaugural dinner of this committee the invited guest was a young ‘disc jockey’ called Terry Wogan. That same night, I was acting in two Yeats one-act plays ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Words upon the window- pane’. I had to get my parents to come to collect me from the theatre, The Grammar School in College Road, to take to me to the Sacre Coeur Hotel for said dinner. I had to change (aided by Doc Doherty – a flamboyant student) in the car into the evening dress borrowed from my friend Kathryn Lydon. I recall little else except the voice of the Lady Dean, Ma O’Driscoll, declare that Jeanne Egan was to be given no more wine.
In that first summer as a student, Kathryn and I went to work in Jersey, mainly waitressing in Gaudens Restaurant which was an island institution. In the autumn, we went hitchhiking to Spain, living off vino tinto, jambon bocados, huevas and we smoked Ducados cigarettes. The boys in Spain seemed to appreciate the blond, blue-eyed visiting girls. It was our dolce vita. I had decided that I was going to return to Galway minus my virginity. I regarded the issue of the ‘breaking of the hymen’ as a minor operation to be undertaken with a stranger – a large German in the lovely campsite in San Sebastien. I also ‘had’ my first married man – a sailor on the aircraft carrier, The Eagle, which was moored in Gibraltar and he brought us on board. I was doing well for firsts that summer. There was my first atheist and my first bisexual in Jersey.
Leaving for London
I failed my science exams so my student days at UCG were finished in 1965. I had to emigrate. I did feel resentful, but I got on the emigrant boat like thousands before me and joined my sister Marie, and her husband Jack, in their flat on Lavender Hill, Battersea and so started the next phase of my life. I went to the Labour Exchange looking for work and I ended up in a laboratory in Gartons Glucose in Battersea, on the river. I was not destined to be a laboratory technician.
I met Dave, my husband to be, at my sister’s basement flat, through my brother-in-law as they both taught at a night class. Dave was an economics teacher at Chiswick Grammar School, later to become a comprehensive school. He was 28, had a proper job and a car. When I went home for a week’s holiday he thought it was for good and so when I got back we started courting. When two people who come from different backgrounds/culture meet and feel a strong attraction things can move quickly as a lot of talking, comparing and catching up happens and you can fall in love very quickly. Within three weeks he asked me to marry him and that summer wearing an engagement ring we hitch-hiked to Italy. I moved in with him into a sparsely furnished house with an outdoor toilet that we shared with a solicitor, also from Manchester.
We were married in Moycullen Church Easter of 1967, because my uncle, Father George Quinn, was the Parish priest there. There was a flurry of snow when we exited from the Church, heading over to the Bridge Hotel Spiddal – chosen as it was a barter exchange for the hotels extension plans! Some of our guests were delighted to be entertained on the train back by The Dubliners.
We bought our house in 1968 and have lived here for fifty years, truly rooted in Battersea, as we joined the Labour Party. We have three children and one grandchild. I returned to University at Bedford College in Regents Park got a degree in Philosophy. I became a childminder, ran a playgroup with a friend, and then became a youth worker, a Women’s Officer in Hammersmith and Fulham Council – a paid feminist. After that, I went into adult education as a tutor and community education worker.
I got involved in the Battersea and Wandsworth Irish Group, which was inspired by the Greater London Council, recognising the Irish as an ethnic group that experienced prejudice and disadvantage. We set up a women’s group and ran céilís, dialogues in the library, an exhibition on Anglo Irish, Charlotte Despard, and trying to get an Irish dimension in schools. I set up as a trainer in Irish People and Equal Opportunities and ran Irish language workshops based on place names for second generation Irish. I went on to become an alcohol counsellor in the nineties.
I then ventured into stand-up comedy, doing my apprenticeship on the comedy circuit, but I found it lonely and tough as the token woman. I turned it into a one-woman show, Sheela-na-Gig, and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. I got four star reviews and was compared to Dave Allen but after a tour going to festivals and venues in Derry, Drogheda, Castlebar, Swansea, Glasgow, Cheltenham, Bath and Taylor’s Bar Galway, I decided it was too isolating and gave it up.
By then, I had trained as a Humanist Celebrant for hatchings, matchings and dispatchings – mostly funerals in crematoria. I was privileged to be asked to conduct Dave Allen’s funeral in 2007. I conducted weddings in France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, in the salt mine in Krakow, and on boats, barns and beaches in Britain. I got too cynical for weddings, so I now specialise in the Naming/Wedding combined ceremony – the cheap, hassle free wedding for modern couples. However, I did get into a spot of bother for mentioning in an interview that I didn’t marry virgins and was reported by the Ministry of Justice to the Humanist Association for discriminating against virgins! I conducted the first gay wedding in City Hall when it was piloted in 2003. I conducted a lovely memorial service for my friend Davnet in her home in Inverin two years ago.
From 1980 to 2004 we had a lovely thatched cottage in Tonnegurrane, near Corrandulla, which we went to every summer and let at a low rent so that the tenants would move out. We have fond memories of it and our neighbours there.
I am an active member of the Battersea Society Heritage Committee and I help research for and organise our blue plaques scheme, especially to women who had none in Battersea. I’m pleased to be unveiling one on the 14th December to Charlotte Despard, an Anglo-Irish socialist and suffragette, and Sinn Féiner, in this centenary year of women getting to vote. I have led tours of Battersea Power Station, Notable Women of Lavender Hill and storytelling tours in Battersea Arts Centre and Town Hall. My blogs also include one of Notable Galway Women – 14 of them! https://sheelanagigcomedienne.wordpress.com/category/notable-galway-women/
While I have no plans to return to Galway, I do have three sisters living in Galway, two in Oranmore, one in Furbo and my brother lives near Eyre Square as well as nieces nephews and cousins to visit. I consider myself to have been lucky in life. I am happy in London and can truly say that I have had opportunities that I would not have had if I hadn’t emigrated.