Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Jeanne – the early years

I was born Jeanne Egan on 6th of May 1946 the third of seven children, six girls and a boy. I was born in a delightful thatched house, not a typical Irish cottage, – it had a lovely French window leading to the orchard. We lived with my uncle Billy, who remained a bachelor. Apparently, at the same time that Mummy was pregnant with me he had impregnated Julia, our maid. Having a maid sounds grand but then it was quite common for a young women to live with a family as a helper whilst waiting to go to England to start  a career in nursing. The baby was given up for adoption. Sadly, this was very common then. Many years later a woman visited uncle Billy. He was suspicious of callers that might be ‘tax revenue’ people. He later concluded that she was his daughter.

Mummy told me that when I was a baby and she was very pregnant with my sister Carole (named after Carole Lombard- not a saint) that Daddy had gone out in the car one balmy August evening. ( He and friends had bought a flour mill so that they could get their petrol rations!) When he got back she asked him to check on the baby, me, only to find that she had put the new baby that she had just given birth to in the cot!

I was given the moniker, Jeanne, because my grandmother had checked to see what saint had May 6th as their name day. It was John of the Latin gate. So I got my name. However, it transpired that he didn’t exist when the Vatican came to overhaul the hagiographical membership some years later and gave St. Martin the nameday instead. So, had I been born some years later I would be named Martina. I share a birthday with Freud!

My first convent school was run by the Presentation nuns. I don’t know what they presented. Nuns are moustached women, who seemed really old and wore a black chador called a ‘habit’ and sported a  large jangly set of  rosary beads. It’s a Catholic thing-Madonna used to wear them and they had a crucifix attached. These nuns didn’t seem to have any legs, as they glided along the well polished linoleum, as if they were on castors. Me HOLY COMMUNION.                                                                                 Me –  a laughing baby in front of the ivy clad house.

HOLY COMMUNION.  They dressed us up to look like little barbie doll child brides for this sick religious ritual. We were told to pose in this angelic pious way – its a paedophile’s dream. This is the time when first tried to turn us into cannibals as they made us eat what they claimed was the body of their hippy Jesus.  It is so wrong for adults to force this sort of incomprehensible stuff on a child aged seven. They have fashion events for this now, where they model, display and sell dresses and accessories- veils, headdress, patent leather shoes, lace socks, shiny knickers, handbags, gloves – the whole kit and caboodle for your little sexualised barbie imitation bride – its sick and pressure to spend money on this and on the Communion lunch. I have seen websites where people have claimed that they spend up to £1000 on the day for outfits and reception. All this pressure to keep up with the Murphy’s and Jones – what kind of values and priorities must this inculcate in those unfortunate children who are dragged up as Catholics.

GALWAY.   We moved to Galway city and, in 1955, into the house that Daddy had designed and built. My father was a Civil Engineer and Architect. This was in Salthill the seaside resort – Torremolinos without  the sun. I can still hear the delightful childrens squeals from the beach on a hot summers day. Our address was Threadneedle Road leading up from the golf course end of the promenade. It was so named because, during the famine years, Barings Bank had contributed to the  relief fund which was mainly spent on building roads and walls!  By the time Ireland joined the EU, the big trend for grants received was for roundabouts. In Ireland roundabouts are given names.

We used to have to go to school on Saturday mornings and I clearly recall the sound of the donkeys and carts as they trotted along the seafront as they carried produce to the market in the city.

SHEELAGH, AOIFE, CAROLE, GERALDINE ME AND MAURA .

We had long school Summer holidays – nearly three months. I believe that this was because Ireland was a rural economy and there was a need for youngsters to with haymaking etc. Summers were lovely for us a visitors came, there was swimming, time on the beach and tennis and hanging around the amusements in the Arcade, going to the Park cafe and occasional shows in the marquee in Salthill Park.

It doesn’t get dark till eleven in June and there were idyllic walks along the prom at night. I was espied once by parents on one such glorious evening when I walked hand-in-hand with Dennis who was from Trinidad. I also had a dalliance with Alfredo, a Spanish boy, another Summer. I didn’t really ever have a steady boyfriend then but had a sufficiency of  little flings.  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 told me that the incomers thought us Galwegian students a cliquey lot.

Aoife and me – The Arcade booth.

I had attended a newly established primary school run by the Jesus and Mary nuns which was housed in a run down guesthouse. The nuns drove to school in a volkswagon and they seemed to be quite a liberal bunch.This photo is of the two top classes of this very small school. I’m at the back, second right, and Carole is in the middle in front of flaxen haired Aoife Morris.  This first school uniform was a yellow blouse and green dress.

Mother Stanislaus taught me to sing the rebel song Kevin Barry and the romantic Italian ditty Santa Lucia. I think my sisters and I were treated quite well by them. This may have had something to do with the fact that we were related to Edel Quinn who had been a missionary in Africa and was on the promotion list for sainthood with the Vatican!

When I left Scoil Ide to go on the Dominican Convent I was fast tracked by a year after some assessment test with the result 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.

Me posing on the tennis court and the six girls in 1954, Ida , Marie, Jeanne, Carole, Noelle and Maeve, who are twins.We look happy but that is, of course, the photographer’s job to ensure it as they don’t get paid for miserable photos.

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 and my eldest sister Ida, aged eighteen, was sent over to Montreal and stayed with aunt Ruby and family but we didn’t follow as Daddy just couldn’t sell the house for a reasonable price.

This photo was taken in the hall of BELTRA in 1959.

But I don’t remember any hardship. I lived yards away from the sea. I went to ballet classes and I believe I was quite graceful. The Bat dance was one of my solos. I played tennis in the club on our 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 an acclaimed film and theatre actor. I recall a farmer who attended our play ‘ Mr. Hunter’  in Scariff as part of  ‘Feile  Luimni’ – the Limerick Festival, telling me I was the first actress he had ever met! It made me fell glamorous.

The playbill for Mr. Hunter.                                                                                                              Regina and I – the Bluebirds.

I used to go to my grandparents house in Castlebar called Blackfort House. I was rather indulged by them and my aunt Kathleen. As visitor to the town – a blow-in -I seemed to have a certain novelty value. My old ballet teacher from Galway, Marie Langan, a very handsome women,  had relocated there with her doctor husband and I danced with her daughter, Regina, in our version of the Bluebirds pas-de-deux in the pantomime Cinderella in 1960. I recall a cheeky young lad in the street telling me I had gorgeous legs. I next performed at the Linenhall doing my one women show in 1996.

When I was sixteen I joined my two older sisters in London to work for the summer. I felt very mature as none of my friends were given such freedom. My sister Marie got married that year. Ida and I bought our bridesmaid dresses for the wedding in August 1962. I came to London again the following year- as the Profumo scandal erupted. I worked in Marks and Spencers 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 felt rather sophisticated.

I do not have many old snapshots so I am displaying what I have. I think all old black and white photos are cute. On the left its me in 1962 which was my first summer in London and I thought Mummy and Daddy would appreciate the image. The middle one is of myself, Regina, Leonie Donegan and Stella Brennan as we posed for our castanet dance. The third one is of me in my Spring tutu with daffodils but revealing cold legs.

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 Daddy’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 ahead and eliminated this weird thought of me in a jam factory wearing a white lab coat.  Anyway, I failed some of the exams- I think I passed in Botany and Chemistry but I had a great time. I joined the Dramatic Society, of course.

Me Evening Herald 1964 playing Mrs grigson in THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN I have always had trouble with people pronouncing my name Jeanne in Ireland. I tried to reclaim it from being called Jean when I was in my teens but I got called Jan. It is not the name I would have chosen. I would, at least, have preferred to be called by my Irish name Sinead.

Geraldine O Beirne with Daddy, me and Bryan

I was winner of the “Gibs” ( first years)  public speaking contest expounding on the exaulted topic of Jamjars and was co-opted onto the committee of the Literary and Debating Society. Michael D Higgins was a fellow member and he went on to become a government minister responsible for culture and is now PRESIDENT. 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 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 hoping to cross over to Africa from Gibraltar but our money was stolen from the camp-site and we got a very fortunate long lift back to San Malo when we got the boat back to jersey. I had decided that I was going to return to Galway minus my virginity which I did. I regarded the issue of the ‘breaking of the hymen’ as a minor operation which is sore and bloody and not an erotic, romantic experience. I did not want to bestow this on any lad back home. My stranger was a large German, it was in the lovely campsite in San Sebastien, the anaesthetic was vino tinto. I passed on this same advice to my daughter- not to give it to any young man that she fancied. I also ‘had’ my first married man. He was 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. I thought myself very sophisticated when I returned to University.

In Jersey I mainly lived of chips, tomatoes, pints of Guinness and tried many spirits and liqueurs as drink was inexpensive in that tax haven.

KATHRYN and me in JERSEY                                                              and again with a Welsh miner – a Lord Snowdon lookalike.

In Spain it was 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 failed my science exams so my my student days at UCG were finished in 1965. Ida got married in June. I was her bridesmaid and then I had to leave Galway and emigrated a week later and where would I go to but London. I did feel resentful but I got on the emigrant boat like the thousands before me and joined Marie and her husband Jack in their flat on Lavender Hill, Battersea and so started the next phase of my life.

Kathryn and I at a dance at the Hammesmith Palais where her husband Jimmy was playing with THE SWINGTIME ACES in 1968.

2 Responses

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  1. Hugh Watson said, on September 20, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    Hi Jeanne, Sent you an email but it may have ended up in your junk. Hugh Watson

  2. Paul said, on November 23, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting life story. It was especially interesting for me as I am from Galway.Regards,Paul


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