Dr Macaura – A Story of Sweet Melody, Picture Palaces and Quackery – in Skibbereen!

Our own local band – St Fachtna’s Silver Band – will be playing at a carol concert on the eve of Christmas Eve this year. I set out to write a simple post about the story of that long-established Skibbereen musical institution. Little did I know how much colourful West Cork history would tumble out of that modest project.

I am not the first to write on these matters, and I have to express my gratitude to David Brewster who contributed an article to the 2007 Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal (volume 3): this was in the form of an edited transcript from a recording made in 1992 by Eleanor Agnes Macaura, whose father, Gerald Joseph Macaura – a local man – was the founder of the Silver Band in Skibbereen over a hundred years ago – in 1912. A further article – specifically about the Band – appeared in the Society’s 2012 journal (volume 8), written by Séamus O’Brien, then Chairman of the Band: again, many thanks to Séamus, and the Journal.

Gerald Macaura (left) and his friend Gugliemo Marconi

Gerald Joseph Macaura was born on 1 May 1871 in Townsend Street, Skibbereen. His father Florence was a cooper and needle-maker. His mother Ellen could see no future for her five sons in West Cork and sent them off, one by one, to her cousin in New Jersey where they joined the community of Irish labourers. Gerald had been an enterprising boy in Skibbereen: among other things he made a kite – a life-sized figure with a lantern inside it which he launched at night to terrify the neighbours. He taught himself ventriloquism and was an entertainer and practical joker. In America he was no less inventive: according to Ella’s account he made a machine for sharpening knives – angled files set in a block (we all have one today). He also made a hook and harness device which could be used for cleaning windows on high buildings (also still in use today). He got no recognition for these, but had more luck in the Edison Laboratories of Industrial Research where, in the 1880s, he met, worked with and apparently became good friends of Edison, Marconi and Henry Ford 1 (who also had West Cork roots).

Probably Macaura’s most successful invention: the Pulsocon. Claims made for it in the popular press of the day included ‘ . . . the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk (or even run), all in the space of 15 minutes . . . !’ Interestingly, examples of this machine can be found on display in Sex Museums in various parts of the world . . .

Macaura did successfully patent and market one machine while he was in America – the Pulsocon. This was an enduring success, and was also subsequently patented in Britain and France: he is said to have made a fortune out of it. Described as a ‘blood circulator’ the device produced strong vibrations which could be applied to various parts of the body to relieve ‘. . . pain, rheumatism, arthritis and many other ailments . . .’ Ella remembers that her father had ‘. . . the power of healing in his hands . . .

Loch Ine House, Gerald Macaura’s West Cork home in later life, as it is today

In 1901 Macaura and Marconi came to West Cork and were involved in setting up the Marconi telegraph station on Brow Head. At this time Gerald found – and fell in love with – Lough Ine House, just outside Skibbereen: it was neglected and run down. He purchased it and restored it with every modern convenience, including electricity and central heating. Around this time, Macaura began touring with his Pulsocon, renting large halls to give public demonstrations of the device – one was the Royal Albert Hall in London. He gave himself the title ‘Doctor’, but he had no medical qualification: he was first and foremost a showman.

But there can be no doubt that ‘Doctor’ Gerald Macaura (he sometimes also called himself ‘Colonel’) was a successful and prosperous showman. And Skibbereen benefitted! A nationalist, and supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he contributed generously to the founding of the Skibbereen Volunteers in 1914, giving £50. He also commissioning a set of silver-plated Besson instruments for the establishment of a Volunteer band in the town. Not only that, but he was enterprising enough to look for a way in which the Band could be financially secure into the future: he built the first cinema in Skibbereen!

Sample programmes for the Kinemac. I found a link to the 1914 film ‘Sign of the Cross’ shown in the right-hand bill, here. It is actually hard work to watch!

The idea was that all admission fees would go to Band funds. Unfortunately, a town with a population at the time of only 3,000 was unable to support the venture, and in 1917 the Kinemac was abandoned and everything was sold at auction (note the details of the different grades of seating in the auction notice below). The building had been located beside what is now the westernmost roundabout going out of Skibbereen towards Ballydehob, and not a trace of it remains. Also, no photograph of the Kinemac seems to have come down to us – I am always hopeful that someone might come forward with something found in an old album in an attic . . .

There’s much more to Macaura’s story – including an incident in Paris where he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine – and political controversy because it was suggested that the Skibbereen Volunteer Band’s committee was biased against the town’s Protestants, who had in turn boycotted the Kinemac. It would all make a great film . . .

I couldn’t find a photo of the Kinemac – which lasted from 1914 to 1917, but this view of Skibbereen dates from that time (probably 1916). I’m not sure what the ‘procession’ of ladies is doing. The ‘Maid of Eirinn’ statue is on the right, and today’s Town Hall straight ahead

All this serves as an introduction to how Skibbereen got its Band – which still thrives today! It has been through ups and downs, but is now a lively and colourful attribute to the town’s life. For me, at least, there’s nothing like the sound of a brass band (I played in one for over thirty years). In case you are not familiar with that very particular sound, give this a go: it’s a version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged for Flugelhorn, and comes from the wonderful film ‘Brassed Off’ featuring the late, lamented Pete Postlethwaite. The ‘real’ musicians are the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, with Paul Hughes as soloist.

Don’t forget the carol concert with St Fachtna’s Band in Abbeystrewery on the 23rd December, 7.30pm. I shall be there – and so will Doctor Macaura – in spirit, at least!

10 thoughts

    • That’s a very good question! In both the Historical Society Journals it is given as 1st May – on the plaque it is the 2nd. I wonder if the latter mixed up the birthday and the day he died?

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  1. Robt: Many years ago I found some Normandy parish magazines from 1905 and 06. In one was an account of a church fete which was opened “to the strains of the Tongham Silver Band”. Imagine what a tiny place Tongham was then. Must have been a district organization. The band is long gone, probably did not survive WW1. PD

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