MARTINEZ, Calif. – Redmond O’Connell cried in New Zealand. But the Martinez resident shed no tears. Instead, his “cries” were eloquent and at times witty elocutions as part of a town crier competition.
O’Connell, who sometimes uses the performance name Redmond O’Colonies, has been ranked 11th in the world after entering the World’s Best Criers Competition in Central Otago, New Zealand.
Originally from Lancashire, England, O’Connell was living in San Francisco when he became involved with an environmental group, for which he played the part of a town crier for a related street theater performance.
“I did a proclamation, and not too long after that, I was told there are real town criers around the world,” he said.
His first contact was with some English criers, who in turn introduced him to some American practitioners. “I thought, ‘This is a great way to give back to one’s community.’”
Plus, O’Connell has a background in stand-up comedy as well as being a singer of standard tunes, so being able to enunciate and project his voice were skills he already had.
Meanwhile, after living in San Francisco for 10 years, he realized he was tired of the fog and looked to the East Bay for a new home. He had worked with Jim Ocean, a concert producer, and after working with him locally on a project, he decided to move to Martinez. He thought about leaving for Canada, but after a new relationship “went south,” he decided it was time to return to Martinez.
O’Connell convinced his new home city and, later, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, to authorize him as their official crier, a service he offers those local government agencies at no charge.
He soon discovered there are two governing bodies for criers, and the two organizations take turns offering contests on the world stage.
The Ancient & Honorable Guild of Town Criers runs one of the competitions.
Then there is the Loyal Company of Criers, which O’Connell described as a breakaway group that is “more progressive and fun” and views the Ancient and Honorable Guild as “stuffy old geezers.” The Loyal Company has its own contests.
It’s the latter group that organized the world-class tournament in New Zealand, and its progressiveness is illustrated by crier elements it no longer requires.
“You don’t have to start with three ‘Oyez!’ and end with ‘God Save the Queen,” O’Connell said. Those flourishes may sound exciting the first few times they’re shouted, but later in the contest, the Loyal Company decided, those elements can become tiresome, he said.
“They came up with the idea of marrying a crier with a sponsor, so they get some coverage in the event,” he said. This year, many of the sponsors were craft beers, like Monteith’s.
The contest ran from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1. Then O’Connell took a trip to England to visit relatives. He finally returned home late last month.
Contestants in the world crier tournaments don’t get the luxury of microphones. “It’s all acoustic – no amplification,” O’Connell said.
Contestants don’t vie for maximum volume, but must sustain the volume with which they begin, he explained. Since a key point is sustaining that volume, men and women can compete at the same level, he said.
“You can change (volume) for inflection and color, but if you start off strong and your voice shows signs of stress, you lose points,” he said.
Another valued quality is clarity in the delivery as well as in composition. In writing the crier entry, both levity and quality of content are judged, he said.
“I’ve done a historical, chronological cry,” he said, describing that oratory as describing historical events that have October anniversaries – William the Conqueror coming to England, the signing of the Magna Carta, the Great Fire of London, on up to the present.
For the version he used when the contest took place in Anacortes, Washington, in 2011, he took the liberty of projecting future October events, including a fictionalized account of a sponsor creating more wealth for his clients than any other, making Anacortes “the wealthiest enclave in the world.”
O’Connell said he’s developed some templates for proclamations, from these public tournaments to personal cries suitable for announcing birthdays or anniversaries.
At times, he’ll start a proclamation with the intent on drawing audience participation. He’ll boldly draw out the word, “Whereas …” and encourage his audience to join in.
Once everyone is comfortable with joining him at the start of each new paragraph, he will stay silent in preparation for the last part of the proclamation. After the audience shouts, “Whereas …” he will look shocked. Then he pauses, and in his best crier voice, resume the proclamation: “Therefore!”
O’Connell, who said he is “64 and three-quarters,” said he’s been competing since 1991, and missed just one world tournament since then. His best result came in Anacortes in 2001, when he was named the fifth best crier in the world.
“I am delighted to report that criers are a wonderful group of people – one big family,” he said. “They welcome anyone new to this. They’re very supportive and sharing. It’s always a pleasure to go to the competition and see who shows up.”
New faces soon become fast friends, he said.
The camaraderie reminds him of other “large families of people,” such as folk singing, which O’Connell said “is a passport to the world.”
But participating in crying “is even sweeter. You’re going to find wonderful people, even if you can’t speak their language,” he said.
Some of them seem to be real characters.
He met a German crier – he only knows the other as Erich – and appreciated his strong, European cries.
“He had two security guys with him, and had a wonderful old uniform with a bicorn hat. These two guys had long, World War I military coats with helmets with spikes on top.” That hearkened to the days when “don’t shoot the messenger” was less a bemused plea and more a direct order. At one time, O’Connell said, criers received federal protection.
O’Connell also admired a Belgian crier named Jacques, who wore a scarlet tunic with matching red leggings. The tunic was scalloped, “like inverted castle ramparts,” and he wore a tall dunce cap with a bubble on its point. Instead of the traditional “Oyez!” Jacques came out banging on a drum, “very badly,” and issuing his opening cry, “Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!” three times.
Jacques became frustrated because he only spoke Belgian, and fretted that his scores were lower because of the language barrier. “I think it was a perfectly legitimate complaint,” O’Connell said. “But I loved this guy.” In fact, O’Connell said, his presentation represented an 1,100-year-old Belgian tradition.
Another crier, Neville Stonehouse, of Melbourne, Australia, came out in attire that, in contrast with others, had no military look. Instead, he wore knee-length leather boots, breeches and a leather vest with a battered leather top hat. He also bypassed the “Oyez!” call, replacing it with “Hooooo-eeeey!”
Later, Stonehouse would tell O’Connell he didn’t want to go home. Turns out, he started breeding camels, but couldn’t bear to sell any of his stock. His herd had grown so large his wife gave him the ultimatum to sell some of the animals after the contest concluded. He had a choice – a camel herd or his wife. “She won,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell performed three different cries on his way to placing 11th in the world in the New Zealand tournament.
One represented his home community. “Since I’m the Contra Costa County, California, crier, I talked about how Contra Costa means ‘other coast,’” he said.
His cry told about the size of the county, how it is across the bay from San Francisco and was part of the great California Gold Rush in 1849. That led to “chances for one-day romances,” he said. His cry also described the community’s ties to railroads, agriculture and its proximity to the Central Valley as well as how 2.3 million people live atop five active faultiness. “Come and enjoy!” his cry challenged.
His second cry honored the sponsoring craft brewery Monteith’s. His cry began with the discovery of getting milk from cows; the development of brewing beer, which he credited to an ancient Sumerian goddess; and the way beer has been “helping attractively-challenged people procreate.”
He also cried in praise of the host country, proclaiming “the heart of New Zealand beats strong.” He used heart as a theme, he said, speaking of virtue and comparing the heart’s pumping to the New Zealand system that is driven by men and women “with excellent qualities of altruism, tenacity and courage.” He concluded by praising the tournament’s volunteers, calling them “the beating heart of New Zealand.”
While O’Connell said he intends to keep being a town crier, there’s another entertaining area that’s starting to intrigue him.
“A town in Wales is applying for its own court jester,” he said. Based on his other skills, he said, “I’m close to that!”