The story a few months ago recalling the accident in Dungannon back in 1954 when a circus trailer crashed into shops as it negotiated the 90 degree bend after just leaving Market Square to head down Irish Street evoked some wonderful memories of the days when circuses coming to town were the hight of the year for many local residents, young and old alike.
Thus, I promised a few readers I would carry an article about what it was like for those who lived the nomadic way, on the road day in and day out, year in and year out travelling from town to town to entertain the generations.
They were operating in what is basically now a sadly bygone era, even though there are still to this day a small number who carry on the tradition abd delighted families just as much as ever, because nothing beats live entertainment.
Alas, the arrival of television initially and later video and the revival of cinema, followed by the massive innovations such as home computers, allied to the growing popularity of night clubs, theme parks and endless other time-consuming pursuits such as facebook and twitter means that many of the younger generation are generally being deprived of the sights and sounds of the big top.
In the early to mid-twentieth century, circuses and travelling shows were something of an institution which brought a little glamour and glitter to every village and crossroads in Ireland.
The first indication that a show was on its way was the appearance of the brightly-coloured advertising bills posted in shops windows or, just as often, attached to trees or telegraph poles around the town.
Then, when the big day came, a convoy of caravans, lorries and the occasional horse-drawn wagon would pull into the venue, typically a farmer’s field, the local green or sometimes a traditional showfield used over the decades.
The arena was erected on the most level spot in the field, the wooden side-sections - gaily painted with their eye-catching artistic designs - were propped into position and the triangular sections holding the heavy canvas ‘tilt’ were bolted into place overhead.
Quite a few bags of sawdust from the handiest local mills transformed what had been a luscious green field into a roadshow theatre which would usually supply a topic of conversation for many weeks to come.
Generally, the circus was billed to provide entertainment for three or four days, but it was known to stick around for weeks sometimes, depending on the demand from the urban and rural folks of the specific area.
In addition to the weird and wonderful, like the strong lady and the illusionist, there originally were also others aspects of entertainment, like a pre-show film and a local talent contest.
Duufy’s, Fossett’s, Courney’s and Stackel’s were just some of the famous shows which travelled the length and breadth of Ireland - and some of them are still familiar to this day.
For the past three centuries Duffy’s Circus has been amazing audiences throughout Ireland. A Dublin shoemaker, Patrick James Duffy developed a love for foreign circuses visiting Ireland. After learning various circus skills he became a famous acrobat and his son, John, started his own circus, the John Duffy Circus. John had three sons - John, Tom and James. By the 1870s the family had an extremely large circus with upward of 250 horses.
Throughout the years the circus has had many names with the changing of generations, the Duffy Family Circus and Duffy’s National Circus, but has always used the Duffy name. In 1917 James operated a circus with his sister, the Duffy and McClean’s Circus, for a few years before the James Duffy & Sons Circus was born.
Although James died in 1959, the circus continued to be operated by his wife, Lena, his sons - Jimmy, Johnny, Billy, Tom, Arthur, Freddy and Albert - and daughter Lena. In 1971 Lena died, the circus carried on by her sons as the Duffy Brothers Circus.
By 1979, another generation of Duffys had been groomed for the ring. Theirs was an extremely large family, so Tom and son David decided to branch out with their own circus. In 1982 the Duffy Brothers Circus ceased and Tom Duffy’s Circus has been carrying on the name ever since. Gradually Tom Duffy’s Circus has grown into one of Europe’s finest and most respected circuses.
The Stackel’s Circus was founded by a family who came to Ireland from Denmark in 1912 and were versatile in the core skills of acrobatics and animal training - and are apparently renowned as the one circus operating in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, notably entertaining British, American and Belgian servicemen in camps throughout the six counties.
Stackels’ Circus remained in Ireland until the 1950s. their transport and equipment horse-drawn right to the end, with all their animals wintered out mainly in the Markethill and Tandragee areas.
Later bigger names like the Bertram Mills, Chipperfields and Moscow State circuses made regular trips across the Irish Sea to perform here.
Today there are still a number of small operators keeping the tradition alive but, sadly, the general perception is that they are living on borrowed time. However, lots and lots of people have been insisting for decades that this was the case. Most of the dedicated performers know no other way to earn a crust and, tough as the times are for these great people, I am sure they will strive to keep the circus tradition for just as long as they can.