Just like every other provincial outback of the time, it was always a big occasion when the circus came to town in my young days. But I am too young to remember the day when one of the many circuses touring Ireland in the early 50s hit Dungannon with such a big bang!
Never before or since, thankfully, was there such interest in the arrival of the travelling showmen and their animal friends because, as our pictures show, that bang was a literal one since one of their huge wagons - complete with several trailers in what was known as a circus train - crashed.
It happened in precisely 58 years ago next Monday, when the large and very heavy trucks belonging to Kayes Brothers, Buff Bill’s circus were trying to manoeuvre their way down Irish Street as they headed for the popular entertainment field of the era, the Carnival Field off Gallow’s Hill at the top of Ann Street, which is probably best-known as the now derelict site of the old St.Patrick’s intermediate school.
The best explanation proferred for the cause of the accident, which saw nobody killed but provided a few stories of very fortunate folk who had very lucky escapes, was that the hefty load on the attached trailers caused the first trailer to go sideways as the driver applied the brakes on the tight corner at McSherry’s butcher shop - where Pagni’s chip shop is now located.
This very detailed personal recollection of what happened came from a former classmate of mine at St.Patrick’s Academy, one-time Union Place resident Maurice Hughes,who lives in Twickenham and regularly receives the Tyrone Times from relatives back home.
“The weather was described as ‘inclement’ that May. The Feis Sunday Outdoor events, due to have taken place in the grounds of St Patrick’s Academy on May 9th, 1954, had been cancelled due to the inclemency of the weather.
“In the Moy area orchards had been hit by late frost. The really memorable event of that May was the spectacular crash in Irish Street.
“Kayes Bros, Buff Bills Circus were touring the area with their sensational 1954 programme. There was a new £4,000 tent and the great Turnesco, which came all the way from Barcelona, was the chief attraction.
“Around 3pm on Friday, May 7 a large circus lorry, pulling three trailers behind it, was making its way down Irish Street from Market Square. In those days there was two-way traffic in Irish Street. The leading trailer contained horses, the second was the pony trailer and there were lions in the third.
“As the convoy turned the corner at the junction of Union Place the driver of the lorry pulled over to avoid a lorry which was outside PJ Quinn’s Chemist shop and then disaster struck.
“The leading trailer toppled over, crashing into Ben Donoghue’s shop front as the lorry careered across the street towards PJ Quinn’s chemist’s. The trailers stretched right back to WF Noble’s corner. Fortunately, no-one was injured although, apparently, there was a pram with a child in it just outside Donoghue’s.
“The child was reportedly pulled out by Jim Corrigan (one-time barber and journalist) and John McKenna and taken over to Nellie’s Café for some milk and a lollipop.
“I was standing outside Suey Doran’s sweet shop at the time. I had just being inside the shop to buy some sweets or, perhaps, a toffee apple. The shop has gone now but it was where all the children from Union Place went to - when they had some money to spend. The shop sold chews, sherbet, spangles, fruit gums and sweet cigarettes. Next door was where my aunt, Mrs Dynes and my cousins lived and where my uncle Leo McMenemy had his barber shop and the distinctive barber’s pole outside.
“My grandmother McMenemy, lived further down Irish Street along with my aunt, Mrs Small, her husband Andy and my cousins. I hadn’t yet started school but I can clearly remember the noise and the distressed roaring of the lions in the third carriage. I even half-hoped that one of the lions would escape as I had never seen a real lion. None of the lions did manage to get out and I believe the horses were taken round to Herbie Beattie’s field beside Union Place.
“The driver, Arthur Kaye, who was the proprietor of the circus, was taken to South Tyrone Hospital and was able to leave there a few days later.
“But the most distinct memory I have is of the circus ‘small man’. I remember he had huge hands an it was he who supervised the operations to haul the large trailer up from the shop fronts.
“Irish Street was completely blocked and very soon it seemed that the whole town had gathered to see what had happened. My mother had rushed up Union Place, to make sure that I was alright.
“In the photographs I have of the event I can see a number of people whom I recognise, many of them are now dead such as Sarah Quinn, Leo McMenemy, Marie Dynes, Paddy Loughran, Tom Hughes, Ned Hughes, Jackie Mallon, Paddy Doran and Joe Stewart. There were many others whose names I don’t know.
“In the end there was no loss of life and soon all that remained of the crash were the boarded shop windows and scratches on the street walls, but I feel the event has remained in the folk memory of Dungannon” added Maurice.
“I hope my childhood friends from Union Place especially will enjoy reading this, and, perhaps, it will serve to recall some memories in others of an historic day in Dungannon, which is embedded in the lives and memories of all who were there in Irish Street that day” reflected Maurice.
I thank my former school pal for providing such a clear and vivid recollection of what must have been an unforgettable day for many people. And it’s good to know Maurice is keeping well.