Circus Time: Can The Big Top Survive?

“Oh. My. God!” says the little black-haired girl sitting next to me, as a man in a four-and-a-half tonne Mercedes van drives over another man’s chest.

Eyes wide, mouth stuck in the shape of an “O”, the girl stares at the man lying on the ground. “What did you think of that?” her mother asks her. The girl nods her head but continues to stare at the man, waiting to see if he’ll get up. As do all the other kids in the half-filled grandstands.

He does, of course. This is Hercules, the huge blond Y-shaped strongman from Ukraine. And this is Tom Duffy’s Circus, the country’s – and one of the world’s – longest-running circuses.

Hercules stands up, not a bother on him. Topless now after working up a sweat from juggling car tires, he waves and winks a little too often at the applauding crowd, the cheering kids.

He came at a good time. A couple of acts before, a dinosaur, a T. Rex, had entered the ring from behind the red curtain, thrashing its head from side to side, throwing its tail about, reacting at the right moments to the retches and shrieks and roars from the audio soundtrack.

“That looks so fake,” the little girl had said to her mam. She was right, it did. You could see the person’s legs walking the body of the thing around.

Out in town on Halloween night, it might have bagged you first prize for best costume. Here, it just looked silly.

As a clown put his head in the rubber jaws of the dinosaur, it was hard not to think about the correlation between the extinction of the beast and the role of the circus in today’s modern world of mass, portable, immediate entertainment.

We’re Still Here

“You still get it,” said David Duffy, CEO and ringmaster of Tom Duffy’s Circus when I met him the day before. “People say the circus is a thing of the past, does anybody go to the circus anymore? Our answer is look around you, all this has come from people coming in the doors.”

We were sitting ringside in the big top and he was referring to the freshness of the set-up: the new lighting; the gleaming and unscratched red and blue seats of the grandstand, hydraulic so they fit easily back on to their trucks; the trucks themselves with their portraits of horse riders, trapeze artists and various circus animals that look as though they’ve just been sprayed yesterday; and then there’s the new tent, bought last year for €130,000.

Without the money coming in, this would not be possible, says Duffy.

The recession was tough, he admits. Nine years ago there were about ten circuses in the country. Now there are four.

“We’ve been fortunate enough, but we work very hard, are very passionate and have great pride in our name that’s been handed down through generations.”

At 87, Tom Duffy, David’s father is now retired. He still has his place in the circus, a canvas chair like a director’s, with his name on it. David is ringmaster and oversees some of the operations of the business. But, he says, his sons James, 19, and Tom, 22, are heavily involved in the running of the show as well as performing as artistes.

They will carry on the family tradition that stretches back to David’s great, great grandfather, Patrick James Duffy.

A young shoemaker from Denmark Street, Dublin, Patrick fell in love with the foreign circuses that travelled to Ireland in the 1830s. So enthralled by them was he that he and his wife Margaret trained as acrobats, moved to England sometime in the 1840s and began touring as performers in various circuses.

The second of their seven children, John Duffy, set up the John Duffy Circus in the 1870s, which proved to be a successful venture. Not long after his father Patrick died in 1890, John and his wife moved with their three sons and three daughters to Ireland and continued the trade there.

One son, Tom, didn’t get involved in the circus, but James, John, Lizzie and Phyllis did. When John Snr died in 1909, his wife Ann took over the business, but in 1914 the brothers and the sisters took charge and began touring as the Duffy Family Circus.

They toured for three seasons before creative differences and family divisions caused them to split in 1917 into three separate companies.

Eventually there were two: John Duffy and Sons and James Duffy (David’s grandfather) and Sons. John Duffy’s circus, known as the Irish Barnum, was the much larger of the two, “a very big organisation”, says David.

“I don’t know whether it was lack of ambition on Granddad’s part or just necessity to stay small in a way. He wasn’t of a mindset to take a risk and expand the business. I suppose at the end of the day you could say he was probably right. He kept things in a way where he could provide for himself, whereas the John Duffy show, while marvelous, got too big,” he says.

Following John Duffy’s death in 1956 and the death of his son John Jnr soon after, the circus split between his son James and James’s uncle. “Instead of going separate ways and doing something different, they competed against each other for everything,” says David.

By 1961, both were bust.

That left only James Duffy and Sons, which became Duffy’s Circus. It would take another split, a bold decision, for Tom Duffy’s to come into existence.

In the late 1970s, there were six brothers, including David’s father Tom, running the circus. “There were 12 in my generation, but I was an only child,” David says. “My father could see the writing on the wall.”

Tom Duffy was concerned that if anything were to happen to him, his son might be cut out of the business. After unsuccessful attempts to persuade some of his brothers to join him, Tom made the decision in 1979 to strike out on his own with just his wife Gerty and David, then 18.

Ripe Timing?

They couldn’t have picked a worse year. As well as hosting an 18-week postal strike, 1979 was a year of chronic fuel shortages because of the global petroleum crisis.

“But we were so determined that we wouldn’t be seen to be a failure. My dad used to search out fuel stations in small villages that would have enough diesel that we could come back with a lorry with big 45-gallon drums to fill to keep us going. And we did. We got through it.”

It was a small show. They booked half a dozen artistes and David featured a lot, every second act. “I was doing horse riding, clowning, tight-wire, trapeze; my dad was showing the horses.”

The show was a success, but the work was incredibly tough. For six and a half months straight, they did one-night stands – two shows in one town before moving on to the next.

“You’d get to a town in the morning, set up the tent, have a little rest, then do the two shows, pull down the tent at half eleven that night, get up at five the next morning and move to another town, set it up again, do two shows, pull it down and move again. Six and a half months of that. No life outside it, just work and sleep.”

Nowadays, being on the road is much less grueling and there is life outside of work. David and his family can go for meals, to the cinema and to concerts after the shows. David’s two sons, James and Tom, are huge Ed Sheeran fans and the family was able to go to his Saturday gig in Croke Park.

They no longer do one-night stands (yet the show still visits 80 towns a season), they have a staff of 45 and, thanks to modern hydraulics, it only takes three hours to set up the circus and big top and two hours to take it down.

But modernity brings its own problems. It brings the likes of Ed Sheeran to Dublin. It brings a vast array of entertainment, with which the circus has to compete. It brings thousands of hours of television drama, comedy, and chat – on which entire weekends can be lost – directly to you, on your mobile phone.

However, it also brings social media and this has been hugely beneficial to Tom Duffy’s Circus, according to David.

Last year they had between 600 and 700 people coming to their shows every day. This year it’s up to around 900. The vast majority of visitors bought their tickets online. They have more than 87,000 likes on Facebook and use it a lot for advertising.

David remembers the days when marketing was done through an advance agent. The closest thing Ireland would’ve had to a travelling salesman, the advance agent would have been given the route of the circus, the towns it was headed for, and he’d set out about two weeks ahead of the party, putting up posters, advertising in local papers, spreading the news of the forthcoming show.

No money would change hands between the agent and the people he dealt with. If an advert went into a newspaper, someone from the paper would come down to the circus when it arrived, show the ad, and be paid. The same would happen with fuel. The agent would fill a tank at the local petrol station on tick until the circus arrived.

“It was quite nice and easy-going,” David says. “Nowadays we have 15 people dealing with admin and marketing alone and without them we wouldn’t be successful.”

“They Were Family”

One of the major shifts the circus has had to adapt to in recent times is Western society’s distaste for the use or, as some see it, the exploitation of animals in its shows.

Last year, Tom Duffy’s had three sea lions as part of its show. Animal rights activists weren’t happy.

The people who owned the sea lions treated them like their kids, David says. “They were their children. They were family.”

The sea lions were in and out of their caravan as well as having the use of a “huge outdoor swimming pool and another indoor one.”

“But it wouldn’t matter if we had a pool the size of the Atlantic Ocean to the animal rights people; it’s the fact you have them,” he says.

It’s just over two years since the wild cats, the lions and the tigers left the show. The cats and the family that owned them had been with Tom Duffy’s for 23 years.

Although the family returned to England for personal reasons, it had become increasingly problematic touring with wild animals because certain grounds and councils had banned their use. Fingal was the first to do so in 2007, and just last year Dublin South County Council did the same.

David says that local campaigners bend the ear of a sympathetic politician “who’s never been to our show.”

“They’ll show them videos, outrageous stuff, disgraceful stuff, of animals being abused in circuses,” he says. But David says it doesn’t happen in Ireland.

“I’ve been around animals all my life, grew up with them. I don’t think there’s another way to work with an animal but to be kind,” he says.

This year they are working with domestic animals only, showing horses and dogs.

Before the show, I thought it was sad, even pathetic, to have dogs in a circus. But their tricks were entertaining, and got great laughs from the audience, and I remember that two winners of Britain’s Got Talent won with dogs doing tricks.

But the wild cats are definitely missed, according to David. They ask for feedback on their shows and 98 percent of people want to see more animal like lions and tigers.

As well as their exotic appeal, there’s that element of danger. People like that. Something horrific can happen when a tiger is around that can’t with a dog or a horse. Something horrific did.

“I tell you, it was really strange,” David says.

A Galway Tragedy

As he tells it, it was the first week of September, 1995. They had just arrived in Galway and set up camp on the Headford Road. They had taken a few days’ holidays as the kids were just back in school. The lions and the tigers were housed where they usually were, in the trailers at the back of the tent, behind two security gates.

About four o’clock on a Tuesday morning, they woke to screaming and roaring. Tommy Chipperfield, the owner of the cats, came to David’s trailer and said, “There’s a fella got into the lions and the tigers and had his arms taken off.”

“So we rushed out and one of our lads was already with him and had given him a cigarette because he wanted a cigarette. He was absolutely pissed. He was obviously in shock because he had neither arm, both arms were gone.”

It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, and David thinks it took that long because the operators thought it was a joke. The man’s arms had been strapped with tourniquets.

When the gardai arrived, the man had been taken to hospital. David said he and the others were traumatized and remembers one garda saying, “Don’t worry, these things happen.”

“No they don’t,” David replied.

David couldn’t figure out how the man could have made his way around the back of the tent, over the stony ground in the pitch black without falling, and then made his way through the safety gate and opened the hatch where the tigers’ meat and water usually went, where he had both his arms bitten off by a nine-month-old tiger cub.

“It never went to court,” David says. “We settled out of court . . .”

David thought they’d be run out of town. They weren’t. “When the show opened, we couldn’t hold the people,” he says. The tent was full and there were three times that number queuing down the Headford Road.

“We were getting people offering twenty and thirty quid, just to see the tiger that ate the fella’s hands,” David says. “For the rest of that year, we just couldn’t hold the people.”

Here Comes Trouble?

David’s fear of being run out of town was not unfounded. You don’t get it now, but back in the bad old days, the circus rolling into town often spelled trouble.

Certain locals didn’t take too kindly to strangers turning up and felt that they had something to prove. In 1906, The Irish Times ran a story about an attack by locals on Duffy’s Circus at Coalisland, County Tyrone.

Apparently James E. Bradley, a Gaelic Leaguer, was crossing close to the circus en route to his home when he was stopped by one of the circus men who, it was said, “refused to allow him to proceed that way”. Words were exchanged, then fists.

Local mill and factory workers got wind of the story “with the result that about the hour fixed for the performance, fully 500 people had assembled on the surrounding hills, bent on a rigorous boycott”.

When the show began, with about fifty people in the audience, rocks and stones began pelting the canvas tent. Armed with revolvers and swords, nine circus men mounted their horses and managed to keep the crowd at a distance.

The police showed up and a riot ensued. Only when local priest, “Rev. S. Brown”, arrived on the scene did the crowd disperse. Twenty-five locals were later arrested.

The riot has gone down in Duffy Circus folklore as the Battle of Coalisland.

David remembers a not-dissimilar incident happening when he was younger. Duffy’s Circus had visited a town in the North. There was a group of kids charging at and trying to get under the tent during the performance.

One of them, a young girl, had rushed into and broken her nose on one of the tent poles. “Then she went to her father and said that somebody had kicked from the inside and broke her nose,” David says.

“We were beside a housing estate in this town, where they’d kicked a man to death a couple of weeks beforehand; this was still around the time of the Troubles. We had to pull down in the dark and the police gave us an escort out of town. So, that was hairy.”

The Grand Finale

Fortunately, that sort of carry-on is a thing of the past. It is one of the pros in touring a circus in Ireland today as opposed to in decades gone by.

Depending on your perspective, the absence of wild animals could be either a pro or a con. But are they vital to the survival of the circus as a form of entertainment?

No, not really.

Would I have liked to have seen a lion or a tiger in the show instead of a rubber dinosaur? Yes, obviously.

But the show works without them. The choreographed dancing of the horses impresses the audience while the dogs performing tricks has them in stitches.

So too do the broad slapstick antics of the clowns, performing routines as old as, well, clowns, such as: clown serves beautiful woman in restaurant, gets finger stuck in wine bottle, in finally getting finger out throws wine all over audience, then throws spaghetti at audience and gets spaghetti thrown back at him.

It shouldn’t be funny, but it is. The humour is infectious, and you laugh like a kid despite yourself.

And then there are the gymnasts, the acrobats and trapeze artists. I don’t know how many collective gasps went out from the crowd when one of these did something that you’ve probably seen before – like a triple somersault before being caught fifty feet in the air by a fellow artist – but that astounds you each time you see it in the flesh.

We can’t help but take pleasure in witnessing these prodigious feats regardless of how long they’ve been around.

The anachronistic nature and feel of the circus is part of its charm. It is an old-fashioned form of entertainment, but that’s why you like it, that’s what makes you giddy.

In saying that, the last act, the Wheel of Death, is a case in point. Around since the 1930s, it is a 40-foot frame with hooped tracks, like hamster wheels, on either end. Performers, in this case David’s sons Tom and James, run around on both the inside and outside of the tracks and, as they do, the wheel rotates.

At one point they skip rope on the outside of the tracks while this thing is spinning around, reaching 50 feet into the air, almost scraping the the roof of the tent. They are not strapped to any harness. One caught foot would send either Tom or James hurtling to the ground.

Thankfully – no really – thankfully, that doesn’t happen. It tops off what has been a surprisingly enjoyable night.

“Out of ten,” the mother says to her little girl next to me. “What you give it?”

“Ten.”

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Author:

Damien Murphy: Damien Murphy is Dublin Inquirer's Northside city reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with him? Send him an email at dmurphy@dubinq.com.

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