On Sandymount Strand on a recent Wednesday evening, the full moon was blurred by billowing grey clouds. Boulders piled at the edge of the sand provided a buffer from the wind and by the light of flaring fireballs, a group of 20 or so people can be seen.
Half of them are flushed with heat, hopped-up on adrenaline. The other half are wrapped up tight against the chill, watching the flames.
So it is clear which of them are the performers, and which came to watch – or happened to be passing by and were drawn in by the blaze on the dark horizon.
Robbie Corcoran organised this get-together – or “burn” – as an opportunity for fire performers to get together and practice.
“The meeting came about when I realised there was a growing circus and fire scene in Ireland, especially Dublin,” he says. “There used to be meetings like ours, but they have since seemed to cease, so there was a gap for something like this to reappear.”
Since February, people involved in fire performance and other circus acts have come along to socialise and practice. The skill range always varies and performers often pick up tips from each other, says Corcoran.
Some stick with juggling and other less-hazardous tricks. Others light up poi, devil sticks, and fans.
Depending on the weather and people’s availability, numbers vary, says Corcoran: one meeting drew nearly 60 people; at others, there were only five or ten.
“A lot of people come to practice their routines for shows and classes,” says Corcoran. The performers welcome spectators, as does the pleasant atmosphere.
This particular evening, there’s a family with two toddlers, who are transfixed by the scorching fire designs in the air before them. A group of teenagers was there to watch too.
Someone was smart enough to bring a flask of tea. And over the course of a couple of hours, there is spirited conversation, spontaneous beatboxing, heartfelt harmonica-playing, and, momentarily, even some jaw-harp.
What About Safety?
Sandymount Strand is a good location for these meetings.
It has parking, plenty of public transport nearby, lots of space to practice away from the public – and a large body of water and damp sand to roll around in if something goes wrong.
Even so, the group only encourages people who know what they’re doing to go full throttle with the flaming pois. It took Corcoran 18 months of training with friends to start using fire.
For novices, there are safer alternatives. Some LED pois can be seen decorating the blackness, and their glow is just as hypnotic as that of their flaming cousins.
“Obviously, safety has to be the first aspect considered for our meetings,” says Corcoran.
The group always has fire extinguishers and fire blankets to hand, and Corcoran is doing a fire-safety training course.
One of the experienced performers on the sand that Wednesday admits that he set his beard on fire during his first attempt at fire performance nearly a decade ago.
Everyone is careful to tuck away their hair into their cotton tops, and the girls cover it completely.
Time for a New Hobby?
Circus activities like fire performance, juggling, plate spinning and hooping are becoming more popular among young people in Ireland, according to the Arts Council.
Corcoran agrees. They’re a great way to spend time productively, and a source of discipline and physical training, he says. “Also, a great party piece at times,” he adds.
College societies and independent groups hold indoor meetings to help people train without the fire. For example, Trinity Juggling Society invites students and everyone else to join them.
This is a fairly low-cost hobby. Once you’ve invested in your poi or devil sticks, they’ll last years. You just have to buy the kerosene.
Or, for beginners, you can make your own practice poi with a pair of tights and some rice. A poi is pretty much any string with a weight attached at each end.
Corcoran advises picking up a poi at Dealz. Really what he’s talking about is dog toy: a piece of rope with a tennis ball at each end.
There’s still no place in Dublin to buy proper, purpose-built fire performance gear, he says. It has to be bought online or from a mysterious man in a van.
The fire meetings welcome performers of all skill levels, as well as observers. Upcoming events are posted on their Facebook page, and the next meeting takes place April 14, followed by another for the full moon on April 22.