Cork marriage proposal on World Circus Day stage was ‘no joke’

When Cormac Mohally asked Noelle Ní Riagain to marry him, he wasn’t clowning around, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN, who caught up with the duo taking part in the Pitch’d Circus and Street Arts Festival
Cork marriage proposal on World Circus Day stage was ‘no joke’

THE PROPOSAL: Cormac Mohally proposing to Noelle Ní Riagain, at the Circus Factory Cork. Picture:  Jed Niezgoda -

THE audience at World Circus Day in the courtyard of the Wandesford Quay studios in April initially thought that Cormac Mohally was clowning around when he proposed to Noelle Ní Riagain, on bended knee.

Cormac, artistic director of Circus Factory, was the MC at the event while Noelle, a performer, was one of the stage hands at the show.

The enthralled audience quickly realised Cormac’s proposal was for real. And with a photographer documenting the show, the surprise romantic gesture was recorded for posterity.

“Our marketing lady, Megan, was on the ball. Her phone came right out to capture what was happening,” recalls Cormac, who is also one half of the Lords of Strut.

“I had a microphone on my face so Noelle didn’t do a big grab of me. She whispered into the microphone - and everyone could hear her response.”

The response was in the affirmative although Noelle admits she was “shocked. I was going, ‘oh my God, what’s going on? You’d better say something if you want to marry him.’”

The couple met in a work context at the former Camden Palace in Cork in 2009. They became good friends in 2015 but it was only during lockdown, that they started going out together.

“We knew each other so well. We spoke about getting married a little bit but Noelle wanted me to ask her properly. I understood that to mean that I had to make a grand gesture so I got it into my head to ask her in the midst of a show.”

This year’s Pitch’d Circus and Street Arts Festival, produced by Circus Factory, runs from September 9 to 25. It won’t be quite as dramatic, but the fifth edition of the festival promises to be an exciting citywide event.

It will be spread around Cork. It takes place at Circus Factory’s own space opposite the Marina Market as well as at the Firkin Crane, the Everyman, Douglas Street, Cornmarket Street and Macroom also.

SHE SAID YES: The couple will get married in 2024. Picture:  Jed Niezgoda -
SHE SAID YES: The couple will get married in 2024. Picture:  Jed Niezgoda -

Noelle, originally from Kinsale, is a full-time performer whose act includes theatrical clowning.

“I’ve done many things, on stage and on screen. I love cabaret. That was my attraction to the circus where you can do clown turns and cabaret slots.”

One of seven children that grew up on a farm, singing was “a big thing” in the family.

“My dad was a really good singer. We used to do big gatherings in our house twice a year for family and friends. You’d show off your Irish dancing and your singing.”

After leaving school, Noelle studied theatre at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa under Belinda Wilde, who now runs the drama department at Kinsale Further Education College.

Noelle gets a fair amount of work in Cork but says it’s necessary to travel to get more. “At the moment, I’m springing more into directing, which means I’m getting more work here, but for performing, eventually you have to leave Cork.”

Cormac, who comes from Glasheen, says part of the reason for staging the Pitch’d Circus and Street Arts Festival is to give people an opportunity to stay working and performing in Cork.

“Circus Factory is a good training space. When I started years ago, I just went out on the street and busked. I created my own opportunities. I have toured the world now.”

And as a result of performing all over the world, Cormac, who studied at circus school in Belfast at 19, knows what standard his circus festival should meet.

When he started out, his craft “wasn’t even recognised for arts funding. But now, 22 years later, there are all these supports available for people as well as opportunities and it’s a way for me to generate new audiences.”

From performing on the streets, Cormac says he learned the craft of saying “Here’s the show. Now give me the money. Now I go - here’s the festival. Now give me loads of money so I can put on an even better festival.”

Cormac had his wilderness years when, after dropping out of school at 16, he was arrested and fined for possession of drugs in his teens. But that, he says, is all behind him now.

Through the comedy duo, the Lords of Strut, with Cian Kinsella, the pair became Street Performance World Champions. Cian is now based in Carlow where he built a house during the pandemic and has become a keen gardener growing vegetables.

“I think we’re settling down now. Our thirties were spent touring. We’re both in our forties now. I’m getting married and Cian has become more settled.”

But being settled doesn’t mean becoming complacent.

“I have a vision of a really world class circus and street theatre festival in Cork. This year alone, we have Bill Irwin coming from New York. He’s a legend in physical performance. He comes from a vaudeville background. And there’s another guy coming to the festival. He’s Pedro Tochas who’s a judge on Portugal’s Got Talent. He’s really famous as a stand-up and he likes to do street theatre because it brings him places and he gets to meet people. So, through my own connections, I’m bringing over two international artists.”

Cormac has a 19-year-old daughter called Samhain.

“She’s a fabulous singer and musician. I tell her to keep doing it. You don’t know what will happen.”

Both Cormac and Cian have added another string to their bow. They are currently working on the third series of The Body Brothers, an RTÉ junior show.

Cormac and Noelle’s wedding will be happening in 2024. With family living all over the world, plenty of notice was needed. Cormac jokes that he hopes they’ll get Arts Council funding for the wedding, which promises to be quite an event.

No doubt with the couple’s flair for theatre, it will be memorable.

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