In early August, we went to see Fossett’s Circus. As we walked towards the Big Tent that lovely warm afternoon, I tried to work out how long it was since I’d last been to the circus. But I couldn’t count the years; the last time, I decided, must have been when my own children were young.
However, I had decided the previous week that the boy and I were going to go to the circus. And as soon as the notices went up around Bantry — we were holidaying in the area at the time — I went online and got tickets for the matinee show. Just two; for me, and my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson. Oooh la la! The excitement! The smells! The sheer size of the Big Tent! The pony rides! And last, but not least the awe-inspiring, fast-paced performances, from aerial acrobats to dancers, from an amazingly talented pair of teenage jugglers to wire-walkers and Otto, the wonderful clown, from trapeze artists to trick-cyclists on huge and tiny bikes. And then there was a pair of young fellas doing the most terrifying things on a Wheel of Death far up in the roof! It was dazzling, it was incredible, and the wonderful, heart-rending song sung by Ringmistress Marion Fossett — with a plait down her back and sparkling in her wonderful feminine take on the traditional Ringmasters outfit and top hat — left most of us begging for more. What a voice.
We did it all. We bought the candy floss and the light-up-in-the-dark swords. We had a pony ride. We watched Otto the Clown make fun of willing young daddies from the audience who docilely dressed up in tutus and donned blonde wigs for the entertainment of the laughing families. We held our breath at the ghost-in-the-bed scene and the death-defying stunts and you know what? It wasn’t just my two-year-old grandson who was awe-struck. All around us children of every age gasped and screamed and shouted back their answers to the questions from Otto the Clown. When it ended, after some two-and-a-half hours of non-stop action, the family behind us remained on the benches for a few moments, arguing vociferously about who liked which act best. The choice, it seemed was a difficult one.
For days afterwards my grandson talked incessantly about the ghost-in-the-bed and Otto the Clown’s bubble-blowing act, both of which left his eyes as wide as saucers. And all I could think of, was what a utterly fabulous way to spend an afternoon. And why had it taken me so long to come back to the circus?
And then I remembered something. When I was about seven or eight years old, my own, much-adored grandfather, John O’Connor, who lived in the Wexford town of Gorey, took me to see a friend of his one day. This man had, wait for it, built an entire miniature circus on the top of the table in his sitting-room and my grandad thought that perhaps I would like to see it. Would I what! It had everything — tiny clowns, trapeze artists, dancers, horses, you name it and the miniature striped Big Tent was unforgettable. I can see it in my mind’s eye to this day. I was dumbstruck. It was incredible. I must have spent nearly an hour slowly circling the table, gazing at it in utter silence, while the two men smoked their pipes and chatted.
Yes, there truly is something about the circus. Something that some of us have almost forgotten. And, in our stampede to digital entertainment, the love of circus is also something that we very nearly lost. But thank God, somehow, despite the attraction of ipads, phones and social media, Fossetts Circus has survived, probably because it is simply so very, very good. And people know that — although it was the middle of the afternoon, the circus tent in Bantry was nearly full of bubbling kids and equally excited parents.
Let’s face it; the circus is something every adult and every child should visit once a year at least. Not just for the entertainment, but for the good of your mental health. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there must be an easier way of making money than running a circus — mountains of thought, planning, hard, hard work, logistics, skill and talent go into moving all that equipment and staging those performances. So yes, we should certainly appreciate our National Circus.
In 2003 circus was proclaimed as an art form by the then Minister for Arts Sport and Tourism, John O’Donoghue, in response to extensive lobbying by the Fossett family — a campaign which began with Teddy Fossett in 1973.
Before he left office in 2007, John O’Donoghue visited Fossett’s, the first Arts Minister ever to formally visit an Irish circus. The Minister thanked them on behalf of the Irish people but also, and very importantly, acknowledged this family’s priceless contribution to Irish life since they began touring way back in 1875. He remarked, and he was right, that Fossett’s were and are, theatre of the people.
In July 2007 Fossett’s, as the National Circus, received a presidential invitation to perform for President Mary McAleese at her annual garden party. The show is currently enjoying its 131st anniversary — and long may it continue. Oh, yes. We’ll be back.