Roll up, roll up and see the National Circus Festival of Ireland

‘Say clowns here and people think you are talking about politicians in the Dáil’

The 16th annual National Circus Festival of Ireland runs in Tralee until Sunday November 12th. Will Flanagan, Kim McCafferty and Con Horgan clown about. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

The 16th annual National Circus Festival of Ireland runs in Tralee until Sunday November 12th. Will Flanagan, Kim McCafferty and Con Horgan clown about. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

The circus in Ireland was already undergoing a revolution, long before this week’s ministerial announcement that the use of wild animals is to be banned from January, according to people in the industry.

Wild animals have largely disappeared in recent years, and a mix of acrobatics and comedy is what draws Irish people to the circus nowadays. They come to be entertained by the physical skills of the performers and for the music, comedy, street acts, high wire walking and much more, sometimes staged on the streets and in theatres instead of the traditional tents.

Ahead of the annual National Circus Festival of Ireland in Tralee this weekend, producer and performer Kim McCafferty says Ireland has always been a great country for fairs and spectacles.

The festival was founded in 2001 by the Fanzini Brothers, originally three street performers . It is the national showcase for contemporary circus.

When the Fanzinis – Denis Butler, Con Horgan and Wayne Clenndennen – started out in the 1990s, the Italian name was chosen by a friend so they could call themselves “Italian Kerrymen”. They called themselves “brothers” because a traditional circus is family run. Clenndennen subsequently left Ireland, leaving Fanzini Brothers as a duo show.

It took until 2006 for the Arts Council to include circus acts in funding and promotion – and that’s when Horgan and his adult friends ran away to the circus life full time.

Horgan, with his distinctive wired out hair and theatrical look, has a rigorous science background. He went to university in Galway where he spent “a lot of the time juggling” instead of studying.

“At the end of my university time, I qualified with an honours degree in marine science. The life of a scientist was not for me, though. Instead, I decided to see the wide world, touring around India and Africa much to the consternation of my poor bewildered parents. I returned from my travels and completed a masters degree in computer music.”

He worked as a lecturer in Waterford Institute of Technology and taught adult education in Dingle, but was also for a while a librarian by day and circus act by night – until, that is, street theatre began to be recognised.

“We had no tent, we had no animals, we had no trailers, we had no caravan. All we had was a suitcase each,” he recalls.

The role of animals in the circus is not something that engages him very much. Only about one Irish-based circus still has wild animals as part of its show, he says.

Clowning in the continental and global sense is where the Fanzinis are positioning themselves.

“In Ireland you have to explain about clowns. Say clowns here and people think you are talking about politicians in the Dáil. Or the standard circus clown has big shoes, a red nose and face painted. What we mean by clown is totally different to the tradition.”

Interaction is the spine of contemporary circus, he says. People in Tralee town park on Sunday morning will be asked to “have a go” at learning tight wire walking. “People are interested in working with their bodies, in controlling their bodies,” he believes.

He has just returned from performing solo in South Korea and he views acts around the world to bring back to Tralee. Among the solo, pop-up and stage performers this weekend will be acts from Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany Greece, Brazil , Spain and Catalonia.

As well as workshops, there is a chance for young people to review the circus, because “generally the circus doesn’t get many reviews”.

“We are the western lighthouse of circus in Europe”, is how he describes the festival.

“I am from Tralee, so that’s why I wanted to make the festival happen there. Before the Fanzinis and before the circus festival, our only exposure to circus was the travelling trad circuses and the occasional performer at the Rose festival. Now, we have a town that loves its circus. We have an educated, modern circus arts-aware audience that annually sees the best that the world can offer in a small town on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I am happy about that.”