Success is a fair-weather friend for one of the world’s oldest entertainment businesses
It has been around since 1913 but even Cassely’s has to bow to a high wind
Much of Cassely’s Xtreme Funfair’s work comes from local festivals, where prestige pieces such as the Ferris wheel do well. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
As the wind batters the small hut in which I am sitting with Stephen Cassely of Cassely’s Xtreme Funfair, one of his analogies makes total sense. “An American funfair guy who was visiting recently said being part of a travelling funfair is like being in the navy,” he says, and as he and several members of his 22-man crew plan stripping various parts from their impressive Ferris wheel in gale force winds, it seems quite apt.
“Strike the mainsail!” I expect someone to shout, but there’s not an “avast” between them.
I’d come to Cassely’s Xtreme Funfair, a century-old institution (though I can’t imagine the 1913 version had “Xtreme” in the moniker), because I’d passed its screaming teenagers and flashing lights as I drove down Collins Avenue in Whitehall last Sunday.
“A travelling funfair!” I thought, gleefully blending images of bearded ladies and acrobats with the ramshackle outfits that visited my town when I was a child. “Maybe I’ll run off with them.”
The reality is very different from memory and imaginings. Standing between LED lights and pumping disco music, Stephen Cassely is a likeable 29-year-old businessman and safety is his primary concern.
While I’ve come along to capture the atmosphere of a teeming suburban funfair, the wind has other ideas: after some screaming preteens have finished being hoisted up and down on a multicoloured mini version of the magic-carpet ride, Cassely is shutting the fair for the evening.
“It’s an expensive business,” he says sadly, “but I don’t like that wind and you can’t put people in danger”. He is happy, however, to talk about the origins of the business and the early days of funfairs. When his great grandparents started out in 1913, things were very different.
“In those days fairs were like travelling theatres. They’d go around to towns and play out acts when there were no cinemas or theatres or anything like that. It kind of progressed then from theatres to dance halls. They’d move marquees around and there’d be prizes and bingo. It was always on the move. Then it moved to swinging boats and chairoplanes and family fun days.”
In the old days, safety legislation wasn’t what it is now (in my youth, rides at funfairs gained glamorous cache from rumours that someone in a neighbouring town had died on them). Furthermore old-fashioned ring-toss stalls were generally thought to be rigged. “That’s not something that happens now, or has happened for a very long time,” says Cassely, although he says the notion didn’t come from nowhere.
“Years ago when they got a guy who really liked playing the stalls, they’d give him a pat on the back. He’d think they were being friendly, but actually their hands would be full of chalk so the next stall would see him and pull him over. That was 60 years ago, back in the days when everything was in black and white.”
Nowadays, there are exciting ship-themed rides, carousels, bumper cars, magic carpets and sling shots. The Shake-Off, for example, involves harnessing thrill seekers to a big machine which flings them around the place. The sensory explosion of retina-searing colour and ear-singeing pop is far removed from the days of horse-drawn roundabouts.
A lot of Cassely’s work comes from local festivals, where prestige pieces such as their impressive Ferris wheel (“It cost around a million,” he says) do well. City officials can be more dismissive of the louder, brighter rides, however. “They’ve been referred to as ‘hurdy-gurdies’” he sighs. But these are very popular, while the more festival-friendly classic carousels often stand unused and unloved.
Cassely has run the business with the help of his fiancée, Jessica Craig, and his brother, Evan, since his parents, Albert and Collette, “semi-retired”. He spends over eight months of the year on the road, living in a big American-style caravan, travelling with 22 vehicles and 22 staff. “On the plus side you never have the same route to work for long,” he says. “On the negative side you can never really leave the site. There’s a lot of very expensive equipment here and you have to make sure it’s not tampered with.”
S cooby Doo
An empty fairground is a spooky thing, particularly when the howling wind causes every canopy to rattle and the dark clouds are throwing shadows on the primary colours beneath. I arrived early, before they opened, when there was nobody to be seen. It felt like I was in a Scooby Doo cartoon. “It is a bit scary at night,” Cassely admits.
During his time off Cassely occasionally goes to Europe and America to look at new rides and developments, but for the most part he steers clear of fairground activities.
“On holiday the last thing I want to see is a funfair,” he says. “My friends will see one and want to go in and I’ll say ‘I’m going back to the hotel’. I see them all year round. When I’m on holiday I don’t even want to look at them!”
Right now he has to look. He has shut the fair for the evening, and as I leave he and his colleagues are standing at the Ferris wheel planning to remove anything that could come loose in a storm. A mother and a young child are outside on Collins Avenue looking in through the metal barrier. “We’ll have to find something else to do,” says the child stoically. “I know,” says the mammy. “But I’m very disappointed.”
Cassely’s Xtreme Funfair is in Whitehall until tomorrow night and will be at the Dublin Bay Prawn Festival in Howth, which begins on Thursday