Roll up, roll up for John Lonergan’s Circus

A new TV series on RTÉ follows the former governor of Mountjoy Prison mentoring at-risk teenagers learning circus acts in sometimes challenging circumstances


Having seen tens of thousands of prisoners pass through his hands during his time as governor of Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan has now turned his attention to a group of teenagers from the disadvantaged communities that keep the cells of his former alma mater well stocked.

The results of Lonergan’s three-month mentoring and motivational programme will be seen on television over the next four weeks in the shape of a new RTÉ 1 series, John Lonergan’s Circus .

Having read about the work of Cirque du Soleil with disadvantaged teenagers around the world and written for the most part of a decade about adult and youth offenders in Ireland, I pitched the concept of the series to producer Conor Moloney at TV company Independent Pictures. At its heart is Lonergan, but the stars are the teenage subjects, who were found during a trawl of youth projects.

The idea of putting circus training at the centre of the project was done in an effort to engage them with a form of entertainment and performance they would enjoy but would challenge them and demand full commitment.

The television cameras followed Lonergan as he entored the subjects along with Maybel Troy, an accomplished performer who has also worked on drama projects with prisoners in Mountjoy.

The training took place every week in the Belfast Community Circus School under the watchful eye of the circus director, Will Chamberlin, and his staff. And it culminated in two performances during the recent St Patrick’s Festival in Dublin.

The cameras also followed the young Dubliners into their everyday lives, exploring why all but one has dropped out of school early, and bringing the viewer into their sometimes challenging circumstances in what promises to be a gritty and compelling series.

‘I’m dreading this being over’
Francesca Grant, who is 17, is originally from St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore. After the death of her mother, the flats complex, where they had shared a home, was demolished.

She dropped out of school early and wanted to complete the circus training to prove to herself she could begin a project and see it out to the end.

“I’d heard of John Lonergan before; I knew he was the lord mayor of Mountjoy and all that. When I was going for the interviews to get a place on this I was thinking; ‘Yeah right, my chances here are slim to none’. So when they told me I got it, I literally couldn’t believe it.

“I’m probably outspoken and I have a short fuse so this has taught me be to be patient and taught me about team work. When you are doing something like a trapeze you have to concentrate and trust the people around you.

“I’m dreading this being over, to be honest. We can all still give each other a text and all that and buzz over to each other’s areas for a bit, but it won’t be the same.”

‘My Da was chuffed ’
Anton Carass is 16 and lives with his father in Finglas. Expelled from school, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to return a number of times and he still wants to complete his Leaving Cert.

“I was in the youth centre and they told me they were looking for people for a programme on the telly and that. So I said to them, ‘Put in a good word for me, will you?’ Then we had an interview; not set up, not let on, just talking honestly and openly. I don’t know what I did right, but I got it.

“My Da was absolutely chuffed. I never saw him so happy, especially with all the stuff that happened with school. The training hasn’t been easy; it’s all conditioning and I’m definitely a lot fitter now and, I think, a bit more disciplined.”

‘I was saying, ‘There’s no way’
Chantelle Ward, who is 15, is from Clondalkin and dropped out of school a year ago. She attends a Youthreach project in Ballyfermot that offers a second chance at education to those who have left mainstream education or have been excluded.

“When we all went to Paris at the start of this you got to know everyone, so that was a good start. We went to a circus there to see the kind of things we might be doing. I was saying, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do all that.’ But you get up and you do it.

“I haven’t really thought about what it will be like when I am on the telly. I’m not nervous or anything, at least I don’t think I am. My Ma is nervous in case I’m on the telly saying things that I shouldn’t be; that sort of thing.”

‘It’s been great to get away ’
Eddie McElligott is a 17-year-old from Ballymun whose father has spent time in prison and knows John Lonergan. Now being brought up by his grandfather, he also left school early and has a passion for horses. The TV film crew say his “raw honesty” has marked him out as a star of the series.

“It’s been great to get away from the community I’m from, to get a rest from it. There’s things going on there, people falling into drugs, getting stabbed. You might get into that if you’re not careful; smashing places up or robbing cars. Being involved with this and going to Belfast gets you a break, gets you away from it, calms you down. I’m not into all that hanging around and getting dragged into trouble.

“The training in Belfast was definitely hard in the first few weeks, doing the trapeze and the tightrope; that stuff is rock hard, y’know? But if you keep at it, you can do it and it gives you that bit of confidence in yourself.”

‘I would do it again’
Amiee Brady is 15 and has been out of formal education for two years. From Ballyfermot, she is currently attending the Life Centre project, which caters for young teenagers excluded from mainstream education. She is hopeful of securing a place at the fee-paying Alexandra College in Milltown, south Dublin, on a scholarship programme.

“They have things to do in Ballyfermot, youth groups and all that. But I don’t really go to them because there might be people there you are fighting with or don’t get on with. So you kind of stick to your own.

“I think [after] coming here to Belfast I’ve got a lot of confidence. When I came first and I saw all the stuff we had to do, I was, like, ‘No way can I do that’. But now I know [I’ve done] it. I would do it again.”

‘I was nervous at the start’
Jake Augusta, who is 15, is the only one of the children featured in the series who is at school. He is from Pearse Street in Dublin’s south inner city and attends CBS Westland Row.

Staff at the Belfast Community Circus School say he has learned the unicycle faster than anyone they have ever seen. “I’m learning new stuff all the time, having a go at everything. Like with the unicycle; when you start first you get on it and then you fall right back off it. I kept getting hurt. But I love bikes and motorbikes so I kept at it. “I practise in the court outside where I live. You’d get a bit of grief at the start but then they are all crowding around you, saying, ‘Go on, give us a shot of that’. I give my little brother a shot; put him up on it and hold him and get him to pedal. He’ll get the hang of it.

“I was nervous coming to Belfast at the start, thinking what would it be like, and would it be dangerous and all that. But it’s not as bad as everyone says.”

‘It was brilliant to see what you can do’
Paul Gilligan is 18 and from O’Devaney Gardens in the north inner city; he now lives in Finglas with his aunt and uncle. He became involved when the programme’s researchers contacted the Most Project, which works with at-risk teenagers from northwest Dublin to divert them from antisocial behaviour or criminality.

“When Anna [Rodgers, the series producer] came to talk to me about it all, it definitely sounded great. It was brilliant to get away from things, to get a break and to see what you can make of it when you get a chance, you know?

“When you start out you’re not sure what’s it’s going to be like. It hasn’t been easy, especially things like doing the trapeze. I got a few injuries doing the training so you have to be careful. But you need to keep going as well, to make the best of it all.”

John Lonergan’s Circus , funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and RTÉ, is on Thursdays at 10.15pm on RTÉ One .