Traditional circuses may “never reopen” after the coronavirus pandemic, circus owners are warning.
Among those facing the end of the road is Circus Gerbola, founded 20 years ago by Michael and Tara Gerbola. Both are from circus families, have been circus artists since childhood and describe their business as "our life, our identity, what we do".
Three weeks into their 2020 tour, they had performed in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and were due to open in Carrigaline, Co Cork, when they had to stop in March 2020.
They had just invested more than €110,000 in recruiting artists from Argentina, Romania and Germany; in repainting, testing and certifying all equipment, as well as buying new lorries, caravans, kitchen appliances, trapeze equipment, props and costumes.
All of it has lain idle in their yard, just outside Navan, Co Meath, since. Mould and mildew are appearing over the folded big top. "I can't know what state any of it will all be in until I open it up," said Mr Gerbola. "Rats could have got in and eaten it. I can't do it myself as you need about 30 people to do it."
Asked how he feels, looking at the condition of his family’s business, he looks away wiping tears from his face.
"Last year there was hope but things just haven't gone anywhere. Yes, we get the PUP [Pandemic Unemployment Payment] and we got a grant from the Arts Council for a new contactless ticketing system. We are very grateful for that, but we are going to need a lot more to get out on the road again.
“A new tent, second-hand will be about €40,000. All the trucks will have to be retested and serviced. There’s insurance. We’ll need to recruit artists and staff. In all? About €185,000.
“I don’t know why we have been singled out for no business support whatsoever. Or whether we’ll ever get out on the road again.”
The Irish Showmen’s Guild said the businesses it represents are facing “discrimination” and “snobbery”.
Gerry Curry, guild president, said the sector – including about 65 funfair operators – "need support similar to that going to other businesses".
“We have emailed all the relevant departments and just get the run-around. We are going to have to get legal advice.”
David Duffy, whose family's Duffy's Circus has been going since the 1850s, said: "No matter what way you dress it up , it's discrimination. Is it that the Government don't understand, or that they don't care?"
The main Government support for businesses affected by the pandemic – the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) – is administered by Revenue on behalf of the Department of Finance, providing up to €5,000 a week to eligible businesses.
To qualify a business must have a “premises” and the scheme specifically excludes “circuses or funfairs that are not permanently in place”.
The Arts Council operates an emergency stabilisation fund for arts organisations hit by the pandemic but they must already get the council’s strategic funding to qualify, and traditional circuses do not.
Nor do they qualify for the Live Performance Support Scheme, the Small Business Assistance Scheme or the Tourism Business Continuity Scheme.
A spokesman for the Department of Finance said it would “not be possible to amend” the criteria of the CRSS “to allow businesses excluded by these criteria to become eligible”.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Tourism, Culture and Arts said: “There are supports available for all businesses impacted by Covid”, citing the PUP and the CRSS as the “principle elements of the Government response”. Circus was a recognised art and €130 million had been allocated to the Arts Council to support arts organisations.
A spokesman for the council confirmed traditional circuses were not in receipt of strategic funding and therefore, ineligible for the emergency stabilisation fund.
Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín has made repeated representations to the Departments of Finance and of Culture and Arts and suggests a “snobbery” in their attitude to traditional circuses.
"I reckon the majority of people in the country have attended a circus in their lives. I can't imagine many other performance art sectors would be able to say the same thing. Their reach is incredible, delivering their craft in practically every town in Ireland, " Mr Tóibín said.
“Yet they have received practically no support during Covid. It needs to change or traditional circuses will be wiped out.”