Opinion: bringing communities together to experience a spectacular has long been central to how and why circuses have operated

By Siobhán O’GormanUniversity of Lincoln

Contrary to popular belief, modern circus does not descend from the circus of Ancient Rome. Circus, as we know it, has its roots in 18th-century equestrian trick-riding feats pioneered by Irish groom Thomas Johnston, as historian Marius Kwint writes. Approximately a decade later in 1768, cavalry sergeant-major turned showman Philip Astley set up a ring for performances on horseback near the present site of Waterloo Station in London. The ring enabled performers to maintain balance through the centrifugal force of fast-paced circular movement.

Astley soon realised that his shows would entice greater audiences if the main attraction was punctuated by variety acts including juggling, acrobatics and the clown, a character derived from Elizabethan theatre. Although it was Astley’s competitor Charles Dibdin who first branded these combined, ring-based activities as ‘Circus’ (establishing the Royal Circus in 1782), Astley’s achievements are prominent in the current 250th anniversary celebrations of circus. These encompass a range of activities across Ireland and the UK, including an exhibition and programme of events at the National Gallery of Ireland until October 14, all under the banner of #Circus250.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1985 RTÉ News report by Conor Fennell on Pat Houlihan's collection of circus memorabilia

Circus has a chequered and fascinating history. While we might associate it with cruel menageries, it reveals much about relationships between humans and animals. Its status as a largely visual performing art facilitated its travel across linguistic barriers, as well as the cultural exchange between Europe, North America, Russia and China that characterised its spread and development. It boomed in the Victorian era, intersecting with globalism and imperialism by incorporating "exotic" displays also popularised by the ethnic villages of the great international exhibitions, as well as "freak shows" like those romanticised in the 2017 musical film The Greatest Showman.

Several sports and entertainments have genealogical links with circus including gymnastics, boxing, and wrestling. Irish circuses such as Fossett’s (which originated in 1888) demonstrate the durability and adaptability of the family-run, travelling circus. Duffy’s Circus went bankrupt in the 1960s, Fossett’s lamented a lack of recognition as an art-form in the 1970s, and both feared the encroachment of rival circuses in the 1980s. Yet both have endured into the 21st century and continue to bring live entertainment to different communities in Ireland.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1987 RTÉ News report by Michael Nally on the future of circuses in Ireland 

Despite the problems and vicissitudes of circus in its various developments, concepts of community have long been central to its operations. Circus historically travelled to regions where people had little exposure to live performance, bringing communities together to perhaps share the awe prompted by its spectacle. Moreover, it is difficult to dissociate community from the form itself.

In a 2013 interview, Will Chamberlain, director of Belfast Community Circus (BCC), said "there’s a very real interdependence and connection between everybody involved in circus … In traditional circus, that runs through from the Big Top … to eating together … to forming that circle of caravans. There are lots of ways in which circus is demonstrably about togetherness." Chamberlain sadly passed away last year and #Circus250 is an opportunity to remember his accomplishments.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Colm Murray on a special circus performance by Duffy's Circus through Irish

BCC was established in 1985, growing out of the earlier grassroots activities of community theatre practitioners Donal McKendry and Mike Moloney who aimed to foster positive shared experiences in the midst of the Troubles. As such, BCC can be seen as part of the international "social circus" movement of the 1980s, founded on helping members of a given community to attain more fulfilment by participating in circus arts.

Chamberlain joined BCC in 1996 and played a pivotal role in the organisation’s growth, particularly following the Peace Process. He was instrumental in establishing Ireland’s first dedicated circus training and performance venue, the Belfast Community Circus School, in 1999. The school and BCC’s work with visiting young people from disadvantaged parts of Dublin featured in the 2013 RTÉ documentary series John Lonergan’s Circus. Chamberlain established Belfast’s annual Festival of Fools in 2004, which continually seeks to re-animate Belfast’s city centre through circus and street art.

Belfast Community Circus School

Chamberlain’s achievements benefited from cultural policies introduced by the UK’s New Labour government (1997-2010), which demonstrated a "social inclusion" agenda informed by François Matarasso’s influential 1997 report on the social impact of participation in the arts. Critic Claire Bishop’s analysis of these policies suggests that they were based on a neoliberal idea of community that sought to erode, rather than build, social relations. "Social participation," Bishop argues, "is viewed positively because it creates submissive citizens who respect authority and accept the "risk" and responsibility of looking after themselves in the face of diminished public services." 

However, issues concerning community were more complex in relation to Chamberlain’s work in post-conflict Belfast. Under Chamberlain, BCC’s youth programmes worked with people from some of the most disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, fostering connections, and enduring friendships, across ethnic and class divides. Chamberlain used a human pyramid involving participants from different backgrounds as an example of how the interdependence crucial to many circus arts could be valuable in a divided context such as Northern Ireland.

Social circus embraces a non-competitive ethos and, although it involves risk, that risk often is harnessed in the service of building trust between participants and, as such, social relations. Writing in 2004, Chamberlain complained that government policy at the time was "all about wealth creation, not artistic creation." Yet, his tireless work as an advocate for community arts in Northern Ireland until his death testifies to his productive recognition of the immense gap between cynical policies and creative possibilities.

Dr Siobhán O’Gorman is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Fine and Performing Arts at University of Lincoln. She co-edited (with Charlotte McIvor) Devised Performance in Irish Theatre: Histories and Contemporary Practice (2015) and is author of the forthcoming Theatre Performance and Design: Scenographies in a Modernizing Ireland.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ