The Circus Comes to Town!

We are spoilt for entertainment...

We are spoilt for entertainment…

When I saw this poster I hurried down to the Community Hall to see the Big Top setting up. There was no Big Top – this touring circus wisely uses village halls and other ‘solid’ venues during the winter months. Nevertheless, I wasn’t disappointed – any circus is a nostalgia trip for me. In another lifetime (it seems) I travelled far and wide to get to The Circus: even as far as Romania, where I had many adventures – but that is another story…

Circus in a box...

Circus in a box…

I have always been fascinated by how The Circus works. It’s an evanescent thing: here today and gone tomorrow. All the hard labour and the human skills fall on fewer and fewer shoulders nowadays, and you are likely to notice the person selling you tickets – and popcorn and candyfloss – later dressed in glitter and enthralling you with balancing feats and juggling fire in the Ring, which they had already been hard at work unpacking from the trailer and assembling at an early hour to transform the utilitarian interior of the local hall into a surreal palace of entertainment.

candy floss

This was certainly the case with Circo Corvenieo – we saw only two faces – but many different costumes – throughout the high quality two-hour performance. After a bit of research, I discovered that one of these two was Brandon Corvenieo, descended from an illustrious dynasty: the families of Corvenieo and McCormick have been associated with Circus and live entertainment since the early eighteenth century.

Corvenieos Circus in 1926 (Corvenieo Family Archive)

Corvenieo’s Circus in 1926 (Corvenieo Family Archive)

Brandon’s forebears ran a large touring circus in Ireland in the 1920s – one which included a full circus band: the last time I saw such a band was at the Blackpool Tower Circus many years ago. Circo Corvenieo relied on sophisticated electronics for sound and light – more easily managed on a scaled down touring show.

The show may have been compact – but it was spectacular! And admirable, in bringing first class skills to rural Ballydehob. The five chair tower balancing act had us on the edge of our seats, while the quality of juggling was impressive – you don’t often see five clubs or six rings being wielded as expertly as this outside of the most expensive venues. In some ways I thought that it’s a shame the audience was so young: small children would not have realised the years of practice required to achieve these professional performances. However, it may perhaps whet their appetites for later career choices… The highly skilful three tier Rolabola was something I had never seen before and – as always – the fire juggling, eating and breathing acts were transfixing: all this, and unicycling and stilt walking as well!

The ‘Father of Circus’ is recorded as Philip Astley (1742-1814), a former cavalry Sergeant-Major turned showman. During his military service he had displayed a remarkable talent as a horse-breaker and trainer – perhaps he was a Whisperer? Upon his discharge and return to London, Astley found there was a living to be made in equestrian demonstrations. In 1768 he set up an indoor amphitheatre (with a circular performing space) and The Circus as we know it was born!

Astley's Amphitheatre, 1807

Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1807 (Capon, V + A)

We know, of course, that in Ireland’s history horsemanship has always been practised and respected. It was also the case that riding skills and training provided profitable entertainment back in those times. Circus seems to have taken off in a big way all across Europe in the 1700s, providing employment for acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers, interspersing their acts between equestrian displays. Another addition to the show was ‘…a character borrowed from the Elizabethan theatre, the clown, who filled the pauses between acts with burlesques of juggling, tumbling, rope-dancing, and even trick-riding…’

show business

Thank you, Corvenieo’s, for bringing the spirit of The Circus back to our corner of Ireland – I gather this is the first time in 19 years you’ve been to West Cork… I think we gave you a good audience (I counted between 60 and 70 full seats): please come back in the summer, and bring the Big Top! Meanwhile, I’ll go out to the shed and dust off my fire juggling clubs – I only ever managed three; now I’m feeling sorry that I left behind my tall unicycle and my high stilts.




Shergar wins the 1981 Derby by ten lengths!

Shergar wins the 1981 Derby by ten lengths!

The skill of the Irish in breeding, training and riding horses is unbounded. These arts are swathed in folklore and storytelling as much as in reality. Take Shergar – record-breaking racehorse whose 1981 win was the longest margin in the Epsom Derby’s history: after an illustrious career the horse was kidnapped from Ballymany Stud, near The Curragh in County Kildare by masked gunmen – and never seen again. The incident has been the inspiration for conspiracy theories, books, documentaries, and a film.

You’ve all heard of the Horse Whisperer, a novel by Nicholas Evans which, in 1998, became a blockbuster film starring Robert Redford? Well, the term ‘Whisperer’ was around long before that, used to describe people who communicate with and train working horses. As far back as 1648 it was recorded that a Sussex horseman, John Young, had the art of controlling horses ‘…by means of the whisper…’ – but the most famous of the historical ‘Whisperers’ is a man from County Cork, James Sullivan. He was born in Mallow towards the end of the eighteenth century, ‘…an ignorant, awkward rustic of the lowest class…’ according to Mile’s Modern Practical Farrier, 1843. Sullivan ‘…gained the singular epithet of Whisperer by an extraordinary art of controlling in a secret manner and taming into the most submissive and tractable disposition, any horse or mare that was notoriously vicious and obstinate… He seemed to possess an instinctive power of inspiring awe, the result perhaps of a natural intrepidity, in which I believe the greater part of the art consisted… A faculty like this would have, in other hands, made a fortune; but Sullivan preferred to remain in Ireland…’

A woodcut by C F Tunnicliffe

A woodcut by C F Tunnicliffe

It’s worth quoting a little further from the story of this man from Cork, here from one of my much-thumbed books which I have carried with me for countless years – The Horse in the Furrow, by folklorist George Ewart Evans:

‘…Sullivan’s best known exploit was his taming of King Pippin, a notoriously vicious horse, at the Curragh in 1804. A man who had offered to put on his bridle had been seized by the horse and shaken like a terrier shaking a rat. He was saved only by the amount of clothes he had on his back. It appears that this was the custom of the Irish countryman to show off his wardrobe on occasions such as this, and if he had three coats he put them all on. After this incident they sent for Sullivan to subdue the horse. He shut himself up with him all night, and in the morning the horse was following him about the course like a well trained dog: he won a race at the same meeting…’

Another of my favourite writers whose many books pad out the folklore section of our library here at Nead an Iolair is Kevin Danaher. I can’t resist quoting from The Horseman’s Word in Irish Country People, Mercier Press, 1966:

‘…At the horse fair the buyer would look out for the characteristics of a good horse as laid down in the old saying: “…Three traits of a bull, a bold walk, a strong neck and a hard forehead; three traits of a fox, a light step, a look to the front and a glance to each side of the road; three traits of a woman, a broad bosom, a slender waist and a short back; three traits of a hare, a lively ear, a bright eye and a quick run against a hill…”

A first hand account of Whispering from Danaher’s childhood:

‘…It was at a fair in Rathkeale that I saw for the first and only time the strange power of the “horseman’s word”. A young colt, either through fear or perverseness, was prancing and kicking wildly when a boy of about seventeen walked in and fondled the horse’s nose, talking quietly. Immediately the colt became calm and the boy took the headstall and led him up and down as meek as a lamb. We were told that this boy, the son of an itinerant horse dealer, had the power to calm any horse. Some people said it was a hereditary secret in his family, others that he had learned it from an old Palatine farmer in the district who also had this strange gift. It was said, too, that as well as being able to quieten horses and break untrained animals in a matter of minutes, this boy could get a horse to stand still and not move for any force or persuasion until he or somebody else who had the power released it. There is no doubt at all that certain persons have this gift, not only in Ireland but all over the world, but no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming. In Ireland it is known as ‘cogar i gcluais an chapaill’ or simply ‘the whisper’ and its potency is held to lie in the words which are spoken in the horse’s ear…’

Irish Travellers, County Clare 1951

Danaher mentions an ‘itinerant horse dealer’. Today we might call them Gypsies or Travellers. In Ireland they are well-known for their skills in horsemanship, and for breeding a very particular type of draft horse, suitable for pulling the vardo and also for riding and sulkie racing. The horses are often piebald or skewbald. You may be sure that the Travelling fraternity are natural Whisperers!

The 'Gypsy Horse' is a light draft cob

The ‘Gypsy Horse’ is a light draft cob

Both Evans and Danaher mention the Toadmen in their discussions. These characters would use divination to gain their power over horses. One such ritual was called the ‘Water of the Moon’, and was commonly practised in the East Anglian and Cambridgeshire regions of England. It required that the horseman kill a frog or toad and hang the body on a thorn tree until only the skeleton remained.  At full moon the man then had to take the skeleton to a running stream and throw it into the water.  One small forked bone would detach itself from rest and float upstream, and it was this bone from which the horseman would then derive power over horses.

The magical bone of the Toad...

The magical bone of the Toad… (Tunnicliffe)

Have a look at this clip from Canada – it’s not Ireland, but it’s about a modern day Horse Whisperer, and makes good watching…

Speed the Plough

Speed the Plough

In England today – the first Sunday after Epiphany – they ‘bless the plough’. I can’t find any mention of a similar tradition in Ireland, but please let me know if you are aware of one. It’s because the day marks the end of the agricultural holiday which follows Christmas: tomorrow is Plough Monday – the first day of the farmers’ working year – which has its own traditions. Ploughs were traditionally taken around with collecting boxes by mummers and molly dancers in parts of Eastern England, and in some places were used as a threat: if householders refused to donate to the participants their front paths would be ploughed up! Of course the ploughs used in these customs were all drawn by horses at one time – something that hasn’t died out yet: our friends Tim and Sandra keep their own working horses here in West Cork, and I’m quite sure they have mastered the art of Whispering for themselves.