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.