|Location||Throughout the island of Ireland|
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
|Keywords||Circus, funfair, showmen, travelling performance tradition|
|Contact organisation||Irish Showmen’s Guild|
Irish traditional, travelling circuses and funfairs present entertainment on an itinerant basis throughout the country. Family run over generations, the funfair/circus typically visits a town or village at the same time each year. Very often they form the core attraction around which a local fair, festival or community event will be organised.
The funfair typically consists of a number of mechanical rides and games. These were steam driven in the past but are now electrically run from generators. Traditional games of chance/skill are also presented.
Circuses present within a tent and feature performers displaying traditional circus skills together with clowning & musical elements. Traditional circus has been recognised as an art form in Ireland since 2003.
Key to the survival of this practice is the fact that it is centred on a small community of Irish families. In Ireland there are less than 100 families still travelling each year. The advent of cinema, television and other electronic media have all threatened the tradition in the past. It has survived and been passed down through the generations because it is fundamentally a way of life to the members.
Travelling circuses and funfairs are meshed into the fabric of Irish society. Childhood memories of seaside resorts or summer festivals will invariably contain a funfair or circus visit. The showmen have provided entertainment and distraction to generations of Irish families and will continue to do so into the future.
The showmen are a unique, socially contributing cultural community with their own traditions, language and heritage. The Irish Show Industry has contributed over the past 300 years to the development of posters and fonts as a graphic art form, fairground music, and Polari a fairground/circus/theatre sub language.
Practice and practitioners
Circuses and Funfairs tour throughout Ireland typically from March until October. They are visited by over 1.5 million people each year. They vary in scale from large events such as Funderland in the RDS to small fairs touring seaside towns through the summer months. There are over 105 funfairs operating within the 32 counties. Families such as the Birds, Cullens, Murrays and Pipers still operate throughout the island. Some are permanently sited in seaside resorts such as Tramore, Courtown, Crosshaven, Bundoran and Bray. Increasingly funfairs will link to local festivals or music events providing them with a strong local audience while giving the festival/event a guaranteed income.
Circuses continue to tour also and in 2003 traditional circus was recognised as an art form. This initiative, led by traditional circus families, which resulted in the inclusion of circus in the Arts Bill, has contributed to the birth and growth of a vibrant contemporary circus and street arts community. The Fossett, Duffy and Gerbola circus families have all availed of Arts Council support to help them survive and grow. Irish circus has been involved in the explosion of music and cultural festivals over the past 15 years and has contributed to their popularity and cultural diversity. Fossett’s Circus has been an integral part of Electric Picnic since its inception. Irish circus families have supported local festivals during their initial start-up phase by offering the use of their tents, equipment and skills. Strong local ties have been forged and strengthened over this time.
The Irish Showmen’s Guild (ISG) was established in 1954 to look after the interests of Showmen who operate Irish based funfairs, fairgrounds and circuses. There are currently 105 members representing around eighty families. Most members run small, family owned operations and have been involved in the industry for several generations.
Development, transmission and safeguarding
As a working, living community the passing on of the traditions of Irish travelling circus and funfair is organic. It takes place each time that a fair is dismantled, loaded, transported and built up again. The showman skills are developed and honed every time a ride needs repainting and the artwork needs renewal. When a 14 year old is allowed to sell their first candy floss or pitch their first “spiel” to an awaiting audience they are learning a craft that has remained basically unchanged for generations. When a young circus performer is allowed to simply walk into the ring to experience the audience applause they are beginning their section of a journey that their great, great grandparents began many years ago.
The Irish Showmen have a small but vibrant group of young members who are fiercely proud of their heritage and are more than willing to take up the baton when it’s passed. Non-family workers are employed each year but it is the work of the next generation of Irish Showmen of both genders that enables the show to go on. The passion and pride in the showmen way of life has not been diminished through the years.
Members are actively involved in the development, operation and promotion of a range of festivals throughout the country. Circuses and funfairs are an integral part of tourism and festive events from the Rose of Tralee to Electric Picnic. They contribute to the viability of many smaller festivals, increasing footfall. Circuses and funfairs supply traditional colour and ambience to a range of tourism events and showmen resort members operate their seaside parks as core domestic tourism attractions and a key part of the cultural and social fabric of the country.
Future plans by the Showmen include greater focus on communication and education to illustrate to younger members and the wider Irish community the value of the traditional way of life of the Irish showmen and the contribution they make to Irish cultural life.
Irish Showmen’s Guild