The circus comes to town

A couple of times a year, the circus came to town. The announcement would appear in multicoloured posters pasted to telephone poles all over town, with the names of the acts and the show times. The circus would usually spend just one night in Drogheda, arriving early in the morning, putting on a show in the afternoon and another that night, and they would have moved on the following morning to the next town.

Word would spread like wildfire on the morning the circus arrived and we children would all head over to the circus field in the Crosslanes, to help with assembling the big top. We would crowd around the circus hands asking how we could help, and they might get us to pull on a rope to raise one of the poles or help to roll out a canvas. When the tent was up they would hand out a number of free passes to those who had helped the most. I’m sure I wasn’t much help and I never got a free pass, but it was all very exciting. In the afternoon we would go back to find the whole field was transformed. One truck formed the colourful entrance and ticket office. You went up a small stair to buy your tickets, or show your free pass if you had one. You then went through a curtain and down more steps on the other side and into the circus tent. The sunlight shining through the colourful big top combined with the smell of the grass made it all so exotic and exciting. You knew you were in for a treat.

Some kids would try to get in for free by crawling under the sides of the tent. The circus people guarded the sides to try to prevent this, but there were always some who were successful. If lucky they would find themselves under the seats, which were just wooden planks on a frame. If you were already inside you might find another boy under you asking you to move over so that he could hoist himself up and squeeze in beside you. The most expensive seats were the ringside chairs, and there were always some children sitting there, usually accompanied by older adults, probably their grandparents.

The ringmaster would announce each act in turn in a booming voice. A favourite act was the trained ponies which would perform various tricks for the ringmaster, running first one direction, then the other around the ring and posing in various formations. Then a person would stand on a pony’s back while the pony ran around the ring, and they would skip rope while doing so, or take another person on their shoulders. The trapeze act was particularly exciting. A safety net would be strung out across the ring and the performers would climb up a rope ladder nearly to the very top of the tent and perform on a swing, or they would fly between two swings in the bigger circuses. The ringmaster would hype up acts with references to death-defying tricks never before attempted. Some performers used the safety net as their way down from the trapeze, launching themselves from the swing into the air to then land gracefully on their backs onto the net, and tumble off onto the ground to bow to the audience and to receive their applause. The tight rope was another staple and occasionally there was the even more exciting slack wire, which swung wildly while a performer crossed and recrossed it, performing various tricks while doing so. There were some innovative acts, such as a trick motorcycle act I remember once in which bike and rider sped around the ring then shot up a wire to the top of the tent so that they were riding around way above our heads. It seemed impossible and we were left gasping.

The clowns came out for various turns throughout each show, but the highlight so far as the clowns were concerned was the clowns’ car, which would move when no one was in it and stop moving when the clowns got in, and then suddenly start moving again and finally fall apart as the clowns rode around in it. The clowns were funny, but also a bit scary and you would not want them to catch you when they ran around jumping up on the edge of the ring and advancing into the audience.

The circus band performed from a bandstand on top of the truck which formed the entrance arch, and the band personnel kept changing throughout the show as most performers doubled up as musicians. After the show some circuses had a zoo which you could visit on payment of a small additional charge. You would access it through the performers’ curtain at the back of the ring, which added to the mystique. Here you’d find a few cages and pens containing various animals, such as ponies from the pony act, and some small monkeys. I remember once there was the most amazing sight, a five-legged calf with an extra leg jutting out behind him. Most regular circuses I went to didn’t have exotic animals like lions or tigers, but occasionally larger circuses came to town, such as Chipperfields and the Bertram Mills circus.

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