From the Galway City Tribune – When it began 20 years ago, the Galway Community Circus would gather on a Wednesday afternoon in Westside Community Centre with just a handful of kids meeting for a novel afterschool activity.
Founding members included Maríosa Hume, Karin Wimmer and Lisa O’Farrell, who continues to teach circus skills today.
During the summer, she was one of the 140 people from 15 countries who crossed the Corrib on a high wire in the biggest high-wire spectacle ever staged in Europe.
From small shoots, the circus has grown into a seriously professional outfit, based at St Joseph’s Community Centre in Shantalla for 18 years. Here their eight employees have bright offices and students attend classes at the wonderfully decorated community hall.
It is now the biggest youth circus in the country, alongside the one in Belfast.
In the early days, the building owned by the church was hardly used. It was the location of a lot of vandalism and antisocial behaviour. People used to think it was actually closed, reflects Executive Creative Director of the Galway Community Circus, Ulla Hokkanen.
With 500 active members attending 25 classes in Galway and three now taking place in Tuam, there are plans to create a third base on the east side of the city as part of their medium-term plan to expand their outreach. Summer camps almost always sell out.
Ulla is extremely passionate about the benefits for children of joining a circus.
She was seven when the circus came to her small Finnish town. She and her sister joined a weekend workshop and found the experience exhilarating.
“I was very shy. I would never have joined a theatre group. I hated sports, hated PE,” she reflects.
Her parents, both teachers, thought that this was a fabulous outlet for children of different learning abilities, children who had yet to find a comfortable space in the academic world.
So, they and another couple went and set up their own youth circus.
More than 100 children got involved, which was quite the number when the population of the town was just 5,000.
“My dad was able to juggle clubs, my mum was good at balancing but that’s about it. They did some training courses. All the parents got involved in the set design, in the costumes for the spring show, they made an effort to make our vision happen when it came to the show. Children were encouraged to dream. It was really special to know that parents were interested in something we were interested in and got involved with.”
The focus during the classes is on learning circus skills – things like juggling, acrobatics, rolla bolla, trapeze, silks, wire-walking – in diverse styles such as those used in street performance, in the big top or as part of a contemporary dance show.
It’s a way of getting physical, without being in a competitive environment for youths not into sport. It’s designed to nurture creativity for kids who may not be into performance arts. But the community circus has a much more important social side; it is also about equipping individuals with the necessary skills for society, explains Ulla.
“What we do is really preventative healthcare. It promotes a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, it gives access to a safe social space where they can meet friends, get a break from the pressure of school, they’re not being measured or tested, they can learn something different.
“Bullying and isolation in schools is a big thing. You’re changing the direction of young people’s life. It’s a place they can develop confidence, resilience, you’re building their empathy, a connection to their community. You’re making sure they have a voice and they can express their opinions. Here they develop leadership skills.
“We live in a society where children are bubble-wrapped, they’re not encouraged to climb or run. Here they learn to take calculated risks. The biggest fear for a lot of adults is failure, especially in front of other people. A circus celebrates failure – when you learn juggling you drop the ball a million times but you keep picking it up and keep practicing until you get it.”
The circus gets one third of its funding from the Arts Council and Galway City Council, another third from funding for projects, mainly from the EU through the Erasmus+ and Create Europe programmes, but also bodies closer to home such as Mental Health Ireland, the HSE and the Science Foundation. The remainder comes from fees from participants, which range from €4 to €9 per class.
“I know so many families are struggling but we always have a lot of equipment and professional teachers – it’s not a volunteer-led club – so there is a cost, but we try to keep it as affordable as possible. We have a bursary scheme offering free or subsidised membership.”
Operating as a social enterprise, it has a remit to develop youth circus across the country so provides training for trainers, mentors other community circuses and organises events at schools and festivals to promote its educational ethos.
There are overseas volunteers who regularly teach at the community circus as part of an EU Erasmus programme. In Europe studying to become a circus performer is not unusual.
Over the two decades, ten former students have gone on to make working in the sector a career. One of them, Freddy Burrows from the Westside, went to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to do a circus arts degree and has since returned to teach here.
“I was doing boxing and football, but Galway Community Circus had such a positive atmosphere. It’s really good for boosting your social skills as well as being hardcore for sports,” reveals Freddy.
“When I arrived, I was doing a lot of aerial rope. The company Fidget Feet were here developing a show so I was able to get stuck into a lot of training with them. When I was doing my leaving cert, I mentioned that I would love to pursue it and then I heard you could actually study it in Europe.”
After his four years in college, he spent a year travelling Europe performing before returning to Galway just before the lockdown. He has just been accepted onto a pilot scheme – launched after the Covid lockdowns decimated livelihoods for people working in the arts – giving artists a guaranteed basic income for three years.
“I’ve just done a circus teaching training programme – it was the first one in Ireland. And the funding will help my training to develop as a teacher. I want to be able to do more work with special needs kids, refugees. The Galway Community Circus is so inclusive, we do a lot of outreach.”
The circus is currently involved in creating a degree programme in collaboration with the University of Galway and other European institutions for circus pedagogy or how to teach circus methods. The first stage of that long process is having modules of it within an arts degree.
Every year the team bring a group of young people to a community circus in Europe. This July the circus hosted young people who arrived to take part in Lifeline, the mass high wire project that was due to take place during the Galway 2020 programme, explains the community circus digital engagement officer Alexandra Stewart.
“That was such as a happy day, a day full of joy. All kinds of people took part, from 10 and 68 years old, including professionals, adults who wanted to take part in something challenging. It was very cool to meet people from the circus sector from all around the world. It really feels like the circus is family.”
Alex, from Michigan in the US, immigrated here with her Wexford husband before the first lockdown. Ulla studied a semester at University of Limerick as part of her social studies degree. She joined the circus as a volunteer in 2008 and has never left.
They are typical of the multicultural team leading the dynamic organisation, always seeking new funding for another project, never content to sit still.
Six years ago, they got funding to completely transform the community centre hall in a venue perfect for a circus school. It was designed by the members, in collaboration with visual artists Finbar 247 and Shane O’Malley, with circus performers Davi Hora, Alex Alison and Jack English, a trainer in parkour, the sport that involves running, jumping and climbing through urban buildings. The walls are splashed with graffiti, with colour every which way.
The Galway Community Circus has many plans for the future. But this year is about celebrating their 20-year milestone. They will hold a three-day conference at the University of Galway and a Youth Ensemble performance in November. They will also mark the occasion with a birthday party.
No doubt another colourful affair in the life of this colourful outfit as it leaves its teenage years behind.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Galway City Tribune, October 28. You can support our journalism by subscribing to the Galway City Tribune HERE. The print edition is in shops every Friday.