The ringmaster of one of Ireland’s oldest circuses has broken with tradition to stage big tent shows during the winter in a bid to recoup huge pandemic losses.
David Duffy, of Tom Duffy’s Circus, admitted the 150-year family business was close to going bust during lockdown as it struggled for almost 16 months to secure state support.
After 19 months without performing, Duffy’s Circus is finally back on the road, albeit its audiences are still subject to the continuing Covid-19 restrictions.
Mr Duffy, who is the circus’s managing director, said the Co Meath business could not wait until the spring for the start of the traditional season and is instead stepping into the unknown with winter and Christmas shows.
“We’re trying to be as positive as possible,” he said.
“We’re nowhere near out of the woods yet. We’re opening at the time of the year when we shouldn’t be open. We never would be open in November.
“But we have to be open now and then we‘re going to do Christmas for the first time.”
He added: “This is all unknown. These are unknown waters for us because we don’t know what the business will be like at this time of the year because we’ve never done it before.”
Mr Duffy explained that circuses fell into “all the cracks” during the pandemic and found that, as mobile live entertainers, they were unable to secure state support that required businesses to have a rateable premises.
“We came very close to actually disappearing,” he said.
“The biggest worry was that for the first 15 to 16 months we got no support.
“We were banging on doors, we were talking to politicians and on Zoom meetings, and because we were a mobile circus, because we weren’t working from a rateable premises, we were excluded from the likes of the CRSS [the Government’s Covid restrictions support scheme] so we were falling into all the cracks.
“We were being pushed from one department to the other.”
He added: “Now there is some funding and support trickling through. But when you’ve been out of business for 19 months it’s going to take an awful lot to turn that around.”
The circus show features a mix of acts, including acrobatics, magic and clowns. It culminates with the ominously named Space Wheel of Death.
While Duffy’s does own domestic animals, such as horses, dogs and llamas, they are not playing a part in the winter shows and are instead being kept on a farm.
Mr Duffy said while he has managed to secure the artists required to put on a show he is proud of, he says the business has been badly hit by the loss of long serving behind-the-scenes crew members.
“We lost all our crew, all our men, some of them who had been with us for 20 years,” he said.
He said while erecting the big top used to take around three and half hours, it now takes up to two days.
While the circus used to move from town to town in a convoy of 24 vehicles it now only has three drivers, so moving the equipment requires multiple return trips.
That journey will be from Drogheda to Dundalk this week.
When the circus opened the tent again for the first time last month it did so on the assumption it would be able to operate at full capacity and without other Covid-19 restrictions.
However, the Government’s decision to stall some relaxations originally planned for October 22nd put paid to that. The circus is now operating with limited capacity and all patrons need to show a Covid certificate on entry.
Mr Duffy said he was not criticising the Government for the change in direction but said the unexpected continuation of restrictions was having a significant impact on the business.
“I know it’s not their fault and I know everybody’s trying to keep everybody safe,” he said. “But, you know, we thought we could have been back to full capacity and no restrictions on that Friday.
“Then the days before that they decided we couldn’t. So, yeah, of course, the restrictions and restraints are still damaging us big time.”