MEMORIES OF DUFFY’S CIRCUS |
By Veronica Breen Hogle
The other day, I heard Bing Crosby crooning, “I love those dear hearts and gentle people, who live and love in my home town,” and I remembered Tommy Cosgrove, the poster man.
In the 1940s and‘50s, Tommy was a familiar figure in Bagenalstown. He wore a mustard-colored scarf crossed in a V inside the wide lapels of his long, heavy, double-breasted coat that was belted and fastened with a buckle in the front. Tuffs of steel-gray hair escaped from under his brown tweed cap and zigzagged around his ears and neck. The shaggy end of his thick gray mustache was stained green from sucking hard sweets that smelled of peppermints.
He went to work carrying a ladder, a bucket of paste, and rolls under his arms. He crossed the streets and set his ladder where outdated billboards were stuck to walls. Before each job, he blew his nose in a hankerchief that once was white, and wiped his watery gray-blue eyes with an old blue cloth. Then he climbed up and down the ladder and with red hands, swollen from chill blains, he ripped off the old billboards. He stirred the sticky paste with a stick and generously brushed it on the wall. One day, I watched him carefully brush on a roll and when the laughing face of a clown appeared on the wall, my heart skipped a beat. As he brushed on more sections, words in huge red, blue and yellow letters read. “DUFFY’S CIRCUS, COMING TO THE FAIR GREEN, BAGENALSTOWN. “May 22, 23, 24.”
I counted the days waiting for the circus to arrive, and when I realized my other good fortune, my heart beat like a hammer. You see, Hanlon’s Drapery Shop was the only building in between the Fair Green and my house.
Long before the early morning smell of the new sliced pan loaves came out of Connelly’s Bakery, I woke to the sounds of voices, animals, and wheels coming up High Street. I looked out the window and in the street lamp, I saw people who looked different than me going into the Fair Green. On my way to school, I sat on the stonewall and watched brawny men hammering iron stakes around the edges of the big tent that was already high and taunt. On the way home from school, the Fair Green was alive with the sounds and smells of animals and the aroma of toffee.
Ann Farrell lived above the grocery shop next door to me. Both of us saved our money so we could go to the circus every day after school and sit in the front rows around the circle of sawdust and eat marshmallow mice. We screamed when the clowns raced through the seats and drenched us with water hidden in their red carnations. Little poodles did acrobats on the backs of Shetland ponies. Bears danced, tigers growled and jumped through flaming hoops. A man who looked like Tarzan put his head in the lion’s mouth.
When the ringmaster introduced Miss Svetlana from Moscow, I sat on the edge of my seat. The beautiful blonde woman was dressed in a swimsuit covered with blue sequins. As she climbed up a rope ladder, she stopped, crossed her ankles, and hung at the end of a rope only by her teeth. She started to twirl and shimmer in the spotlight, spinning like a top. She did acrobats all the way up to the top of the big tent where a handsome man, dressed in crimson sequins and a shirt with balloon sleeves waited for her. Then the two of them swung to and fro and did tricks on their bars as the brass band played, “Over The Waves.” Then the drums rolled. The ringmaster asked for our attention. He begged for silence and said, “Look! Zere is no safety net!”
The tent became dark and hushed and I heard my heart pounding. As the music played, Miss Svetlana swung faster and faster on her trapeze. Then at a loud beat of the drums, she let go of her bar and did two somersaults in the air. The man in red swung towards her and caught her hands. The brass cymbals sounded and the crowd roared and cheered. The music played fast while she climbed up and sat like a trophy on his shoulders. As they stood waving and giving dazzling smiles from their little platform, I found my hands were hot and sticky with nerves, and I’d squashed the bodies of two of my marshmallow mice.
Then the lights dimmed, and a man in a turban played strange wailing music on a bamboo flute. Miss Ruby from Bombay, a beautiful brown-skinned woman wearing a silver-colored flowing dress covered in rubies, swayed in a throne on the back of the first elephant. Five more elephants, using their trunks to hold the tails of the other elephants parades around the circle of sawdust. All of them bowed and waved to the crowd.
“I’ll be Miss Ruby, dressed in jewels and I’ll ride on an Indian elephant, ” Ann said as we played circus when we went home.
“And I’ll be Miss Svetlana from Moscow on the flying trapeze,” I told her.
For three days and nights, people from far away came to the circus. Every night, I listened to the music in my bed, and tapped my foot to the brass band playing “When You Are In Love,” and Bing Crosby singing that “The dear hearts and gentle people who lived and loved in my hometown also kept us laughin’ like a clown.”
When I fell asleep on the last night of the circus, it quietly stole away. On my way to school the next morning, I looked through the gate of the Fair Green. All that was left was the circle of sawdust.
But Tommy Cosgrove, the poster man, kept pasting posters announcing that the carnival was coming to the Fair Green, The Abbey Players will perform in the new McGrath Hall, or it was time again for Duffy’s Circus. Tommy was the man we counted on to give us advance notice of all these happy events, which took place in Bagenalstown, my little flour mill town on the Barrow River in Ireland, over half a century ago.
P.S. This story appeared in the May 9, 2008 edition of Ireland's Own Magazine and around the same time in The Carlow Nationalist.