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ROLL UP, ROLL UP Circus Gerbola is coming to town.

Tara Gerbola talks about life in the circus as she prepares for Mayo shows


Anton McNulty

After building a successful business from scratch in one of the most volatile industries around, you’d expect someone to take the time to take pride in their achievements. However, for Tara Gerbola, there is no time to look back – instead, she’s focused on the future of the family-run Circus Gerbola.
“It is very hard to look at something and say ‘My God, we have come a long way in a short space of time’. For me I just see what has to be done and not what has been done. That sort of keeps me going. It is onto the next thing … I never have the time to look back and think of what I did,” she revealed.
Some people decide to run away to the circus, but Tara and her husband, Michael, were born into it. Both their families steeped in the circus and entertainment tradition.
Together, they decided to form their own circus in 2001, and 16 years later they are in the middle of their annual seasonal tour around Ireland, which runs from February to October. This week the Big Top rolls into Mayo, with stop-offs in Belmullet, Achill and Westport.
Their show combines the traditional touring circus with dancing, high-wire and trapeze acts, magic and special effects including horses, illusions and of course clowns, which Tara says are still ‘integral to any circus’. The show has an exotic cast, with acts from Mexico, Bulgaria, Romania, France and Australia, as well as members of the Gerbola family, including Tara and Michael’s 13-year-old son.
Old-fashioned appeal
Next year, the circus industry celebrates the 250th anniversary; the first-recorded modern circus took place in London in 1768. The circus industry has gone through a lot of ups and downs in recent years, with many people questioning its relevancy in modern entertainment as its battles to complete for the imagination of the public.
Speaking ahead of their arrival in Mayo, Tara explained to The Mayo News that ‘it’s a tough game’, but hard work is one of the reasons the circus has ‘stood the test of time’.
“It is definitely not an easy lifestyle. No one would turn around and say it is because of the amount of work that goes on. I don’t think the public who pay for a full two-hour show – with the quality of the show we have – appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into it,” she said. While acknowledging that many of the modern forms of entertainment have distracted many people looking a bit of escapism, she still feels live entertainment has something to offer.
“The old things always work. The audience participation always works, for example.
“It is definitely harder to get bums on seats in this day and age though. I sometimes wonder what do you have to do, but if I was to think like that everyday I wouldn’t have a circus.
“You have to think an iPad and phone is fantastic, but you can’t beat going to and sitting down to watch a live show. That is the difference. Some things you just can’t replace, and you just can’t replace live entertainment no matter what.”

Circus from scratch
Circus Gerbola has been going for 16 years, and now Tara and Michael’s three children are 13, 12 and six, with the eldest now going into secondary school. Tara admits that the circus life can place a strain on family life, with with touring and trying to ensure their children have a normal education.
When asked if she would do it all over again, she readily admits she wouldn’t, saying they were young and naïve when they formed Circus Gerbola. However, at the same time, they could not see themselves doing anything else.
“I am 43 now. If I was to start it off as we did with zero funding, I don’t think I could do it in this day and age. We started completely on our own with very little money and just tried to build it up.
“Yeah we were so naïve, we thought this will be so easy, we know what we are doing here. Not so … but I suppose it makes you learn the ropes very fast. You either sick or swim, and if you want something that bad you will swim.
“There are easier ways to make a living. The funny part about it is years ago, before we started this enterprise, we took a full year out and said we won’t do the circus anymore and got normal jobs. We always said the grass had to be greener on the other side.
“But I tell you by the end of that year, we were killing ourselves. We knew there and then it  wasn’t for us. It is very hard to change a habit of a lifetime and when you have grown up in a traditional circus family. You are driven. It is in your blood and you just can’t not do it. You are compelled to do it – we both feel it. We couldn’t do anything else or want to do anything else. You eat drink and live the circus 24/7, and that is just the way it has always been. We gave it a go on the other side but it was not for us.”

Animal welfare
One of the negative aspects of the circus in recent years has been the reported poor treatment to animals performing in the show with calls for them to be banned completely. Tara describes themselves as a traditional circus with animals – camels, horses, goats and dogs –  and says they get frustrated with how circus’s are portrayed in this regard.
“It has been blown out of all proportion now. We are hard working people who have a vet down as soon as a pony has a cough and yet we are held to ransom over it.
“People don’t understand that no Irish circus has ever been brought to court over any maltreatment of any animal, but people like to tar us with the one brush.
“Unfortunately, that is the way it is and you have to plough on; you can’t change some people’s opinion no matter how hard you make the argument. The best thing I can do is just walk away.”
With her children getting older, would Tara encourage her own children to carry on the family tradition?
“Yes, definitely. I sort of see them eventually taking it over and bring it on further. My oldest boy [Blake] is now 13 and taking a real interest in the participation side, and our little girl Isabella is made for it really. Having said that, I want them to have as a good an education as I can give them, and if they want to pursue something else that is fine too. At the moment I can’t see them not being in the circus: it is more than likely.”

Circus Gerbola will be performing in Belmullet on Wednesday, July 26 and Thursday, July 27; Achill from Friday, July 28 to Sunday, July 30; and Westport from Monday, July 31 to Wednesday, August 2. More information on www.circusgerbola.ie.

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