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Hometown of Duffy's circus

Dunmanway's - Hometown of Duffy's Circus

By Sandra Maybury, May 2020 

I have always enjoyed a trip to the circus for as long as I can remember and I don’t need to wonder or question where I inherited this from as my father, Sonny has always been a fan of circuses and it got me thinking, where did his love of the circus come from.

Can you imagine growing up in a town, that one of Ireland’s largest circus family called home. Well that was the case in the 1940’s and 1950’s when Duffy’s circus wintered in Dunmanway. I asked my father what he remembered about those times, he said “I knew John and James Duffy well and John’s son, John James, they were lovely people”. At first, I thought he was confused as those names didn’t make sense to me, surely they were all the same person but when I did more research, he was spot on with the Johns’ and James’ and he did know them well. 

As a teenager, he worked in Atkins General Store in the town centre, he often delivered groceries to the Duffy's site on Doheny Lane and he loved to look around at the set up and all the animals. He said they were well off people and I asked him to explain why he thought that, “They had the best of cars and trucks and wagons and everything they had was well kept”, was his reply and he added how they had been such a great asset for the town of Dunmanway saying “They did great things for the town and provided a lot of employment”.

So that got me thinking, there must be so many other stories out there.  Armed with the information from my own parents, my next call was to my aunt Kathleen in Boston. Kathleen went to school with a girl called Betty Fry. Betty’s parents worked in the circus, Kathleen was invited to Betty’s home after school and says she was mesmerised by how they lived, their animals and how colourful everything was.

I then had the most wonderful chat with Mary Cotter (nee Hennessy). Mary, who grew up on Chapel Street also remembers Betty from school and another girl called Annie Mc Cormack, who’s parents worked and traveled with the circus. Annie, too was a performer and as a girl Mary would watch Annie practice her routine on the tight rope. Mary said “There was such excitement when the circus would return to town at the end of the Summer. Everything looked so colourful, the tents and wagons were painted in bright blue and red and we could hear the lions roar as they were being trained.” She also spoke about seeing the elephants being brought to the lake for a drink of water daily, saying “I remember thinking how big the elephant was and also how slow she walked, it took 2 men to bring her along.” What magnificent memories for Mary to share with her children and grandchildren.

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Another story Mary and others shared, was the day of the Duffy family wedding. In 1951, 3 members of the Duffy family, brother and sister John James and Annie Duffy, together with their first cousin Marian Duffy were wed, in a triple wedding ceremony at St. Patrick’s Church. John James married Eva Rexon, who was a member of the popular circus act, The Flying Rexons. It was a multinational affair, Annie’s groom, Paul Hamilan hailed from Paris, France, while Marian’s groom was Edward Rose from Brussels. The Duffy’s had many friends within the local community. Local man, Denis O’ Neill was best man for Edward and Marian and the photo of this wedding party, has hung proudly in Nealum’s bar for making years and I’m thinking of how many times I’d seen that photo and I never questioned its significance,until now.  And I’ve heard of how local people were asked to be Godparents for the Duffy’s children.

After the ceremony, a guard of honour was formed by a number of circus clowns. The couples traveled by horse and carriage next to the circus depot on Doheny Lane, before doing a lap around the town square and then onto the wedding reception at St. Patrick’s Hall. Mary can recall the excitement and celebrations in the town on that day. As the couples traveled through the town, they threw coins to the children who lined the streets to congratulate them. The throwing of coins was believed to bring good luck to all. Mary was invited to join the wedding reception, which she described as a marvelous day, “We were amazed by it all. It was such a big party, all the school children were given sweets and lemonade and ice cream that was made by Mrs Barbour.”

Duffy’s provided employment for many local people during the Winter months, as there was much work to be done to maintain the trucks, wagons and equipment and prepare for the next season on the road. Willie Farr worked with Duffy’s for 13 years, both on tour and at their Winter base. For 6 months of the year, from Easter, they would tour around Ireland and up to the North of Ireland. The other 6 months were spent in Dunmanway. I spoke to Willie’s son, Derry, who told me his father was the tent master and had wonderful stories to tell about his time on the road. He also talked about the farm Duffy’s bought to keep the horses and how they would bring the horses through the town and up Castle Street on their way to the farm, which was in the Coolkelure area.

Norma Deasy’s mother, Nancy shared stories with her about the Duffy family and how fantastic they were for the town. Deasy’s had a shop on coach road, next to the Broadway Cinema and Norma recalls her mother telling her how Mrs Duffy would come into the shop before going to the movies, dressed in the most amazing fur coat and beautiful dresses with stunning gold jewellery. They would buy boxes of chocolates, which would for most families be a treat for a special occasion or at Christmas and she said how they were very generous people. 

The Duffy family were religious also and before they would set off on their tour of Ireland, the local priest was invited to the circus HQ to say mass, to bless all the performers and their families and to keep them safe on their trip. One thing is for sure, Duffy’s will always have a special place in Dunmanway and likewise Dunmanway is special to the Duffy family with some of their family members buried in St. Patrick’s Church graveyard. 

Growing up, I had often heard about Duffys but I never really paid much heed to it until now and I fear that my children’s generation won’t ever hear these stories, so I’d encourage them to ask their grandparents to share stories like these. I enjoyed hearing people’s memories and I know there are many many more similar stories to be told. One thing that was clear and was repeated several times in my research, the Duffy’s were honest, kind and decent people and were a great asset to the town of Dunmanway.