The modern circus, as an integrated entertainment experience that includes music, domesticated animals, acrobats, and clowns, traces its heritage to Astley’s Amphitheatre, a riding school that Philip Astley founded in London following the success of trick-riding displays given by him and his wife Patty Jones in 1768, writes Liam Nolan in part one of a new eight-part series


“You see in the circus a gathering of men and women who are able to do things as a matter of course which you couldn’t do if your life depended on it.” So said Robert Benchley.

Ambrose Bierce in his ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, defined circus as ‘a place where hors+es, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.”

Elephants of course are no longer featured in the circuses of today. Thinking back on the revelations about the sometimes horrendously cruel ways these huge animals (the biggest of all land animals) with their long trunks, massive legs, large ears, tusks, and enormous heads were ‘trained’ to ‘perform’, I admit to feeling relieved. Glad even.

Definitions of the word ‘circus’ throw some light on it. Sociologist Marcello Truzzi’s 1971 statement of meaning was: “a travelling and organised display of animals and skilled performances within one or more circular stages known as ‘rings’, before an audience encircling these activities.” A bit pedantic maybe.

Back in 1826 the dictionary compiler Noah Webster defined ‘circus’ as “a circular enclosure for the exhibition of feats of horsemanship.” That brings us closer to understanding how the circus as we know it came into being.
In essence circus developed from being horses on a track, into a travelling company of acrobats, clowns and other entertainers performing in a ring in a tent.

First there were exhibitions of horsemanship, and the acknowledged father of the circus (in 1768) was a big, raw-boned, loud-voiced uneducated English former army sergeant-major named Philip Astley. At the age of 17 he had joined a new regiment, Eliott’s Light Horse. His job was to look after the existing horses, and to help break in and train new ones. He was very good at it.

He became a war hero at the age of 19 during the Seven Years War, charging and breaking the French line on a German battlefield.

Already an accomplished rider and teacher of regular and spectacular horsemanship, when he came out of the army (with a gift of a pure white charger) he became fixated on two ideas. One was to develop even further his own trick riding abilities. The performances of one Thomas Johnson, already famous as ‘The Irish Tartar’, made a big impression on Astley.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own