The Whole Motley Mass of It: following the circus through the Trinity archives

Five lion cubs and two puma cubs born in Dublin Zoo in the summer of 1894

Five lion cubs and two puma cubs born in Dublin Zoo in the summer of 1894

Researchers visiting the M&ARL Reading Room study a bewildering variety of subjects, but we have noticed a definite trend towards ‘thematic’ PhD topics of late. Here, one of our readers, Ellie Lavan, describes using M&ARL collections for her thesis which considers conceptions of the circus in Irish literature and culture from the eighteenth century to the present day. She writes:

‘It’s now two years since I started my PhD at Cambridge and began looking for signs of the circus in Irish culture. It still surprises me that it should feature so prominently in works by major twentieth-century writers and artists, and yet remains largely unremarked in cultural criticism. But sometimes – especially when I’m trying to recover contextual, historical details about troupes and travelling showmen – I realise I’m dealing with a very elusive subject. We all have an idea of the circus, but a fixed sense of what it is in actual terms seems far more difficult to grasp.

That’s why, by now, I have spent several months in archives in England, the US and most recently in Dublin, poring over seemingly bizarre assemblies of material – requests that altogether must look like a kind of circus for the archivists to whom I hand my call slips. In a single day at Trinity, I surveyed scores of manuscripts by major authors, children’s-story corners of forgotten magazines, such as The Farmer, dozens of motley scrapbooks of the Dublin Zoological Society (in the 1940s, Dublin Zoo was renowned among English circuses for rearing black-mane lion cubs) and sheaves of letters that to anyone else might seem of little consequence, but which are to me treasured, valuable sources.

Because it’s within these things that the real circus continues to exist: in reviews written to be read by friends or family, or to be published for wider circulation; in stories for children that get straight to the most exciting parts of the show; in adverts and playbills that have been saved since they mention a favourite artiste or are beautifully illustrated with especial skill. In these things – the vivid, vital things which we all keep and remember – I can see origins of the circus as written by John Banville, or painted by Jack Yeats, or filmed by Neil Jordan. To paraphrase Heaney’s great circus poem ‘Wheels Within Wheels’, by looking at these items, I almost get a grip on things.’

Ellie Lavan

University of Cambridge