Saturday, 30 June 2018

On this Day 1st July (1844) the Circus Came to Ballyshannon

It is incredible to imagine that the circus visited Ballyshannon before Famine times, 174 years ago, and that the town was in a state of excitement which few occasions must have matched. Mary Anne Sheil was a member of a prominent family whose diary gives us an insight into what Ballyshannon life and society was like at the outbreak of the Famine. She was the daughter of Simon Sheil, senior, and lived in Sheil House, which still stands at the entrance to the church car park in College Street and is now occupied by the Health Service Executive. Her brother was Dr. Simon Sheil who was to leave £6,000 in his will for the building of the Sheil Hospital.

The Sheil family, like everyone else in town, were mesmerised by the circus parade through the town and the circus performance reminiscent of Donnybrook Fair at its best. Townspeople and anglers alike watched in amazement as the circus performers displayed their skill .through the streets of the town. Everyone wanted a good vantage point to view the Circus parade with seven pairs of beautiful horses and as the advertisement said:  The Largest Elephant in the World”

Upstairs windows were at a premium as they offered a great view of the circus parade. That evening there was a parade and show through the streets of the town and Mary Anne watched the parade from her home in College Street. ( Lane):

When we  got here we found our Lane equal to Donnybrook Fair particularly at our own door, there were jugglers, tumblers, people riding on stilts, dancers etc. etc. we all gathered into the windows and for two hours we laughed loud and long at the rival performers. Dr. Mc Gettigan came up by the upcoming coach from Ballintra and we stood so long watching all the varieties under the windows we did not dine till long after six.

    Sheil House on College Street from where Mary Anne Sheil witnessed the circus
parade in 1844. It still stands today at the entrance to the church carpark

On Friday 2nd July, Hughes’s Modern Roman Amphitheatre of Arts, as the circus was called, was going to perform at 2 o’ clock. Mary Anne Sheil and her sisters went for a sneak preview and: “got a peep through a keyhole at the elephant, which little Stephen Heyward who was with us particularly enjoyed.”

"Excitement continued when a message was brought that the show was commencing at the “Roman Arena”. We ran off to get on our bonnets and Florinda, Julia, Henny, Louisa, Mr. Allingham, Dr. Mc Gettigan, Mr. Hobson, Simon and myself started; Alas! We were in when one half of the performance was over. I was very sorry as I could have gazed on them for hours; I thought the riding so beautiful. In all my memory I never recollect a day of such variety in the town of Ballyshannon; it was a Fair day, which with the attractions of the Elephant etc. etc. caused the town to overflow with company".

The following day saw the departure of the circus and normality slowly returned to the town, which had been in a state of excitement for three days. The circus left in the direction of Bundoran, on its way to Sligo. Very few diaries have come to light which give eyewitness accounts of life in Ballyshannon in the nineteenth century. Mary Anne Sheil , in her diary, reveals glimpses of life in Ballyshannon, in the mid-nineteenth century, with insights into life in the big house, fishing on the Erne, Victorian protocol, customs, the Famine, the building of St. Patrick’s Church and the excitement generated by the arrival of the circus in town, over 170 years ago, on this day 1st July.

A  Local History Book suitable for those at Home and Away

"Ballyshannon. Genealogy and History" reveals newly researched history and genealogy of the town, extending as far as the Rossnowlagh, Cashelard, Corlea, Clyhore, Higginstown and Finner areas. Includes the parishes of Kilbarron and Magh Ene. 
  • The genealogy material provides detailed guidelines for anyone tracing their roots in the area or anywhere in County Donegal or Ireland. The book contains 500 pages and is richly illustrated with stunning colour, aerial photography, original illustrations and rare photographs of the area not seen before.
  • It  includes much new material on the independence struggle which is being remembered throughout Ireland. It also contains the full story of  The Green Lady which  was  performed in Ballyshannon  to great acclaim. 
Available in A Novel Idea, and Local Hands in Ballyshannon and 4 Masters Bookshop Donegal Town. Also available from Anthony Begley for postal enquiries email

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