When the Circus Came to Town

“The closest Western Civilisation has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released.”

 Langdon Winner

It is 200 years since the foundation stone for Dún Laoghaire harbour was laid, and 50 since the release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles.

The iconic Peter Blake designed cover of Sgt. Pepper featured Irish writes Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, and as we mentioned in the last feature about their stay in Dún Laoghaire’s Royal Marine hotel, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The closing track on side one of Sgt. Pepper (I know it is almost redundant to talk about this in the streaming age) is called ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’

John Lennon wrote it after buying a 19th-century circus poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal in an antique ship in Sevenoaks (pictured with Lennon above) when the band were taking a break from recording a videos for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’.

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Heritage plaque for Pablo Fanque in his native Norwich

Pablo Fanque, whose real name was William Darby, was the first non-white circus master in Britain. His circus was by far the most popular in Victorian Britain. During the golden age of the circus, Pablo’s show was the hottest ticket in town for nearly 30 years, Indeed, Fanque enjoyed a far longer and enduring career than the Beatles themselves.

Fanque’s circus came to Ireland in the summer of 1850, kicking off an extensive tour with some equestrian events at Portobello Gardens, followed by six nights in a music hall on Abbey Street, which is the very same street where the Beatles played their only Irish show on November 7, 1963.

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The Fab Four arrive at Dublin Airport, 1963. Photo: Irish PhotoArchive.ie

After his engagements in Portobello and Abbey Street, Pablo Fanque brought his circus to Dún Laoghaire, then called Kingstown.

An advert placed in The Freeman’s Journal on June 17th, 1850 read: “Mons. P.F. feels a pleasure in announcing to the inhabitants of KINGSTOWN, that he has made arrangements to give THREE GRAND DAY AND EVENING FETES on THURSDAY, June 20th; FRIDAY, 21st: and SATURDAY, 22nd, in a splendid Mammoth Marquee erected in GLASTHULE TERRACE, capable of holding Two Thousand persons at one time.” The ad also lists further Irish dates in Clonmel, Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford and Tipperary, and concluding with “a short season” in Limerick.

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The Freeman’s Journal, June 17, 1850. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Fanque is also mentioned in the song ‘Ritz’ by the band Cockney Rebel in addition to the Beatles classic, which again proves just how the leading light of the golden age of the circus further infilrated popular culture a century after his death.

The Waterford News carried this review of Pablo’s circus on July 12, 1850:

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Bray is another seaside town located further south from Dún Laoghaire on the DART  line. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bray became a very popular seaside resort, especially amongst Liverpudlians, as Liverpool was a short cruise across the Irish sea. Bray’s bandstand regularly hosted performances from a group called Sergeant Pepper’s Big Brass Band.

While it is just local speculation, there appears to be some credence to the theory that the Bray bandstand house band partially inspired the best known album of all time. David McWilliams told me that when he met Wayne Rooney’s Grandmother, she told him that she and her husband honeymooned in Bray, adding a little more weight to the story.

Next time you stroll around Dún Laoghaire, Glasthule or any Irish town that hosted Pablo’s show, remember that thousands of people gathered over multiple summer nights in 1850 to witness the most famous circus of its day strut its stuff. Many, many years later, it influenced the famous band of all time to immortalise the thrill of it all in song.

The Dublin Beatles Festival takes place around the anniversary of their Adelphi show in early November. Like and follow them on Facebook here for details. 

Duffy’s Circus runs at Dún Laoghaire Harbour until Sunday, October 8. Details here.

‘Being for the Benefit for Mr. Kite’ is included on an NME feature on the most underrated John Lennon songs here

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