Life less ordinary for performing girl Bell
‘FOLLOW YOUR heart,’ Bell McFadden’s father told her, before she left her affluent home to marry, and join a travelling troupe of entertainers.
Now almost 90, Bell has settled in Greystones and will soon take a seat at her granddaughter’s circus when it comes to the Beach House.
Bell grew up in Oranmore, Galway, and George’s family rented a field belonging to her parents.
The family returned year after year to put on variety shows, and George and Bell fell in love, much to the chagrin of the young woman’s mother.
She took a chance on love, and chose a life on the road, playing her own part in the drama and variety shows.
‘ They would be in a town for maybe a few weeks before moving on,’ explained Bell’s granddaughter Tara Gerbola, a trapeze artist who runs Circus Gerbola with her husband, Mikey, a clown.
The performers would do a different play every night, they would sing and dance, or even show a short film in the booth that was a mobile theatre.
A family affair, George’s parents and brothers were all part of the cast and they all worked together.
The advent of television, however, put paid to the ‘Fit-Ups,’ with the novelty of the small screen keeping the public indoors in the evenings. George and his brothers went into the funfair business, and Tara’s father still runs ‘McFadden Funfairs.’
Bell, with her husband and their children moved to Greystones when George’s health began to fail. He died at the age of 56. Bell, though heartbroken, rose to the challenge of raising her two youngest children alone.
She worked hard at three jobs. Tara’s father and another child were already old enough to provide for themselves, and sent home to their mother whatever little they could.
‘She is a fascinating woman, an indescribably powerful person with huge inner strength,’ said Tara, whose admiration for her grandmother is palpable.
‘She bought that house and supported her children.’ Bell never married again. ‘Once around the rosebush’ was enough for her, having had been fortunate enough to meet and marry the love of her life.
Today, she is in wonderful health and has a zest for life. She still drives, cuts her grass, and doesn’t need glasses to read the paper. She visits friends and neighbours and stays as active as possible.
When Tara’s mother died 17 years ago, Bell was a tower of strength. ‘I was 19, with two sisters aged 9 and 12,’ she explained. ‘She showed us that you have to get on, as she had done without a husband for so long.’
Bell’s Kindlestown Park home has remained unchanged for decades. ‘ There isn’t an orna- ment that has changed,’ said Tara. ‘ Even things I saw there as a kid are still in the same spot when I bring my children to visit. There is a real sense of nostalgia there.’
Now also bringing up her own children on the road, from February to October every year at least, the way of life was always in Tara’s blood.
When not travelling with the funfair in her childhood, Tara would practice on a makeshift trapeze, from the attic of their Portarlington house. Her father later built a rig in the garden and she would be out in all weathers practicing, running in now and then to get a little warmth before tearing outside again to the home-made swing.
The Gerbola’s now have a winter house in Navan, but their real home is on wheels and brings them from town to town.
With a dishwasher, washing machine and other home comforts, however, Tara knows life as a mother is easier for her these days as it would have been for previous generations.
Though difficult at times, and deeply affected by adverse weather, the lifestyle is enchanting. ‘I was just on the phone to my husband. The sun is shining, the children are outside playing and they’re having a ball,’ she said, adding that they are never more than 20 feet away from the kids.
Their youngest, Isabella, came into in this world on New Year’s Day 2011, in a 4X4 on the side of the motorway, when a dash from Navan to Blanchardstown was cut short by the baby’s arrival.
‘I had no idea it could be that quick,’ said Tara, on Isabella Alice Mona’s insistence to be born immediately.
She and Mikey had enjoyed a lively dinner with friends and family to ring in the New Year, with Tara ignoring the occasional ‘ niggly’ pain. Already having had two children, Blake (6) and Michael (4), she felt it would be another day or so before her daughter would decide to make an appearance. But appear she did, and is still fighting fit after over two months on this earth.
Both parents have a hands-on approach to looking after their children on tour. A babysitter as well as a tutor have a hand in the daily routine, and they go to regular school during the off-season.
Some years ago, Tara and Mikey took a year out to live ‘ normal’ lives. She worked in Tesco and Mikey got a job as a driver.
‘In the first month we knew this wasn’t for us,’ said Tara. ‘ But we felt we had to give it the year to find out for sure.’ The call of the circus was too powerful, and they went back to the business they started together in 2001. ‘ There were good things, of course, about the conven- tional lifestyle, but they didn’t outweigh what we knew was a wonderful life.’
Starting out, the pair were admittedly naïve about the hardships they would face in running a business. The Arts Council provides some funding, but they must still keep things going.
‘Sinking was never an option,’ said Tara. ‘It was swim – and swim fast.’
With a group of 25 other people on the circuit, including performers, crew, and administration staff, there is a sense of camaraderie in the circus, albeit with the occasional ‘ bad apple.’
As well as colleagues they are friends, neighbours and family, all of whom shed tears in October when they have to part ways. ‘ It is a fascinating lifestyle,’ said Tara, even though she grew up within it. Others came to it later and have been just as bewitched by the circus.
The Ring-Mistress ‘Dr. Liz,’ is a former astro physicist who retrained with a three year degree in circus skills, while another performer came from an innercity life in Birmingham to the big top. Last year they set up and took down the rig at 80 different sites around Ireland, each location with its own set of challenges from narrow gates to muck, or lack of water. A huge bill is associated with maintenance, wages, diesel and insurance to name just a few of the costs, but the show always goes on.
That show includes foot juggling, contortion, aerial acrobatics, music, horses, and more.
Once a year, Bell McFadden, beloved matri-
Sinking was never an option, it was swim – and swim fast.’
arch, is a member of the audience, and gets to have a fond glance back at the days when she was the star of the show.
Circus Gerbola will be at the Beach House in Greystones from April 6 to 10. There will also be dates in Ahsford, Wicklow, Arklow, Enniscorthy, New Ross. For full schedule information go to www.fundays.ie
A FAMILY AFFAIR: INSET: Tara Gerbola with her grandmother, Bell. While, Mikey, a clown, features in a dramtic opening sequence for Circus Gerbola.
Mikey and Tara Gerbola tying the knot ... with a difdference!