We often think of clowns as childish, immature or even terrifying, but one Irish charity are changing our perceptions. Using their skills as clowns to help repair the lives of young people devastated by natural disasters, poverty, famine and illness, Clowns Without Borders Ireland are bringing laughter and joy back to the childhood of those who have been unfairly forced to grow up too young.
‘Clowns Without Borders Ireland’ is born out of Irish performers who wish to use their talent and humour to help and support individuals and communities that have suffered through a tremendous amount of distress and suffering. Since 2006, they have brought joy and laughter to children and their carers’ in a number of devastated areas such as Somalia, Uganda, Lesotho, Nepal and have played numerous times in South Africa, Palestine and Israel. To date 44,000 people have witnessed 83 shows and taken part in 29 workshops. The charity’s motivation is to leave no child without a smile while also performing for as many children as possible, bringing laughter and healing for a brief moment in their lives and to connect with local performers so that celebrations of laughter can continue on a more frequent basis after the trip is over.
The idea of Clowns Without Borders first began back in 1993. Jaume Mateu, perhaps better known by his clown alter-ego Tortell Poltrona, was asked by the children at a school in Barcelona to go to the Istria Peninsula in Croatia to perform for refugee children there. The performance was a success and surpassed the troupe’s expectations by attracting an audience of more than 700 children. This proved to Mateu that there was a need to create opportunities for children to come together simply to laugh and play, and so, Clowns Without Borders was born.
The Irish chapter of the charity came to existence in 2006 when Colm O’ Grady saw the work the charity was doing in areas devastated by poverty and famine. “I saw a slide show that someone did on a show about Clowns Without Borders and I was brought to tears. I went up to [the organisers] afterwards and I said that I really wanted to do this and they said talk to this guy here, who ended up being Jonathan Gunning, and we organized the first Irish tour together which was to Nepal.” For O’Grady, the tour to Nepal was eye opening. “We were performing for thousands of kids who had suffered through devastation. It was completely overwhelming.”
For Colm, the realisation that making children smile could be both powerful and important came when he was 23. After dropping out of nursing school in Bournemouth, Colm set off to travel the world. One day while walking around Jerusalem’s Arab Quarter a profound moment would change his life. “I was in Jerusalem by myself and these kids started throwing stones at me and I didn’t know what to do. So I picked up the stones and I started juggling them. There were still stones flying at me as I was juggling but the stones started to change their trajectory little by little, it was as if you could see the thought patterns happening as the stones started the fall further away from me.” Colm began to see how the performance of clowns could impact these children. “The kids started to gather around me and I just continued to juggle and do tricks and stuff. I ended up playing basketball with the kids and helping them with their homework and got on really well with them. I guess that was my first, I suppose, click into the fact that there is something in this, you know, that this works.”
At the beginning of April four members of Clowns Without Borders Ireland set off on a trip to Jordan, which has experienced flash floods and earthquakes in recent times, to perform for the citizens both young and old and to bring smiles to their faces. Con Horgan, Nick McCaffrey, Hillas Smith, and Kim Mc Cafferty have dedicated their time, talent and humour to brighten the lives of people through the universal language of comedy. The show is called ‘Up’, and is directed by O’Grady, who has tailored the show for the Jordanian audience. In the performance all four clowns are called ‘Habibi’ which is the Arabic word for friend, brother or mate. All four members have spent the majority of their lives performing as clowns and us their skills to bring happiness to those who have suffered through atrocities.
Con Horgan has been performing professional comedy circus shows since the last century to Irish and international audiences. He performs comedy, family-friendly and interactive circus shows. Nick McCaffrey began his professional performing career as a street entertainer in 1992, and continued to develop his skills after moving to Belfast in 1995. Over the years Nick has performed as a solo entertainer and in several double acts. Nick is a juggler, unicyclist, stilt walker and clown. Although he may have a PhD, Nick likes to make it clear that he is not a clown doctor.
Hillas Smith has been a professional circus and street performer for more than 20 years and has performed on every continent except Antartica. Hillas, as Mr. H, brings warmth and an endearing, slower paced charm to his work that continues to entertain and enthral both old and young. Kim Mc Cafferty has been professionally performing on stage for 22 years when she first fell on stage in the Christmas Show. Since then she has made a successful career out of falling over and has performed all over the world in theatre, film, dance and circus, from New York to Zambia, India to Ireland. Kim is a juggling, stilt walking, gymnast, Irish dancing clown who lives for laughter. This will be Kim’s second tour of Jordan with Clowns Without Borders Ireland, having travelled to Jordan in 2013.
For Con Horgan, the ability to brighten the lives of those who have been denied a childhood though laughter and joy is as crucial and necessary as providing blankets or financial aid. “The thing is that for the moments that we are there and the joy we provide with our show, the feedback is that it lasts for years, the memories of that last for years. While it’s difficult to quantify what we do, we can see in the moment that it has a massive lasting impact. It is quite precious to the people who have been through so much that they can just forget about their troubles and laugh and enjoy.”
Clowns Without Borders is a testament to the universal appeal that clowns have. On the topic of the power clowns hold worldwide, O Grady said “it’s just being human and people recognizing that what we are doing is funny because they see themselves in the clown”.
“The response is an honest response. I think there is something very human about clowns and we do things that people do but would probably rather no one saw, but we prefer that you do see it.” He added, “Sometimes when I’m walking down the street and I trip over something, and I do like a big trip, I look around and if nobody’s laughing I’m kind of like ‘bit wasted that one’.”
We often associate clowns with silliness and immaturity but Clowns Without Border Ireland dedicate their lives to making people laugh who have been denied that opportunity for the majority of their lives. They make extraordinary efforts to use their skills to help the less fortunate and provide some semblance of joy to lives which are often left joyless. Sometimes, perhaps laughter is the best medicine.
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