Founded in Galway in 2018, the Irish Centre of Funambulism (ICF) is Ireland’s first and only training and participation centre dedicated to the art of funambulism (the art of walking on a wire while holding a balancing pole).
Located in Shantalla Park, the ICF offers outdoor workshops for all levels and abilities, from those who have never set foot on a wire before to those who are more advanced funambulists. Establishing a dedicated space for funambulism was always a long-term aim of the Wires Crossed project, said Galway Community Circus Producer Becca Clayton.
“The vision was always to have a space where we could run workshops and participatory activities for everybody of all ages, and then also have a training space for artists and professionals to come and train and create new work."
The ICF reopened this year at the end of April, when restrictions eased allowing for outdoor activities. The ICF even got a splash of colour ahead of its reopening, when the cement blocks which secure the walking lines were vibrantly painted as part of a collaborative community art project.
Originally from the UK, Becca had 10 years of experience working for circuses and outdoor arts organisations but it wasn’t until moving to Galway that she tried her hand (er, tried her…feet?) at walking the wire. “Even the word ‘funambulism’ was new to me,” she joked.
“When Wires Crossed started, there wasn’t really funambulism practiced in Ireland at all,” Becca said. Traditionally, she explained, funambulism was a solo art handed down within families, so community-based practice is quite a new phenomenon. “The question we faced was ‘how can we make this open to everybody, whoever they are?’”
A key part of answering that question was setting up the necessary infrastructure, which simply did not exist prior to GCC’s Wires Crossed project. This included training instructors to teach others, and working with European partners to set up similar programmes in partner countries throughout Europe.
“I would say that for most people who practice funambulism for the very first time, there are feelings of doubt. People are really surprised when they see ‘oh wow I can do that.’ It’s really about just giving it a go, starting in your comfort zone, and then moving up.”
ICF workshops emphasise taking care of your physical and mental health through movement and mindfulness, helping people practise the concentration and sense of balance necessary to cross a wire.
“If someone had said to me five years ago that ‘anyone can walk on a highwire,’ I would have laughed in their face,” she admitted. “But our tutors are really great at meeting people where they are, and everyone who tries it picks it up. “We say to people ‘come exactly as you are right now, no matter your age, ability, fitness level or body type.’”
The first workshop series of the year is Galway Community Circus’ free Wires Crossed: Outdoor Balance Workshops for 10-17 year olds. Future programmes will include more outdoor workshops, social outreach programmes, professional development for circus practitioners, international exchange projects and public events and performances.
Becca said that funambulism workshops are naturally suited to social distancing, as there is no need for contact between participants and tutors, and poles are so long that people can’t be within two metres of each other anyway. Beyond the practical level, the Irish Centre of Funambulism offers something we all badly need in the wake of Covid: an opportunity to safely come together. The Wires Crossed project was always centred around themes of positive mental health, overcoming obstacles and developing inner strength and confidence. These crucial skills have only become more relevant and necessary now, Becca said. “One of the main reasons we teach funambulism is to manage anxiety and fear. For most people, the challenge isn’t actually the technique, it’s fear, and funambulism is all about overcoming fear.”