Herta Fossett escaped from Czechslovakia in the ’50s and hailing from a line of circus performers, married into one of Ireland’s most famous circus families. She tells Deirdre Reynolds how her husband would have loved to see her awarded the ‘Oscar’ of the circus world.
As Ireland’s oldest travelling show, Fossett’s Circus has survived everything from silent movies, right through to Netflix.
Now grand dame of the big top Herta Fossett has told how the Irish institution could be facing its greatest foe yet in 2016: the iPhone 6.
The world-famous circus rolled into the capital just before Christmas as part of Winter Funderland, taking place at the RDS until Sunday.
And Fossett’s matriarch Herta revealed how performers were literally bending over backwards to keep today’s screen-loving kids and their parents gripped during the two-hour spectacular.
“In the old days, we were the only entertainment that children used to get,” Herta told us behind the scenes at the circus. “They didn’t have the money to go to Dublin Zoo.
“Over the years, we have modernised with the times. Even when television came in, we survived. But the phones, I think, are the hardest because kids still have pocket money — but the pocket money all goes into the phone now.”
Wearing an animal-print blouse and with freshly coiffed brown curls, grandmother of fifteen Herta — who was married to ringmaster Teddy Fossett for more than 40 years before his death in 1998 — still embodies all the pizzazz of the big top.
At 85, she describes herself as “semi-retired”, but still juggles work and family as she travels from town to town across the land with Ireland’s national circus throughout the year.
“People often say to me, ‘You’re crazy to be travelling at your age’,” said Herta over coffee in the compact but cosy living room of her four-wheeled home. “I couldn’t settle down — I’d go mental.
“I’d be sitting here today going, ‘Where are they today?’ I’d rather be here and know what’s going on.
“I’m here, as they say, [as] the mother,” she added. “If anything goes wrong, I’m there.
“Even now, if it’s needed, I can be ready in two seconds and jump in.
“Not physically anymore, but in other ways — I still drive a car and trailer on the road.”
Born in Czechoslovakia, the former trapeze artist was just 14 when she joined the national circus of Switzerland, before later packing her bag for Ireland in the 1950s.
Just like her late husband, she hailed from a long line of circus stars, and to this day insists she dreamed of nothing else as a little girl.
“None of us were ever forced into it,” told Herta in her still audible Czech accent. “It was our decision.
“I did a big perch [pole] act with my mummy. It took us three years of solid practice to perfect. Nobody [had] ever done it before us and nobody has ever done it after us.
“When I was 18, I fell 75 feet, no net,” she recalled. “I was in Portlaoise hospital and was told I’d never walk again.
“People from Portlaoise followed the show to see whether I’d go up again — and fall down again!”
In the past, the longest continuously running circus on the planet controversially included elephants, tigers and camels, among other exotic creatures.
After coming under pressure from animal rights groups, today most of Fossett’s performers are of the two-legged variety, with the exception of a few horses and ponies.
In its most death-defying stunt to date however, last year the embattled business — which employs almost 50 people — escaped the jaws of the Celtic Tiger, breaking even after exiting examinership in February.
Backing calls for a national circus school in Ireland, Herta — whose five children all followed their parents into the family business — said: “After my husband died, my daughters and sons kept it going, so we’re very proud of that.
“It’s not an easy life. It’s a hard life, people don’t realise how hard it is.
“We’re not like an ordinary person that [has] a house. We are a completely different industry in every way. A lot of smaller towns [think] ‘Oh, you’ve gone too big for us’,” she continued.
“But there’s no place to go. All the fields were sold in the boom, and that’s the problem.”
In October, the unstoppable octogenarian received a lifetime achievement award from the Circus Friends Association at a glittering ceremony in her native Lucan.
The plaque has joined dozens of other astonishing black and white photos capturing a lifetime on the tightrope on the walls of her museum-esque mobile home.
“It’s like an Oscar in the film industry,” Herta explained. “I think I’m only the second Irish person that got it which is a big thing because it goes all over the world.”
As the family prepares to pack up all 17 trucks and hit the road once more in historic 2016, Mrs Fossett said she was confident it would be around for another 130 years — smartphones or no smartphones.
“They come because it’s us. We do have a name — we worked hard for it.
“Older people [are] bringing their children, and they’re bringing their children, and we still have that, thank God,” she added. “As long as they bring the children, it will continue.”
Fossett’s Christmas Circus continues at Winter Funderland at the RDS in Dublin until January 10.
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