Ulla Hokkanen – Director of Galway Community Circus since 2009 is moving back to Finland to start the next part of her journey. Ulla has been a true champion for the development of Youth and Social Circus in Ireland in that time and we in the Irish circus community owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Not only was she instrumental in establishing the ISACS Network in its early days, but her incredible work, clear vision and strong sense of purpose has literally transformed circus in Ireland and rippled through the lives of so many people creating a radical ground shift around what circus is and can be.

Circus, an ever-changing artform, has been undergoing a strong renaissance in Ireland in recent times, with much of that due to the sheer persistence of a few individuals who have pioneered same. Ulla is without question one of those pioneers. We can literally see, smell and feel the evolution of circus being diversified, transformed and re-imagined under our feet through the work and commitment of people like Ulla and the growing community of circus practitioners.

The Classical Circus form – multicoloured big top, sawdust, lights, candy floss and sequins, has now spawned a whole new generation of artists and multiple ways of creating and experiencing circus.

Classical Circus is renowned for being the very first encounter that a small child often has with live performance, creating lasting memories and communicating as it does across language, social class, and educational barriers. With this new evolution underway there is now the possibility for many different ways of making and participating in circus to take place.

The skills acquired and delivered through Classical Circus have inspired many of today’s artists who, armed with the inspiration of incredible feats of human endeavour witnessed, have expanded the form into new and exciting languages, mediums and uses – creating new circus/contemporary circus. This is also borne out in the exceptional growth of the ISACS Membership which now stands at over 250 members inhabiting every county of Ireland and far beyond. These figures make ISACS one of the largest performing arts networks in Ireland today. Without Classical Circus the rest could not follow.

The other form of circus that has particularly evolved and grown in recent years is Youth and Social Circus practice.

Youth Circus and Social Circus are participant-centred practices that employ circus arts as a method of engaging participants in developing their personal, social, physical and creative skills.

The primary goal of Youth and Social Circus is not merely to learn circus arts but to create social change through fostering the personal and social development of its participants. These programmes and activities generally take place in a non-formal education setting and participants come from all socio-economic backgrounds. Social Circus is now widely recognised as being an exceptional tool for working in a caring, supportive, or therapeutic setting with people who are marginalised or at social or personal risk.

Social change is what motivates Ulla, the desire for a better world – creating opportunities and possibilities for future generations, a vision of potential and a belief in the importance of growing, supporting and encouraging young people’s personal and individual growth.

The techniques and methods of Social Circus practice would have first been introduced to the island of Ireland through the legendary work of Donal McKendry and the late Mike Moloney of Belfast Community Circus. They recognised that to bring a broken city together a new approach was needed, a grass roots approach which used creative arts practice as a means to create a certain type of energy. Circus became that medium. Word soon spread about the success of Belfast Community Circus in building bridges and shared understanding, and in 1997 Belfast Community Circus was invited to work in Sarajevo as pioneers of what might be termed ‘Frontier Circus’. Now operating under the new identity of Circusful, there can be no doubt that the contribution, passion and commitment of those early Belfast adopters Donal and Mike, soon followed by the late Will Chamberlain has gone on to create an enormous legacy in Ireland of ‘circus with purpose’.

One of the organisations which benefited from that legacy was Galway Community Circus.

About Ulla at Galway Community Circus

Galway Community Circus (formerly Galway Circus Project) was set up in 2002 by a group of circus artists and teachers who wanted to bring the creative, physical and non-competitive art of circus to the young people of Galway. Focusing on the youth circus model, they started hosting mixed skills circus classes for young people, offering opportunities for international youth exchanges so members could travel and meet other youth circus members from circus schools around Europe, and brought the joy of circus to schools, festivals and communities outside of Galway. Over 20 years later, Galway Community Circus has an annual membership of 580 young people from diverse backgrounds, and still participates in international exchanges and community outreach. Founding members of the Galway Circus Project included Karin Wimmer, Maríosa Hume and Lisa O’Farrell. Lisa is still working at GCC today as one of their lead tutors.

15 years ago Ulla Hokkanen volunteered to join the GCC team. Ulla, who hailed originally from Finland, had come to Ireland to study Social Sciences at the University of Limerick. One of her main childhood activities in rural Finland was participating in a local Youth Circus, set up by her own parents and run with the help of others from the community. Here she practiced and performed many circus skills from unicycling to magic – specialising in the art of rola-bola and acrobatics. As she grew into an adult with a passion for social change, Ulla instantly recognised the impact that this Youth Circus had on her own young life. Understanding the value of creative activities in youth development, led her to believe that this was the way to give a voice to children and to create confident and resilient young adults who can go on to become the next leaders of our communities. When Ulla discovered the Galway Circus Project, she did not hesitate to volunteer. At that time the circus was a small group of committed parents and their children seeking an alternative way for their young people to grow which particularly moved away from the more traditional competitive models of sports or culture into a more inclusive practice where all skills and abilities are welcome. The seeds were already sown and slowly Ulla became a critical part of the Circus, teaching, coordinating, communicating and developing the possibilities. The group grew and suddenly Ulla found herself working there full time. Her passion and belief in this project became infectious and although there have been challenges along the way, her determination to persevere was unwavering.

The circus school started to expand, and the possibilities grew with that. To date, over 50,000 young people have attended Galway Community Circus. Some of Ireland’s first young people to receive a professional third level education in London, Barcelona, Rotterdam and others hailed from Galway Community Circus and the success story of sowing seeds was beginning to bear fruit.

Youth and Social Circus Network – Caravan

Joining the international network for Youth and Social Circus – Caravan – was a game changer for GCC. The Republic of Ireland now had a position on the world map as being a place where social circus could be practised and actually lead on its development. Ulla served as a board member of Caravan for ten years and was instrumental in building that connection for circus here which in turn led to many, many youth exchanges, professional training programmes, academic research and much sector development.

Always believing in the power of connection and the sharing of ideas to build a better world for all, Ulla has been very active working on a European level. During her time at Galway Community Circus, she has coordinated or partnered in over 60 Erasmus+ projects in the field of youth work and circus, working with other international circus schools and universities to develop innovative new models of participation and training. Through the European Solidarity Corps programme (formerly European Voluntary Service) she has enabled 36 young volunteers (aged 18 – 30 yrs) from Europe and the Middle East to further their own professional careers by working at GCC on annual placements which have helped to create a vibrant multicultural community in Galway.

European Projects

With these kind of networks, international reach and projects, Ulla and the GCC team were in a very strong position to bid for a large scale European project as a core element of the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture bid. This project was called ‘Wires Crossed’ and focused around the art of funambulism – wire walking using a balancing pole – as a tool for promoting positive mental health. The project was devised in partnership with Vincent Wauters of École de Cirque de Bruxelles and the Centre Européen de Funambulisme and began with the creation of the world’s first methodology for teaching funambulism as a participatory activity, 2 accompanying training-for-trainer programmes, delivery of this training to 36 new funambulism tutors, and successful participation programmes in 8 different countries (funded by Erasmus+, Creative Europe and Galway 2020 ECOC). Sadly, the finale of the project – a highwire spectacle featuring 400 people from 10 different countries – was unable to go ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in 2022 the Arts Council of Ireland supported this vision to come to fruition through a new and revised concept entitled ‘Lifeline,’ which was granted Ireland’s first ever Open Call Award for a circus and spectacle project by the Arts Council. On 16th July 2022, 130 people aged between 11 – 63 years from 17 different countries crossed the River Corrib and Claddagh Basin in Galway City on highwires in a stunning display of hope, solidarity and strength.

The project focussed on promoting positive mental health through learning to face and overcome fears, which when paired with the art of walking a steel wire became a strong and powerful metaphor for this balancing act which every person undoubtedly encounters in life at some point.

Circus Education

Additionally, Ulla has worked tirelessly towards the recognition of circus as an academic subject, working closely with the University of Galway to bring circus into third level education in Ireland. This work includes being key partners in the Erasmus+ funded Circus+ and Circus++ projects (2014-2022), which have resulted in creation of the world’s first BA Curriculum for Social Circus teachers and accompanying 5-year national implementation plan for Ireland. In 2022, circus was introduced into 3 BA programmes at the University of Galway on a modular level with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland’s YPCE Residency Scheme.

In 2023 GCC and University of Galway co-designed and delivered a Transdisciplinary Module for the Designing Futures programme entitled ‘Fail Better: Taking Risks and Developing Resilience Through Circus’, which combined psychology and theoretical practice with circus to support students to learn through failure. This is the first circus education course of its type in Ireland today and will certainly become a blueprint for many others to follow.

Organisational Growth

Strategically funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, the GCC staff team has now grown to a core team of twenty including some former youth members who are now fully qualified circus teachers.

Cross of Merit of the Order of the Lion of Finland

Ulla always maintained strong links with her home country of Finland, developing and building many exchange projects between the regions and supporting her colleagues to build outward facing projects.

This was duly recognised in 2023 when Ulla was awarded the Cross of Merit of the Order of the Lion of Finland– a Presidential merit specifically given to people who have made an outstanding contribution to the development of Finnish culture.

Thank you Ulla

As Ulla prepares to return to Finland now for the next part of her life’s journey, we would like to note that Ulla has done more in her last 15 years towards the development and recognition of circus as a social tool in Ireland than anybody; creating employment, building beautiful artistic projects led by young people and quite literally transforming lives.

Our gratitude is immense and we are going to miss her generosity, reason, honesty and clarity enormously.

We wish her the very best of luck as she steps forward and know that whatever she turns her hand to next will be done with care, with soul, and with clarity. It is our hope that Ireland also left a small mark in her heart and that our partnerships, projects and international roots will not end here but rather continue and go far beyond. We remain confident that that will be the case, as Ulla has already proved that she is not the type of person to sow seeds and not tend to them.

Change does not come from the top, but rather it starts from the ground….the ground, the grass, the individual, the personal, one step at a time that is where change matters.

Go n’éirí an bóthar leat Ulla…we are always here with you and can’t wait to see where you will take us next xxx