(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 7/2.)
In response to Galway’s high suicide rate, more than 150 participants will tightrope-walk across the Corrib this month, to help turn it from a site of grief to a place of creativity and celebration
It is a Saturday morning in Shantalla park, a green space that runs alongside a busy road in Galway. A young man with knotted dreadlocks and a bright-blue T-shirt is hovering a metre above the ground. With perfect posture and a distant gaze, he holds a metal pole at chest level in front of him and steps, one foot after another, one foot after another, into empty space. From a distance it looks as if he is walking through the air. Up close, a thin cable becomes visible, but the feat remains impressive, as the taut wire wobbles and settles with each tentative step and the cars whizz noisily by.
Shantalla park is the home of the Irish Centre of Funambulism, an offshoot of the Wires Crossed project, established by Galway Community Circus in 2016 as part of the Galway 2020 celebrations. Wires Crossed was dreamed up by the organisation as a response to the city’s high suicide rate.
“It seemed very bad in 2016,” says Ulla Hokkanen, director of Galway Community Circus. “Several men in the area died by suicide in the River Corrib. I was living beside it, and it was constant. Every week there was another death. You would hear the helicopters, and everyone who lives in Galway knows what that means: that someone has jumped into the river and the helicopters are looking for them.” In a community ravaged by grief, “everybody was asking the same thing: ‘What can we do about the river?’”
At the time, Galway Community Circus was looking for a project to contribute to the 2020 celebrations. “Because of all the suicide,” Hokkannen says, “we thought about this idea of trying to address youth mental health and wellbeing through circus. We are not trained mental-health experts, but with community projects like circus we can help create a preventive space, a safe space, for young people to overcome challenges and support themselves and each other.”
Hokkanen had recently returned from a European conference where she had been given the opportunity to try funambulism — the art of wire walking — for the first time, and she thought it would provide novices with a brilliant opportunity to develop a new skill, have fun, and use proactive mental-health tools. Funambulism, she says, is a very measurable skill. People “can see so easily their progression, whether you are talking about length of the walk, or height of the wire, or tricks you can do. It is easy for every single person to set their next objective — ‘I want to get to the other side’ or ‘I need to remember to breathe’ or ‘I want to be less nervous’ or ‘I want to do a headstand on a wire’. There is so much variety in terms of what you can do, the goal you want to set.”
Speaking of her own first encounter with the wire, she says, “I still remember the wires were this low” — she gestures to a few centimetres above the ground — “but the feeling to discover that I could do it, that spark, it was transformative.”)