Oh, what a circus
Circus performer Caoimhe McGill (27) is used to multi-tasking ... if she isn't doing a turn as Peter Pan on three-foot stilts, she is lying on a bed of nails with a hefty man smashing a concrete slab on her chest with a sledgehammer. This remarkable Belfast woman, who is also the top female Brazilian Ju Jitsu player in Northern Ireland, tells Marie Foy of her ambitions, and how she fought her way to the top of her sport
The ordinary and the boring don't figure in Caoimhe McGill's life. Controlled aggression, competitiveness and physical agility are much more her thing, with a few theatrics thrown in.
When she isn't performing with Streetwise Community Circus, she is training two hours a day, six days a week, to perfect her Brazilian Ju Jitsu techniques - oh, and she also looks after kids at Queen's University, Belfast creche as well.
Once a bit of a tomboy, Caoimhe's first tumble with circus life was at the tender age of seven. She spotted her neighbour, Mike Moloney, a founder member of Belfast Community Circus, practising tricks in his garden, and she was hooked. She joined Mike's outfit in 1985 and has been honing her skills ever since.
Caoimhe has always loved working with children, too. When she was a teenager she used to babysit for local kids and half the youngsters in the area would turn up to be entertained by her.
This prompted the former Victoria College student to do a childcare course at BIFHE before heading off to New Jersey in the United States as a nanny. When she came home, she worked in day nurseries for a while, but always kept up her links with the circus, eventually becoming a full-time tutor and joining Streetwise Community Circus, based on the Lisburn Road, in 1995.
"At the start, when I joined the circus, I was just a little kid doing little kids' things. I used to be very shy and it built up my confidence so much," she remembers.
"Early on, I learned to stilt walk. When I was in first or second year at Victoria College, I wore them to school and stayed on them for 18 hours for Children In Need (you would only do about two hours normally). It was very difficult to walk for about an hour afterwards because your ankles have to get used to moving again.
"I have been unicycling from seven or eight years of age, and then I learnt the trapeze, diabolo - it looks like an egg-timer on a string - and acrobalancing (standing on top of each other and pyramid building).
"I found I had a knack for it all except juggling. It took me 10 years to learn that. It bored me because you had to stand still to do it. But there is something for everyone, which is the good thing about circus."
Always ready to take up a new challenge, Caoimhe set off for the Australian Gold Coast a few years ago to take part in a month-long stunt performance course where she learned those everyday things like high falls into air bags, car hits, stair falls and getting set on fire. Bungee jumping, obviously, held no fears for her.
"On my birthday we had to choose what part of us was to burn," she says. "Other people got legs and arms. I was made to wait to the end and I got left with the full body torch. You're supposed to run around screaming, but instead I was laughing with everybody singing Happy Birthday."
Juggling three jobs - at the creche, with Streetwise and as a cabaret artist - Caoimhe is clearly an energetic woman. For her solo cabaret act she transforms into her stage persona 'Roxie Monoxide'.
She's of fairly average build, so you would think a blow from a sledgehammer would knock her into smithereens. Then you notice her well-toned biceps and you begin to imagine the possibilities ...
"I lie on a bed of nails and I get a member of the audience to come up and stand on my tummy, or break concrete slabs - which I put on my chest and set on fire with paraffin - with a sledgehammer," she explains.
"I have a Vaudeville costume in red and white with pantaloons and a feather for my hair, or I sometimes wear a retro silver and black top and skirt and silver knee-high boots."
Does she pick people who don't look too strong? "I try and walk around the audience before hand and pick someone who is big enough so it looks impressive, but not too drunk - that's the most important thing. I can take a good 16 stone.
"People always come up afterwards and say 'I can't believe that ... it was just amazing.'
"The Crescent Arts Centre run New Moon parties on the first Saturday of every month for lots of new bands and acts to try out. Mike Moloney runs it and it's very popular. I've also done some Vaudeville nights in the Empire."
Have you ever been hurt? "I broke my arms twice falling off stilts. Once I was skipping and the rope caught around a leg. The next time I had an ear infection and didn't realise that it could affect my balance. But I have been doing stilts a long time, so that isn't a lot."
Streetwise doesn't have a permanent workshop space, so Caoimhe and her colleagues tend to go out to venues and can often be seen at events organised by city and town councils across the province.
"I have some great costumes, Peter Pan or a pirate on stilts, and over Halloween I was a witch. For Christmas I have a beautiful, sparkly dress. I have started making my own costumes," she says.
"We work with people with special needs, and I am the leader of workshops at Gateway clubs in Newry, Ballymena, Downpatrick and Belfast.
"Special needs can range from people in wheelchairs to Down's Syndrome and other disabilities. Everyone can do something at some level. We tailor programmes to cater for the ability of each particular group, and they put on shows for parents and friends. It's for all ages, too, and we have a few participants over 60.
"Circus acts are very good for confidence building and team building for children. It makes them feel they can achieve something, no matter what level they are at. There are achievable tricks for everyone," she adds.
"I teach a lot of cross-community workshops and circus works very well there, too. When the children meet, they see each other as stilt walkers or monocyclists, not as Catholics or Protestants - plus it's a lot of fun. It's also great for children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders. It doesn't matter if something gets dropped."
For the time being, however, Caoimhe's main focus is Ju Jitsu. "I get bored doing one thing," she explains. I work at the creche two-and-a-half days a week and it is flexible enough to fit around my training.
"After I came back from Australia I wanted to be a stunt performer. You have to study heights, water, vehicles, agility and martial arts. It was too expensive and time consuming to do the whole course, but I really got into martial arts at that stage. I joined the Queen's Ju Jitsu Club and got into Brazilian Ju Jitsu. The traditional form is more static, but the Brazilian involves ground-fighting and grappling."
Although she has only been into 'Brazilian' for two years, Caoimhe has made tremendous progress as a member of the Gracie Barra club, which meets at the Valley Leisure Centre in Newtownabbey under coach Graham Keys. In her first big competition, she won her own category and came joint third in the men's.
In July this year, she impressively clinched the Gold in the Under 64kg World Brazilian Ju Jitsu Championships, which were held in Rio de Janeiro. She is the only person in Ireland or Britain, woman or man, to have achieved a Gold.
"There were 50 something blue belts at the competition which was brilliant - usually there are a lot less. As a result of that win I got my purple belt. There are only five belts and it can take 10 years to get a black belt. You move up the belts by becoming more fluent and more accomplished," she says, full of enthusiasm.
On top of her achievements so far, Caoimhe has also qualified for the European Ju Jitsu and Grappling Arts final, which is a broader and more demanding field. It is due to be held in Finland in March, but unfortunately she can't afford to go. She reckons it would cost around £1,000 for travel and competition expenses for herself and a coach but, as she is buying a house, her finances won't stretch that far.
Her ambitions for the future? "Because I an interested in looking after children, my ambition would be to bring them together with Ju Jitsu and start a club for younger players - and I would like to win the European finals and fight in the world championships next summer in New York."
Anyone who would like to help Caoimhe achieve her goals can contact her on caoimhe@ optimistic.co.uk or log onto www.daredevilgirl.co.uk.
Braulio Estima, current black belt light heavyweight world champion, will be coaching at the Valley Leisure Centre, Newtownabbey, on Friday at 6.45pm and Saturday at 2pm.