Mike was brought up in Australia. His family, which is of Irish extraction, moved many times and he recalls going to nine different schools and living in seven different houses. His father’s love of writing and journalism resulted in him buying a local newspaper in 1959.
“That started us on this journey of moving around all the states of Australia, setting up in small country towns, setting up the newspaper business, which is really an amazing thing, I guess my father was a frontier newspaperman in the old tradition.”
Mike talks about living in remote parts of Australia. As a boy, he enjoyed the surroundings and along with Aboriginal friends, would go camping and fishing. “That’s the kind of life I lived down in the riverbanks, knowing Australian birds and Australian animals and living outdoors, so I’m very grateful for that.”
He remembers when the circus came to visit, but it wasn’t just a circus, it was also a church. “I quickly worked out that there were two kinds of tented shows in Australia, one was the bible tent and the other was the circus tent. I worked out that in the Bible tent all the girls looked great, done up to the nines, all smelled of soap, the singing was amazing… but see those circus tents, it was exotic, it was amazing”. People would travel vast distances to see these shows or to attend the church. “That for me was the hook that said …you want to go and travel, keep God and soap, I have other places to go.”
By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was continuing and Australian men were eligible for the draft. Mike was nearly 17. He would have to register when he was 18 for the Vietnam War. “There were a lot of people like me worried about where they were going.”
“I missed out on the draft, it’s probably the only lottery I’ll ever win. Every young man in Australia who turned 18, they take all the birth days out of the hat, 2,000, that’s all they were taking in the draft. They took 20th October and they took 22nd October that year. The 21st was let off, I was scot free.”
Mike went on to university and afterwards worked in a pub. He decided to travel to Ireland. He arrived in 1981; hitch hiked and ended up in Cork where he saw a poster advertising the Belfast Folk Festival. He sent a post card to the Festival telling them he was coming to Belfast and was interested in what they were doing.
“I realised diving into Belfast was going to be a big deal.”
He met up with the organisers of the Belfast Folk Festival who helped him find a place to live. He met schoolteachers who asked him to show some of his circus skills to schoolchildren. “I had a lot of circus skills, street performing skills, teaching and all that sort of stuff, I’d been doing that in Australia.”
When a teacher wasn’t available one day, Mike was asked to step in. “I just fell into this kind of lifestyle, in order to keep it going I volunteered with Belfast Voluntary Service.” Mike was sent to the Highfield estate in north Belfast, where he worked with the children in the area, taking them for walks up the Black Mountain. “I learnt the hard way, the good way, what was going on.”
He continued to do work with the voluntary service. He found he was fitting in with Belfast easily. “Being Australian here, doors were open left, right and centre and I was feted in that regard. I had a nothing is a problem, no worries attitude, in those days, it was a safety valve, everybody wanted to look after me, I had no troubles at all.”
Mike saw a vast difference in the way people lived compared to Australia. Visiting, working class areas for his volunteer work, he saw some horrendous living conditions.“I come from a neighbourhood where it’s 27 miles to the nearest neighbourhood, here in this country half a dozen kids were living with granny and granddad the other half are living with mum and dad, but the houses were only the next block. People wouldn’t come out of their area and go and live in another area; they wanted a house back in the same area, the same street, next door if you could to your mum and dad, which is amazing. I’d never seen that before, I would see my granny in Australia perhaps once every five years.”
Mike forged a bond with Donal McKendry who was starting out in theatre. Together, they took their interests in theatre and circus and formed Belfast Community Circus.
“Straight away there was this interest and it started permeating. Probation areas, care homes, that was the start of community circus. They would bring a social worker who then saw what we were doing, so they’d get involved, they would see these boys were going somewhere, there’s a can do attitude, let’s go.”
The circus school moved to a church. “God would move out, circus would move in, it’s back to the Bible tents again”. In 1988 they put together their first show in Dublin. “When we started it was incredible, there were people hanging out of windows, we must have had about 800 people watching us and the next show was even bigger. It was just unusual, it was new, but it was tremendous. We were pushing the limits of what we knew”
Working with young people from troubled backgrounds, showed Mike what the positive effects of his work were having on people. In 1991 He became the Drama Specialist for Northern Ireland prisons, which led to the formation of the Prison Arts Foundation in May 1997.
On community development, Mike says, “Anywhere, any community, any group of people, are going to have some commonalities, it’s a matter of finding those things out. Any community, it wants to move, it doesn’t just want to sit there, it’s interested and all you have to do is find the hook.”
On the future of Northern Ireland. “I think there’s got to be a way for young people from here to travel, allow them to see something else. I would like for Northern Ireland, the community arts sector and the voluntary sector to be given their place. They were a huge in allowing Belfast to breathe during the course of all those dark days we’ve had, the Troubles.”