Tyrone: The day the circus crashed into Dungannon

Tyrone: The day the circus crashed into Dungannon
Tyrone: The day the circus crashed into Dungannon
  • By Niall McCracken
  • BBC News NI mid-ulster reporter
7 May 2024, 06:56 BST

Updated 13 minutes ago

Image source, The Tyrone Courier

Image caption, A five-ton vehicle hauling animal carriages crashed in Dungannon in May 1954

Mayhem. Madness. Performing mammals.

In 1950s Dungannon, the day the circus hit town was a day to remember. And the day it really hit town exactly 70 years ago is no exception.

Philip Dynes was 19, sitting in his family home, when he heard a thunderous crash – followed by the sound of animals.

What followed has become the stuff of folk legend.

Just before 15:00 BST on 7 May 1954, a convoy from Buff Bill’s Circus, carrying animals including lions and horses, came crashing through the streets of Dungannon.

A five-ton vehicle hauling animal carriages lost control in the town center and hurt down Irish Street, one of County Tyrone town’s narrowest streets.

A wagon carrying three lions crashed into the shop windows of a hardware merchant and a hair salon.

Another wagon carrying eight performing horses, a performing donkey and four Shetland ponies, turned into the shopfront of a local drapers.

Buff Bill’s Circus was due to perform in Ballygawley that evening – instead, the alarmed people of Dungannon got a different kind of spectacle.

The lions, the hitch and the small road

Philip Dynes’s family home was only a few doors up from the crash.

“Like everybody else I heard the racket and I rushed out to see what was going on,” he recalled.

“You could hear the horses trampling their feet, but the fear was then about the second carriage – you could hear the lions inside.”

Image caption, Philip Dynes lived on Irish Street when the crash happened

Now aged 89, he added: “When I saw what was going on, my first instinct was to go and get my camera.”

Philip took a number of pictures that day with his family’s old box camera and several other images were captured by the local paper’s photographer.

They show mangled carriages, which contained animals, as well as the large crowd that had gathered in the aftermath.

One face that stands out from the crowd is a man wearing a shirt and tie, smoking a cigarette and facing away from the crowd.

Image source, Philip Dynes

Image caption, Eddie Hughes was one of the many onlookers who gathered in the aftermath of the crash

After the photograph was shared with a local historical group, he was identified as Eddie Hughes.

Mr Hughes passed away a number of years ago, but his son Kevin still lives in Dungannon.

“My father would have been coming from his work that day, and I remember him talking about the horses being trapped in the overturned carriages,” he said.

“He and a couple of the other local men were trying to free the horses but thankfully the lions remained in their carriage.”

As word of the crash spread throughout the town, rumors even began to swirl that monkeys had escaped, although local newspaper reports from the time make no mention of this.

Kevin added: “My father spoke about it many times down the years to friends and I remember listening to it and just thinking this was amazing.”

For those from an older generation the Great Dungannon Circus Crash is something that lives long in the memory.

Image caption, Kevin Hughes remembers his father telling him about The Great Dungannon Circus Crash

But Mary MacGinity, from the Donaghmore Historical Society, said the passage of time meant it had been forgotten by many.

“My late husband had always told me about the circus crash that happened in Irish Street and I always thought he was winding me up,” she said.

“But once I saw the photographic evidence, I soon came to realize that it did actually happen and it’s something that deserves to be remembered and marked in folk memory.”

‘Anything could have happened’

Belfast’s newspaper library archive holds a collection dating back as far as the 18th Century – included is a copy of the Tyrone Courier from 13 May 1954, six days after the circus crash.

The headline reads “Amazing Dungannon Accident.”

The article’s unnamed author writes: “Friday afternoon of last week will be long remembered by the residents of Dungannon. It was then that perhaps the worst motor crash ever witnessed in the town occurred.”

Image source, Tyrone Courier

Image caption, The Tyrone Courier ran an article on the accident on 13 May 1954

It continues: “The frenzied roaring of the petrified lions and the terrified trampling and thrashing of the trapped horses and ponies soon attracted attention and the solitude of quite an ordinary Friday afternoon was turned into utter chaos as teeming masses of people rushed to the scene. “

It goes on to describe the heroics of one local 21-year-old hairdresser, who saved a 19-month-old baby and his mother from being knocked down by the runaway circus truck.

The article ends by saying that, “miraculously” the only coincidences were a performing donkey, a horse and the driver of the truck, who was taken to South Tyrone Hospital suffering from internal injuries.

An article from the Dungannon Observer in the same week carries an interview with the driver from his hospital bed.

Image source, Philip Dynes

Image caption, Old images capture the crowd that had gathered on Irish Street to see what had happened

When asked what would have happened if the lions escaped, he told the paper: “The lions would have been more scared of the people than the people would have been scared of the lions.

“Of course there was the possibility that someone could have panicked and done something to provoke the animals – then anything could have happened.”

The Observer article concludes that it was “one of the most exciting incidents that ever took place in the history of Dungannon.”

For Philip Dynes, it is something he will never forget.

“People who were on that street that day were lucky to walk away with their lives and it is amazing that nobody was killed,” he said.

“It was the talk of the town for long enough, I suppose, but 70 years is a long time ago and those were different times, boy.”

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