By Andrea Cleghorn
It is hard to miss a man with a clown jacket and a crown of balloons, still there is something surprising about running into Aaron the Balloon Man in three different villages in the West of Ireland in two years.
The first sighting was last year in the tiny town in West Cork, where my friend and saw a man in a clown outfit having coffee at a small outside table in the tiny town of Eyeries. We were the only three people on the street at 11 a.m. on the day of the annual town fun festival, so we sat down and joined him.
The sheep dog trials we had come to watch were at least two hours later than advertised on a poster. The Irish say theirs is a sleepy country; this seemed about right. “People are bringing their dogs from as far away as Limerick and Donegal, what do you expect?” I guess we needed to expect that they would be late.
Aaron Lewis told us last year that he was traveling around the country making balloons and writing his autobiography. Later in the summer my friends and were looking for a step dancing exhibition and saw him in front O’Neill’s Pub in Allihies, a County Cork town with two pubs and a grocery store. This town is about as remote it gets – or very close to America, depending how you look at it — hanging off the very southwestern tip of the Beara Peninsula.
Then just this week he was busy on the corner of Kenmare in County Kerry making a balloon Elmo, a unicorn and a bow and arrow with a large rubber band attached. “It really works,” the mother of two small kids said, acting somewhat amazed.
Again, we sat down for coffee in an outdoor cafe to get the update. His book is going well; he has a first draft and an editor. He has been at both the balloon making and the writing for several years. He grew up in Newcastle, England, with his Irish grandmother. “She was from County Sligo and would tell me stories about it. I dreamed about Ireland long before I ever saw it. Every year she would go for a week’s holiday and I would stay home. There was something mystical about it, the way she told the stories.”
In 1995, when he was 12 he finally went with her to Ireland. “Right away I felt it was a place I belonged. People left their keys in the door. There was an attitude of friendliness and acceptance that made me feel that I belonged right away. And the sky – I had never seen a sky that black and full of so many stars. The day before we were to return to England, I remember hoping something would happen to the plane so I would not have to go home. I did go back to Newcastle, but returned the following year.”
For years, he did not have the opportunity to come back to Ireland. As a child, Aaron was always encouraged to make money for what he needed. He was good at finding ways to make pocket change. He said his childhood was a little rough. When he turned 18, with a year of university behind him, he left home for good. He had a little money and he bought a ticket to Ireland and hitchhiked around the country. “That’s when I found out I could do whatever I needed to do.”
He has followed his intuition all his adult life, and fell into making balloons as means of keeping afloat. When he landed in Ireland from England, he got a job as a night security guard the second day in the country. At one time, he had a second job working in as a host in a family restaurant. Because the restaurant wanted to attract more kids, he learned to entertain kids who came with their parents. He taught himself how to spin plates on sticks, juggle and make balloon animals.
“At first I could make three things: A dog, a sword and a rabbit. And it was only three instead of two because a rabbit is a dog with long ears.” But he bought balloons and a small pump and he found he could live on the tips, rarely charging anything unless it was extremely complicated. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” he commented. Aaron found out one of the best balloon artists in Ireland had too much work and was ready to teach an apprentice. From him, Aaron learned more complicated designs, such as a monkey climbing up a tree.
His university education may have ended after a year, but since his teens, he has learning in various ways. He has been to a clowning course in Barcelona, as well as several juggling and balloon conventions. Over the years, he has been disciplined about his writing. For years he followed “The Artist’s Way” method of writing three pages a day, he has taken several writing classes.
He has been back and forth between England and Ireland, and taken trips to Canada, Germany, and Italy. He was on his way to Germany for the World Cup one year, hitchhiking most of the way, when he ran into so many obstacles his intuition told him to turn back.
But if the journey is right, he is in it for the duration. About 10 years ago, he was given a book called The Pilgrimage and was reading it by light of a fire in the Scottish Highlands. “I was looking up at the full moon and thought. “I am going to do that one day.”
Then a few years later he did do it, he walked the 750-km spiritual journey Santiago de Compostela walk through the Pyrenees in just 31 days, staying in refugios for shelter at night.
Following his own path is not always easy. “I’m not saying I don’t get nervous when I have no place to live and no money.”
Over the years he has hitchhiked, stayed in a tent or existed just on curry sauce and tuna. He has lived in several places in County Cork. At one point, he left his room in a shared house to travel and when he came back, it had been rented to someone else. His landlord was unsympathetic. “There’s nothing like a hangman’s noose to focus the mind,” he told Aaron. So Aaron got another job and found another place to stay. He may not always have a lot of money, but he has learned that if he always has a supply of balloons and a pump he can pick up some cash for what he needs. “If I’m down to 10 euro I make sure I buy a supply of balloons.”
Being a balloon artist is always his fallback, and the bookings for weddings and parties get him through the slow months of November, January and February. “I don’t have a lot of money, but now I live comfortably enough,” he said, traveling around in his little red Fiat with all his supplies. He has confidence his book will be a success. The working title is The Tale of the Balloon Man: One Man’s Journey of Creative Discovery.
“I always wanted to talk to people, to communicate with them, not just talk for the sake of talking. That is why my life has been about storytelling, which goes along with making balloon animals. The kids are fun. Just this past week one said to me, ‘This town supports you more than it supports Manchester United.’”
Sometimes a balloon figure is not what the child envisioned, and a kid will look at him like he has two heads. “Then I make another one to compensate. I run into that less now that I’m better at it.”
Aaron is often asked to make balloon guns. “I don’t go into a big thing about it, about how there is too much violence in the world. I just say I do not make guns. But I will make a bow and arrow or a sword and they seem pretty happy about that.”
Early on here, he says he “gave up the security of the security job” and went with his love of storytelling, writing and adventure. “I won’t ever ‘settle down,’ but I am getting to the point I would like to have a family. I will always look for the journey.”
When asked what he would do if he could do anything at all with his life? “Be a father! I have 11 nieces and nephews and two godchildren. I’d like to have kids of my own.”