A banker by profession, he was a conservative member of Congress from Florida (first as a Democrat, then as a Republican) from 1977 to 1993, when he was more concerned with the Defense Department's "negative funding wedge" and trying to expose as a fraud the Navy's A-12 stealth fighter bomber, he says. Now, he closes his letters to lawmakers with: "May all your days be circus days."
Mr. Ireland's relationship with the circus dates back beyond his congressional days, when the Ringling Bros. helped his campaign, he says, lending him showgirls and clowns for his fund-raising events at Washington's RFK Stadium.
Once, when a traveling portion of the circus was caught in a trade dispute with the Japanese government, Mr. Ireland telephoned then-Ambassador Mike Mansfield, a former Senate friend, to make sure some impounded elephants were watered.
Not incidentally, Ringling Bros. is a sizable business. It claims to be the largest live entertainment conglomerate in the world, a privately held company that operates two ice show units, often internationally; a magic show at the Mirage in Las Vegas; and a stud farm for breeding rare Asian elephants in the Green Swamp of Central Florida.
And last month, Ringling Bros. set up an actual-sized model of the space shuttle as an attraction for paying customers in Ecuador.
By the time he decided to leave Congress in 1992 -- Mr. Ireland says he had long been an advocate of term limits -- he was casting about for a new career.
At that time, the circus had never had a full-time lobbyist, he
says. But he had spent a few months training with the Jefferson Group, a multiservice lobby shop whose clients range from municipalities to universities.
And he realized that he only enjoyed one portfolio -- Ringling Bros., which he had brought to Jefferson. So he joined the circus. Lobbying regulations require that former members wait a year before returning as lobbyists.
Then Mr. Ireland was back, dividing his time between Congress, where he monitors legislation that might cause problems for the big top, and a red, white and blue six-story building in suburban Tysons Corner, Va., the circus headquarters.
He is perhaps most proud of the time he persuaded Congress -- the House unanimously, the Senate 99-1 after intervention by animal rights activists -- to pass a resolution he wrote himself permitting 13 5-ton elephants on the grounds of Congress celebrating the circus' 125th anniversary.
"We have the outer circus," House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia said at the time, "and the inner circus."