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Sunday 11 December 2016

The terrifying and tragic tale of the great lion tamer of Fairview

One Sunday afternoon in 1951 schoolchildren walked out of a Dublin cinema to see a lioness running through traffic, pursued by her owner. The incident shone a global spotlight on Bill Stephens, Ireland's top lion trainer

Bill Stephens in a cage with a lion
Bill Stephens in a cage with a lion
Bill and May Stephens with lion cub and alsation dog
Bill Stephens and a lion

Maybe it's my inner child buried, but I'm influenced by the mood of films I watch.

After seeing Geoffrey Rush adopt the manic mannerisms of Australian pianist David Helfgott in Shine, I bounced from the cinema. After watching Rush play a speech therapist in The King's Speech, my childhood stammer returned until the spell wore off.

But one Sunday afternoon in November 1951, local children leaving the Fairview Grand Cinema, after watching Jungle Stampede (a B movie about hunters perusing a lion), surely felt that the film they had just watched had literally come to life.

Before their eyes an escaped lioness was running through traffic on Fairview Strand, perused by her terrified owner.

The owner was Bill Stephens, a young man from Fairview Green. He was terrified firstly because his lioness had already disturbed the customary quietude of Merville Avenue by startling customers in a tiny shop and then pouncing on a startled teenager pumping up a car type outside a garage.

Stephens wrestled his lioness off the boy, but there was no knowing who she might attack next when confronted by astonished passers-by.

The second reason for Stephens' terror was because this lioness - whom he kept in a shed in a garage yard off Merville Avenue - represented Bill Stephens' entire livelihood and was also the personification of his dream of escaping from his sedate background to become an internationally acclaimed lion tamer.

When garda marksmen arrived, Stephens pleaded with them not to shoot until he tried to coax the animal back into her cage.

At huge personal risk he nearly succeeded, cornering her in a field where he tried to calm this animal with whom he performed in circuses and variety shows.

The lioness trusted him but was deeply disturbed by hordes of local children who risked climbing onto walls to get a bird's eye view.

She might have lived if these excitable children hadn't kept shouting, but - frightened by the noise - she sank her teeth in Bill Stephens' shoulder.

Once she tasted blood, Stephens had to urge the garda marksmen to shoot. Within seconds the lioness was dead and his life's dreams began to tragically fall apart.

Stephens had achieved one part of his ambition that afternoon though: he became internationally famous. Colourful, exaggerated reports of her escape appeared in magazines across the world.

One Italian magazine featured a series of vivid, fictitious drawings of the brave lion tamer chasing the lioness from a house where she was about to attack a child. Everyone wanted to talk about Bill Stephens' exploits, except for his family in Marino who would have preferred him to take up a more conventional, safer occupation.

He might well have been wise to heed their advice. But, despite his wounds that day in Fairview, Stephens' act grew more dangerous as he sought to build a reputation that would see him and his beloved young wife, Mai, employed by the big American circuses that he wrote to.

He had several lions in his act but felt that he needed one truly dangerous beast to woo audiences.

Dublin Zoo acquired a lion with a savage reputation, having killed a keeper in Antwerp Zoo. With grave reluctance they allowed Stephens to buy it.

Fossett's Circus used to winter in St Margaret's and Stephens kept his lions there. Older animal handlers were wary of Pasha, as Stephens' renamed his lion, and warned him to never enter his cage without telling them.

Today Herta Fossett is the grand old woman of Irish circus, but in 1953 she was a young bride-to-be. Stephens bought a new suit for her wedding.

When a US circus talent scout turned up in response to Stephens' letters, he was anxious to make a good impression on his American visitors and entered Pasha's cage in this suit he had never previously worn.

It contributed to his death because the cloth did not possess Stephens' smell, which helped the lion recognise him. Pasha attacked and before the Fossetts could rush to his aid he was killed - at only 29 years old.

Stephens was gradually forgotten by everyone except circus-goers who recalled his death-defying act (which involved placing his head inside a lion's mouth) and the young cinema-goers who had once exited the Fairview Grand to be confronted by an escaped lioness.

His memory was privately treasured by his grieving wife and his own family. He might have remained forgotten if Bill Whelan and the filmmaker Joe Lee (both from the area) had not heard about the escaped lion at a local history lecture in Marino library.

Along with Lorraine Kennedy (a niece of Bill Stephens), they have created a wonderfully engaging film that pays homage to his life - Fortune's Wheel.

The film's real stars are local people now in their 80s (and others who have passed on since the film was made) who, as children, remember that day when the lioness escaped.

Their faces come alive as they recall their popular neighbour who went from playing music in the evenings on Fairview Green for impromptu outdoor dances to acquiring snakes, monkeys and lions as he dreamed of circus fame.

Filmmakers Lee, Whelan and Kennedy have done justice to a remarkable, somewhat forgotten Dubliner and vividly captured a vibrant 1950s neighbourhood. See it and enjoy.

Fortune's Wheel opens at the IFI cinema in Dublin today

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