Conor Reidy tells the true story of an animal attack at a travelling menagerie in Tipperary in 1871.
In October, 1871, a travelling menagerie owned by a man named Whittington arrived in the West Tipperary village of Emly. This was a fusion of a zoo and a circus but without the usual trappings of the Big Top, or any sort of performance element.
Whittington’s Menagerie was on tour in Ireland at the time, and Emly was one of its many stops.
The menagerie company was based at Carr’s Lane in Birmingham. Apart from the entertainment value, the travelling menagerie was seen throughout Europe and America as a way of educating the poor masses about the existence of creatures that they would only ever encounter in books.
For the duration of the stay in the village it is said that the locals thronged the area around Whittington’s caravans, poking at the animals in awe.
It is likely that there were big cats, camels, monkeys, kangaroo, deer, wolves, racoons, jackals and donkeys.
The arrival of Whittington’s Menagerie brought a world of magic to a village where, as with most parts of Ireland, the people would seldom have had such an opportunity to spend time in the presence of such rare and mysterious creatures.
We can only imagine the sense of wonderment of ordinary rural Irish people in the second half of the nineteenth century who would have had little or no opportunity to visit a zoo or take a safari.
During the early evening of Wednesday, 25th October, a group of locals gathered around the cages and the various elements of the display in Emly. They paid an admission fee to enter the exhibit. Among the curious was a four-year-old girl.
A bit more curious than everyone else, the child placed one of her arms through the bars of a cage housing what was described as an ‘enraged jaguar’. Many accounts of this incident refer to the ‘Big Cat’ either as a jaguar or a leopard. In the true spirit of Chinese whispers, another described the offending animal as a bear!
The beast reacted badly to the intrusion and tore off the child’s hand and part of her arm.
A local doctor named Ryan was forced to perform an amputation. A mass of confusion erupted and many of the spectators gathered nearby fled in terror while others did their best to extract the child before she was killed. Somebody shouted that the animal had escaped, so this naturally heightened the panic.
Attempting to appease the crowd, the owner, Mr Whittington, sealed up the cage. At some point during those minutes as he tried to secure himself and his animals he was struck by the angry mob and ended up with two black eyes. One of his keepers was also struck.
Whittington fled the scene to go to the local police station but as it turns out, there was none. According to one account, this was a strange fact because Emly did not have what could be called a ‘peaceable’ reputation during these years.
It was said he was given refuge in the pub until things calmed down. As the village became silent, Whittington locked himself in his caravan for fear of further reprisal. All remained quiet for the next few hours.