Douglas McPherson tells the story of Ireland’s most famous lion tamer, ‘Captain’ Bill Stephens.
It’s not often that a lion is spotted on the streets of Dublin, so when a circus animal made a bid for freedom in the suburb of Fairview on 11 November, 1951, the escaped beast made headlines from Italy to America. The lioness belonged to local big top star Bill Stephens who would pass into legend as the ‘Fairview Lion Tamer’.
Stephens was born in 1923 and grew up as the youngest of nine children in an unassuming corporation house at 23 Fairview Green. His love of animals was inherited from his mother, who used to take in stray dogs and unwanted pets, and he developed a passion for music from neighbours who played spontaneous jam sessions on the green opposite his house.
As a young man, Stephens trained as a welder, but he quickly abandoned his day job to play drums in Billy Carter’s swing band. He also caused a family rift by marrying a girl who kept snakes. Because of her dark hair and exotic looks, he liked to say Mai was a circus performer ‘from the East’ – although she came from no further east than East Wall Road, a few streets away.
The couple’s life changed when John Duffy’s Circus pitched its big top next to the Arcadia dance hall where Stephens’ regularly performed. He joined the circus band, but soon after acquired a lion cub called Sultan, from a performer who was leaving the show.
Stephens trained the cub as if it were a dog, and in time acquired more animals to create a unique act that mixed lions and Alsatians.
He styled himself ‘Captain’ Bill Stephens, and assisted by his wife and her snakes, and some monkeys they’d also trained, the couple presented a routine billed as Jungle Capers.
Clad in an explorer’s safari suit and pith helmet, Stephens modelled himself on Clyde Beatty, the whip-cracking star of America’s Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus who was known to Irish audiences through movie serials such as The Lost Jungle.