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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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New film tells the fascinating true story of the 1951 Fairview lion escape

A film about the incident is out this weekend.

CHANCES ARE IF you aren’t well-versed in Dublin’s local lore, you haven’t heard of the Fairview lion escape of 1951.

In November of that year, a lioness owned by local man Bill Stephens escaped from her pen and prowled the streets, mauling a young man before being shot by police.

Source: Joe Lee/YouTube

In the new documentary Fortune’s Wheel, which premieres at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival this weekend, Dublin-based filmmaker Joe Lee presents “first comprehensive telling” of the story of Bill Stephens, the Fairview lion tamer.

Speaking to DailyEdge.ie, Lee explained why he chose to explore the tale:

I’m very interested in stories about place, and places in Dublin in particular. I wanted to do something about Marino, because I grew up there. There were all these lovely stories [about Stephens] and we just kind of tapped into that whole world of circus and variety.

A welder by trade, Bill Stephens started out as a drummer in a showband but “dreamed of being better”. In his early 20s, he decided to become a lion tamer, acquired three lions, and began travelling with two of Ireland’s biggest circus families, the Fossetts and the Duffys.

His act, Jungle Capers with Bill Stephens and Lovely Partner (the Lovely Partner being his wife, May) involved the lions and some Alsation dogs – Stephens would famously stick his head between the lions’ jaws, and feed them from his own mouth.

Bill Stephen's feeds lion mouth to mouth Source: JDIFF

During the winter, Stephens kept his animals in a rented patch of waste ground behind Fairview Cinema – and it was there that on one Sunday in November 1951, a lioness escaped her cage.

The animal mauled a young petrol pump attendant, prowled around a nearby schoolyard, and attacked Stephens himself before she was cornered and shot by police. The whole incident was over in about an hour and a half.

Bill Stephen's in cage with lion Source: JDIFF

Since the 1950s, the escape has become a bit of an urban legend – Lee says he had to iron out many twists in the tale in the course of his research.

“People had all sorts of versions – they were saying there were two lions, or that the lion killed [Stephens] right there,” he said.

Lee met with eyewitnesses, members of Stephens’ extended family, and people who lived in the Fairview/Marino area at the time to get the story straight:

We met people who were there on the day and who saw what happened, people who saw the whole incident from beginning to end, when the lion was shot by police. Lorraine Kennedy, Bill Stephen’s niece, told us about the impact all this had on her family. It was a very bitter thing for them, they never talked about it.

Bill & May Stephens Bill and May Stephens Source: JDIFF

The escape wasn’t the last of Bill Stephens’ woes. In fact, it set a whole series of events in motion - Lee believes that the subsequent press attention made Stephens more daring with his act, which lead to his death just two years after the escape.

In 1952, he was wintering with Fossetts out in St Margaret’s, Finglas. He was being sued by the kid who was mauled by the lioness, he had lost a very valuable animal, and he was trying to move out of Ireland to the US. He was writing to Clyde Beatty, an American lion trainer who was his inspiration.
[Beatty's] philosophy was that you had to get an angry, aggressive lion in your act to spice things up, so Stephens ended up getting a lion from Dublin Zoo to fit that bill. This was Pasha, the animal that ended up killing him in January 1953, as he was showing his act to a US talent scout.

For a story as exotic and exciting has this, the incident has been largely forgotten, outside of a 2013 interview with eyewitnesses on RTÉ Radio One’s LiveLine.

Lee reckons Stephens’ death shattered any illusions of glamour the residents had:

Bill was like a local hero, and I think when he died, it shattered the dream that people would sort of look up to. His death was nearly like a lesson: “Don’t dream the dream.” In 1954, there was a massive flood in the Tolka River, and maybe that washed the memory away too.

Fortune’s Wheel began an exclusive run at the IFI from yesterday, June 5 - for more information check out www.ifi.ie.

- Originally published by Valerie Loftus on 18 March on DailyEdge.ie

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