Picture of escaped lion in Dublin in 1951 comes to light

Image by Vittorio Pisani ran in the Italian weekly newspaper ‘La Tribuna Illustrata’

An Italian artist’s powerful image of a lion on the loose in a Dublin toy shop has come to light after more than 60 years.

The picture was executed in 1951 by Vittorio Pisani, one of Italy’s most famous illustrators, to accompany a newspaper report about the bizarre event.

Pouncing on a child

In December 1951, the weekly newspaper

La Tribuna Illustrata


published the full-page colour image with a caption explaining that: “

A Dublino, una leonessa . . .

o un’incursione in un garage dove assaliva e feriva gravemente un operaio


The story, that "a lioness had mauled a garage worker in Dublin" was true but the paper had veered from the facts when adding that the big cat had then wandered into a "negozio di giocattoli" (toy shop) where it is seen ready to pounce on an unsuspecting child.

La Tribuna Illustrata, which ceased publication in 1969, was renowned for its illustrations, which were often framed by readers and are sought by collectors.

A copy of the Dublin lioness issue has turned up, in a collection of 19th and 20th century European newspapers featuring unusual stories about Ireland, to be sold in Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers’ sale of rare books and historical memorabilia in Dublin next month.

The incident made front-page news in the Irish Times with a headline: "Lioness escapes in Dublin and mauls two" on November 12th, 1951.

Prowling in Fairview

The previous afternoon, a lion had escaped and gone on the prowl along Merville Avenue in Fairview.

The animal wandered into the Clover Dairy, terrifying the assistant Peggy Macken, before heading to Costello’s Garage and attacking 16-year-old trainee mechanic Andrew Massey from Oliver Plunkett Farm, Monkstown. There was no mention of a toy shop.

The lion’s owner, Bill Stephens (28), was alerted but failed, according to an eye-witness, “to get a rope around its legs”. As the big cat leapt from garden to garden, the children at 21 Merville Avenue were “looking out and making faces at it”. According to the report, “radio messages were sent out to squad cars” and “the Special Branch at Dublin Castle was also notified”.

Lioness at cinema

After about an hour “the lioness arrived in waste land” behind Fairview’s Grand Cinema, where, “in the gathering dusk, crowds of people watched her roaming until armed police came and shot her”.

The Irish Times reported that local boys stripped "the dead lioness's fur, its ears and tail, as souvenirs before its body was taken to the zoo". Both Mr Stephens and Mr Massey survived and were treated in Jervis Street Hospital.

Mr Stephens was, it turned out, a lion-tamer who lived in a caravan in Fairview with his wife. He kept three lions in an enclosure during the winter when the circus he worked for was off the road.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques