The Pride of Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary: The once-famous lions of Dublin

The Celtic Tiger was only a metaphor, of course: an unsustainable metaphor too. But long before Ireland had a tiger economy, it had a lion one. And that was no mere figure of speech.

For over a century the “Irish lion industry” was a world leader in its field. It was famous not just for the prolific numbers of cubs produced – more than 600 between between 1857 the 1960s – but also for the progeny’s size and strength.

The production line had begun with a breeding pair from Southern Africa, which no doubt passed on sturdy genes to their offspring. Even so, local nurturing seems to have played a big part too.

As a sign in Dublin Zoo still proclaims, the early Irish lions benefited from an “occasional diet of boiled potatoes and medicinal doses of whiskey punch”. So they had that much in common with generations of Irish children. And it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm either.


The industry was a roaring success (sorry) by 1900. Describing plans to build a new lion house at the zoo then, The Spectator magazine noted that Dublin had already bred some 200 cubs, with a combined export value of £5,000, plus an unspecified premium in other animal acquisitions.

It seems that, as with modern-day footballers, the lions sometimes changed hands in part-cash, part-swappage deals. The Spectator was highly impressed at the local proficiency in this leonine horse-trading.

In one exchange, two four-month-old cubs were said to have changed hands for £200 “in part consideration of a pair of elephants”. Two more had been bought for £80 “with a dromedary thrown in”. Another lion had raised £120 plus “three hog deer”.

The Spectator didn't mention whiskey or potatoes in its profile of the Dublin lion industry, but it did suggest other ways in which the species was going native. One lioness had refused to nurse her cubs, it said, so they were fostered instead by a "very beautiful Irish red setter".

When the new lion house opened two years later, it was front page news in The Irish Times. The Lord Lieutenant made the short journey next door to perform the ceremony, at which the many celebrities included the aide-de-camp of the visiting Prince Henry of Prussia (the prince himself was playing polo, presumably the other side of the fence in the Phoenix Park).

The house was named for Lord Roberts, the famous Anglo-Irish soldier, who was also absent, but with a slightly better excuse: the Boer War. By then commander-in-chief of the British army, Roberts was a renowned animal lover.

In 1902, he was probably still mourning his favourite horse: a highly decorated military veteran, like himself, which he had buried under a headstone with a poetic epitaph in the formal gardens of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, where it remains today.

But on the occasion of the Roberts House opening, he was unavoidably absent: being busy, as the Spectator put it, trying to restore the reputation of the metaphorical "British Lion".

Movie mascot

Republicans will be relieved to know that the actual lion industry survived the empire’s imminent sunset. In fact, the Irish lion may have enjoyed its crowning glory in the 1920s when, by a plausible if now unverifiable tradition, one of its offspring achieved Hollywood immortality.

The story is that the animal in question was born in Dublin sometime during the previous decade. He was named Cairbre, after a member of the mythical tuatha de danann and several Irish high kings. Then he passed into the hands of vulgar Americans, who rebranded him Slats.

And it was as Slats that he was hired for the part of Leo: the first in the series of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lions, from 1924 to 1928. If so, he was also unique for another reason, being the only MGM lion not to roar. His part, like the films then, was silent.

The Roberts House was still used for its original purpose until the 1960s. These days, however, it has a much changed role. Perhaps reflecting the decline of the lion industry, or the British empire, or both, it’s for the birds (and some bats) now, being mainly an aviary.

The lions in the zoo today are Asian, not African, and you wouldn’t call them an industry. I suspect whiskey is no longer involved either. But the Asian is a threatened species, so breeding is more important than ever. And it has been a matter of pride, in more ways than one, of late that Dublin Zoo is again rejoicing in the patter of tiny lion paws. @FrankmcnallyIT