Paws for Thought – On lion-taming for beginners, Ireland’s animal rights pioneer, and prevention of cruelty to Meath footballers

An Irishman’s Diary

A recent column about the death in action of a lion tamer in Dublin in the 1950s has brought an interesting story from Dr Maccon JC Macnamara in Corofin, Co Clare.

It comes from the memoirs of his father, another medical man – indeed the Corofin Macnamaras must be one of Ireland's longest doctoring dynasties, stretching back two centuries – and concerns one of the odder emergencies he had to deal with in his time, during the visit of a circus: "On the day in question […] I was disturbed by a commotion coming up the path of the house, and on looking down I saw a young man with a mane of fair hair, and whose face and head were streaming blood. He was helped along by a couple of companions and never before or since have I seen a human being in such a high level of hysteria. He was shouting and crying and swinging his arms all about him, and told me he had just been mauled by a lion. This shook me I must say, as such cases must be extremely rare in Ireland. But I took him into the surgery and washed and bathed his face [revealing] purely superficial wounds, and I knew then I had nothing to worry about. Not so however with the poor young lad and it took a good while to see him properly assured that he would live . . ."

When the patient did calm down eventually, he explained what had happened. The official lion tamer had taken ill so he volunteered to replace him. But the lion, a professional who had quickly realised he was dealing with an amateur, lashed out in protest with a paw across the stand-in’s forehead. “The damage done was negligible,” noted the doctor, “but the mental trauma was immense.”

There cannot have been many more stressful temping jobs in the 20th century than this. In a Monty Python sketch of similar vintage, Michael Palin's nervous accountant is talked out of an immediate career change to lion-taming in favour of a more gradual approach towards increased risk, via banking.


But the Corofin circus stand-in was made of stronger stuff, it turned out. The show had to go on and the lions were its headline act. Despite his injuries – which probably helped sell tickets – the apprentice tamer went back into the cage that night anyway. As Dr Macnamara summed up, "[He] was basically one of the bravest chaps I ever met."


On the other side of the human-animal work relationship, meanwhile, this time next year will mark the 200th anniversary of an epochal piece of legislation on these islands: the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, which led the way for all animal rights law since.

It was the work of an Irishman, Richard Martin, MP for Galway, so much so that it was known as "Martin's Law". And if the author of a new biography of the man has his way, the date it took effect – July 22nd – may henceforth be known as "Martin's Day".

Peter Phillips’s book is called “Humanity Dick” – the nickname given Martin by admirers – and subtitled “Animal Rights Pioneer and Feared Duellist 1754-1834”.

That’s the other thing the Connemara MP was known for: even by the standards of his time, he had a notorious fondness for duelling at the slightest provocation, hence his other nickname: “Hair-trigger Dick”. He survived multiple such encounters but killed one of his own cousins, to life-long regret.

He lost his seat in parliament in 1827 after it emerged that all his tenants had voted for him several times, wearing different disguises.

After that, he ended his life in enforced exile, having fled to France to escape debt.

Even so, Phillips argues that he is “the greatest ever Irishman” and Martin would certainly be a hero to animals if they knew the lengths he had gone on their behalf. This even included calling them as witnesses on occasion. Prosecuting a donkey owner for cruelty once, he arranged for the victim to appear in court, a legal first.


In GAA circles "the animals" is a nickname sometimes applied to Kerry football teams or, more particularly, to their supporters, thanks to comments made some years ago by Páidí Ó Sé. But my mention here yesterday about the tendency of Pat Spillane and others to refer to a certain northern county as "Tie-rone" has brought a related complaint from Meath man Damien Maguire.

In this context, Spillane may at least have the excuse that, during their All-Ireland winning years of the 1990s, the Royal County’s shirts were labelled “Kepak”. Even so, Damien would much prefer it if the Kerryman stopped calling his team “Meat”.