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Dublin Zoo and the 1916 Rising

TCD MS 10608/123
TCD MS 10608/123

On Easter Monday 24 April, as news of trouble in the city filtered through to Dublin Zoo, the visitors left quickly, as did most of the staff. The zoo remained closed until 13 May but the animals still had to be fed, the houses heated and the waste removed. The superintendent, Dr Benjamin Banks Ferrar, was at work as usual in a city hospital. In his absence, his wife, Isabella, was responsible for the management of the zoo. Three young keepers stayed to help her. On Tuesday 25 April, heavy firing in Phibsborough could be heard, and on Thursday 27 April rifle bullets passed over the gardens. Other than that, the violence in the city did not reach the zoo.

TCD MS 10608/92 Orangutans and their keeper 'Supple'
TCD MS 10608/92 Orangutans and their keeper ‘Supple’

Normal record keeping was suspended but the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland (RZSI) annual report for 1916 contains an account of the zoo during the closure. The RZSI records before and after the Rising provide additional information.

The biggest challenge facing Isabella Ferrar and her small team was rationing the available food for the sizeable collection. The animal register for 1916 includes fourteen lions, five tigers, a gorilla, several chimpanzees, a hoolock gibbon, two elephants, bears, parrots, free-range fowl, snakes, reptiles and many other animals.

TCD MS 10608/28 'Jerry' the Lion in 1907
TCD MS 10608/28 ‘Jerry’ the Lion in 1907

The records throw some light on the three keepers who helped Isabella. Jack Supple joined the zoo in 1902 and had worked with his father, Patrick (d.1913), the senior primate keeper. Jack Flood joined the zoo in 1901 and worked with his father, Christopher, the senior lion keeper. And Tommy Kelly, who joined the zoo in 1912 or 1913, was the son of the bird and reptile keeper. Between them they had a good range of skills and experience.

TCD MS 10608/00 Jack Supple and Gibbon
TCD MS 10608/99 Jack Supple and Gibbon

The restaurant stores were full in preparation for a busy Easter season and this food was used where possible. There must also have been plenty of hay in stock because there is no reference in the account about problems feeding the two elephants. The biggest difficulty was rationing the supply of horse meat for the carnivores and, despite good connections with the military and the police, there was no hope of getting any fresh meat to the zoo while fighting continued.

Dr Benjamin Banks Ferrar, a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been caring for the wounded in city hospitals on a daily basis since April 1915. Although he lived in the zoo with his young family, he did not return until 4 May. Meanwhile, Professor George Carpenter, secretary of the RZSI, visited the zoo three times during Easter Week to support Isabella Ferrar.

TCD MS 10608/81
TCD MS 10608/81

By the end of Easter Week, the shortage of meat had reached a crisis point. Rather than kill some of the carnivores and share what little was left with the remainder, the decision was made to kill an old pony, a donkey, a goat and a few dingoes and use the meat to feed the valuable lions and tigers.

TCD MS 10608/150 Royal Zoological Society Keepers 1931, includes Thomas Kelly, Jack Supple and Christopher Flood
TCD MS 10608/150 Royal Zoological Society Keepers 1931, includes Thomas Kelly, Jack Supple and Christopher Flood

Early the following week, after the fighting had ceased, Professor Carpenter was able to arrange with the military for a delivery of horsemeat. A few days later, a gift of monkeys was received at the zoo. On Saturday 13 May, the zoo reopened and 19 members of RZSI council turned up. Normal activities, including record keeping, resumed.

TCD MS 10608/54 Tommy Kelly with a sea lion at the elephant bath
TCD MS 10608/54 Tommy Kelly with a sea lion at the elephant bath

The records of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland (RZSI) (TCD MS 10608) are held in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, for more information please see the MARLOC Online catalogue.

Catherine de Courcy
Catherine’s book Dublin Zoo: an illustrated history. The Collins Press, 2009 is available to purchase from Dublin Zoo.

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