Mai Stephens, who has died aged 91, brought glamour to the act of Ireland’s most famous lion tamer, her husband, the self-styled ‘Captain’ Bill Stephens. Her most dangerous stunt was bending over a rack of sharp knives while a lion leapt over her.
Because of her dark hair and exotic beauty, Stephens liked to claim his wife came from “the East” - although she came from no further east than East Wall Road, a few streets from where he grew up in the Dublin suburb of Fairview.
She was born Margaret Carton on November 5 1924 and brought up by her grandmother. She met Bill Stephens while they were both in their teens and they married in October 1942.
At the time, Bill was working as a welder by day and playing drums in Billy Carter’s swing band at night. When a big top pitched up beside the Arcadia ballroom where he was playing, he and Mai decided to run away with the circus.
Initially, Bill played in the circus band, but soon acquired a lion cub called Sultan from a performer who was leaving the show. With no previous experience, he trained the animal as if it were a dog and went on to develop a unique act that mixed lions with Alsatians. Mai, meanwhile, walked around the ring draped with snakes.
Stephens modelled himself on Clyde Beatty, the whip-cracking big cat tamer of America’s Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, who was familiar to Irish audiences through movie serials such as The Lost Jungle. Clad in safari-style costumes, the Stephenses travelled Ireland with John Duffy’s Circus in an act called Jungle Capers.
Their stunts included Stephens feeding a lion from his own mouth and a lion leaping through a hoop above Mai’s head. The highlight was a ‘bouncing lions’ routine, performed in a small wagon pushed into the big top by a tractor.
Circus historian Michael Ingoldsby saw the act when he was 10-years-old and describes it as “The most thrilling act I’ve ever seen in the circus. The lions did a wall of death. They ran around the sides of the wagon, and it was rocking from side to side. People were breathless, because you didn’t know if the wagon was going to turn over. You couldn’t tell if Stephens was chasing the lions or the lions were chasing him, and the remarkable thing was, on cue at the end, they just stopped dead.”
When the circus was off the road for the winter, the Stephenses returned to Fairview and kept the lions in a rented shed behind a high street garage on Merville Avenue. On November 11 1951, a lioness called Sleika escaped onto the streets of Dublin, pounced on an apprentice mechanic called Andy Massey and seriously wounded Stephens as he tried to recapture her.
The incident made headlines around the world and led to the couple playing a Christmas season with Chipperfield’s Circus in Dublin. But they also came under financial pressure when Massey sued.
Stephens dreamed of making the big time in America and to increase the appearance of danger in his act went against all advice to buy a particularly ferocious male lion from Dublin Zoo.
On January 27 1953, he and Mai were visited at the winter quarters of Fossett’s Circus by a talent scout from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the famed Greatest Show on Earth. Stephens was so keen to impress that he wore a new suit in the lion cage. His male lion failed to recognise his scent in the unfamiliar clothes and mauled him to death in front of his wife.
After her husband’s death, Mai returned to Fairview and took a job as an usherette at the Bohemian cinema. The following year, she met her second husband, Joe Tracy, who worked for the seed and grain merchants Dardis & Dunne. They married in 1959 and lived in a corporation house at 1 East Wall Road, the street where she grew up.
Throughout her second marriage, Mai seldom mentioned her previous life in the circus. Her two children only knew that she was sentimentally attached to a small toy circus set. When a circus came to town, she would park outside and listen to the music but never ventured into the big top.
After a stroke in 2011, Mai was left partially paralysed and unable to speak. She moved into the Marymount Care Centre in Westmanstown, County Dublin. It was there that she was tracked down by filmmaker Joe Lee for a brief but moving final scene in his documentary, Fortune’s Wheel - The Life and Legacy of the Fairview Lion Tamer. Released this year, the doc was named Best Irish Film at the Dublin Film Festival.
Mai Tracy was born November 5 1924 and died November 27, 2015. She is survived by her husband Joe, son Martin and daughter Caroline.
For more tales from the big top, read Circus Mania, the book described by the Mail on Sunday as "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read the reviews.