Amy Herron is on a mission – a sort of personal safari. She wants to find out about her grandfather. He died before she was born but, in his day, he was one of the best-known men in Dublin. That’s because he was the elephant-keeper in Dublin Zoo for over forty years.
Back then, from the 30s to the early 60s, the elephants were brought out, in contact with the Zoo visitors. People could feed them bits of bread or turnip and children could even ride on their backs in a contraption called a ‘howdah’. There were, and probably still are, photos of Jim Kenny and everyone’s favourite elephant, Sarah, in homes around Ireland — meeting the keeper and his elephant was the highlight of many a birthday or family day out.
He was so famous that, as his son Paul says, “walking down Grafton Street would take half an hour”, so many people would want to stop and talk to him. Once, he ended a chat with a passerby and turned to his son and said, “That was the Chief Justice”.
Another of Jim Kenny’s sons, Pat, became a public figure but it was a while before he became as famous as his father. He recalls broadcasting for RTÉ from the Dublin Horse Show. His father happened to be there, Pat says, “He was stopped again and again, ‘Mr Kenny, hello, how are you?’ And, I realised then, he was the superstar.”
Amy’s grandfather’s picture is still in Dublin Zoo and Amy has visited the Zoo to meet the elephants and see how they are treated nowadays. As she found out, it is very different from her grandfather’s time:
When the elephants came to the Zoo, in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were often accompanied by ‘mahouts’ – elephant handlers from India and Sri Lanka. These mahouts helped ‘settle-in’ the elephant. While well-intentioned this practice was based on control and a reliance on the mastery of the elephant and is now considered to be an outdated form of animal management.
Jim Kenny and Sarah formed a double-act – she would ‘play’ harmonica for American tourists and carried Irish children on her back for almost 30 years. However, in 1958, she fell, while carrying children. This, and a change in attitude to the care of animals in zoos, led to the end of elephant rides. Eventually, Sarah had to be put down, much to the distress of her keeper.
As part of her exploration, Amy visited the elephants in Dublin Zoo in the evening time, when the Zoo was closed and everything was quiet. She got to sense what it must have been like for her grandfather to spend so much of his life in close contact with these enormous creatures.
Coming out after an hour with the elephants, she said. “You can feel a rapport when you’re near an elephant. There’s a presence, that’s the amazing feeling. they’re smart, they’re clever. They’re curious about you and you’re curious about them”.
She said that the feeling of being with the elephants was intense: “I’m still back in that space. I’m finding it hard to adapt to the real world. I can understand why my grandad would want to spend a lot of time here.”
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Photos courtesy of the Kenny family.
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