Northern Ireland

Belfast to host opera of Sheila the elephant

The two women in the photograph gaze affectionately and casually at the elephant as it siphons water from a bucket in their back yard.

The expressions on their faces show no more alarm or surprise than they might if they were watching a cat lap milk from a saucer.

The younger woman is Denise Austin, a zookeeper at Belfast zoo, and this moment, now frozen forever in black and white, was some time in April or May 1941.

The German bombing raids, which were to become known as the Belfast blitz, were bringing terror to the city - and not just to its human citizens.

At Belfast Zoo, Denise was looking after Sheila, an Asian elephant, and she was becoming increasingly anxious about the stress the terrible night-time raids were having on her charge.

David Ramsey is a Belfast-based solicitor.

He is also a cousin of the late Denise, who died in the 1990s.

He remembers Sheila the elephant and he remembers the remarkable story of eccentric friendship and kindness that lies behind the photos which he presented to the zoo.

"When the air raid sirens would have gone off at night and the anti-aircraft guns on Cavehill might have opened up, she [Denise] would initially have made her way from her home up to the zoo in the blackout to talk to the elephant, just to keep it calm until the noise stopped," he said.

"Because it's high up on the Cavehill, within line of sight of the shipyards and the aircraft factories, the bombs echoed round the Cavehill which rather amplified the sound.

"I think she made a decision at one stage: 'well, it's a bit of a bother for me getting out of bed to go up to the Cavehill, I've quite a big garage/shed beside the house.


"'I could simply just bring the elephant home'. 'It'll be away from the zoo, it'll be lower down the Cavehill in the middle of trees etc so the sound won't be as great'.

"And that's what she did."

The story of Sheila and her sleepovers on the Antrim Road in north Belfast has become the stuff of legend and on Tuesday night it will be retold in the city of its birth in perhaps the most unexpected way - as an opera.

Elephant Angel is the latest production from Scottish Opera.

Scottish the production company may be, but the show has Northern Ireland coursing through almost every aspect of it.

The lyrics have been written by Belfast-born writer Bernard MacLaverty while Richhill man Gareth Williams, Scottish Opera's composer in residence, is behind the music and will direct the show.

"It is such a sweet story," Gareth said. "And I don't think people quite realise that it's a true story as well.

"Everyone loves elephants so i think it has a real heart, that story, just that act of kindness in taking this elephant home during the blitz and during a difficult time.

"So I think people are really captivated and intrigued by it and I think it's a story that could only happen in Belfast."

David Ramsey recalls how Denise would get around the problem of the head keeper who, it seems, was unaware of Denise and Sheila's excursions.

He said: "She had the elephant more often out of its enclosure than in the enclosure and he got used to her walking around the zoo with the elephant in tow.

"She would have taken the animal for exercise down through the farmland and he saw her at night and he just assumed she was taking the elephant for a close of business walk and never really raised any queries.

"It was only later on that he became aware that the elephant, in fact, was departing for its overnight accommodation elsewhere."

This is for Gareth, and surprisingly also for Bernard, a first foray into the world of the Belfast Festival and it is clear it is a prospect about which they are both excited.

"It's really nice to tell a Belfast story and to bring it over here," Gareth said.

"For both Bernard and I, it's our first time at the Belfast festival and this is a treat of a story to get to bring."

Elephant Angel is at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on Tuesday evening and in the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, County Tyrone, on Friday.