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‘Monster snake’ terror on the Cave Hill Road

By Liam Murphy

The Belfast Zoological Gardens known as Bellevue Zoo opened in 1934. I haven’t visited it for a long time but I believe that among the many species housed there are some snakes. Someone once told me that St Patrick banished snakes from Ireland over 1,500 years ago and the zoo undid his work. That is not strictly true.
Robert Wilson was one of Belfast’s most notable public representatives in the late nineteenth century. He was a City Councillor for Duncairn. He was a builder with a knack for publicity and had premises in Cavendish Terrace. He was universally known as “Jubilee” when he so named a street he had built honouring Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Belfast City Hospital now occupies the site of Jubilee Road which has long been demolished.
He was probably the best known public figure in Belfast at that time and was one of the city’s characters.
Sergeant Kavanagh was on duty at the desk of Antrim Road RIC barracks. Things were quiet and he was looking forward to the end of his shift. All that was to change when a man arrived and blurted out an incredible story. He was breathless and greatly excited. He poured out his story to the desk sergeant. The sergeant told him to slow down and to repeat what he had just said in “slow plain English”.
He told the astonished sergeant that he had been walking up the Cave Hill Road and that he had come across a monster snake “as long as a tramcar and as thick as an ass’s cart.” He told Sergeant Kavanagh that the snake was heading into Belfast and that it was so gigantic that it would devour all the children it would meet and maybe even the peelers. At first Sergeant Kavanagh didn’t believe a word of it but when the man repeated his story over and over he came to realise that Belfast town was indeed in danger.
Action was needed. Belfast had to be saved!
The seargeant immediately ordered three constables armed with rifles to the vicinity with orders to kill the monster on sight.
The trio set off and sure enough they found the snake reposing on a grass verge off the Cavehill Road just as the informant had told Sergeant Kavanagh. A couple of bullets were fired into the snake’s skull. They reported their successful accomplishment to Sergeant Kavanagh. He sought Councillor Wilson’s assistance and two hours later the monster snake was loaded onto a cart and brought triumphantly to “Jubilee’s” yard.

Newspapers carried the story next day. St Patrick hadn’t been successful in banishing snakes from Ireland after all. He had been denied. Now the RIC had saved the nation.
“Jubilee” Wilson placed advertisements declaring that “The Snake that defied St Patrick, the wonder of the age” could be viewed in his yard for the sum of three pence. It remained on view for a week and the Royal Hospital received a donation of over £19.
The story as to how the snake arrived on the Cave Hill Road was a well kept secret for many years. Alfred C Capper was a well known linen merchant and lived in Hopefield Avenue. His son Alfred Capper QC was a judge in Malaya. He had planned a trip home, his first in ten years and hoped to mark his return with a donation to his home town. He had procured the snake and had intended to donate it to the museum on his visit home.

However in rough seas the preservative fluid was spilled and on arrival at Hopefield Avenue he discovered that the snake had begun to rot. It was hastily dumped at the top of Cave Hill Road in the middle of the night. Judge Capper had returned to Malaya before the snake was discovered and was told about it in a letter from a friend.
He must have enjoyed the hullabaloo.

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