THEY are the ultimate heroes who put life and limb on the line to save others. But 90 years ago this week, Cork was plunged into mourning when its fire brigade suffered its first death of a member while on duty.
Michael O’Connell, 31, was a father of three and his tragic death in May, 1928, touched the hearts of people across city and county, with thousands turning out for his sombre funeral.
A strapping man, Michael had joined Cork Fire Brigade, along with three others, as an auxiliary fireman 14 years earlier, in September, 1914, to cover for firefighters who had been called-up or enlisted in the British Army on the outbreak of World War I.
Just 18 years old at the time, he was described as a man of fine physique and was already more than 6ft tall.
Their appointments were only considered temporary; the enlistees had been granted three months leave of absence to fight and most people expected the conflict in France would be over by Christmas.
In the event, Michael and his colleagues were still serving four years later, when it was decided to make them permanent auxiliaries.
At that time, Cork Fire Brigade comprised a small body of permanent men supplemented by a larger force of part-time auxiliaries, operating out of two city stations: the Central Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay and a sub-station at Grattan Street.
The auxiliaries were employed by Cork Corporation and reported for fire duty ‘after hours’. These duties included doing night watch at the ‘Fireman’s Rest’ shelter on Patrick Street, where a rescue ladder was permanently stationed, watchroom duty at the fire stations, and responding to blazes and other emergencies as their roster stipulated.
Other tasks involved evening duty at the Opera House, the Palace Theatre on MacCurtain Street, or the many cinemas, where the cocktail of ingredients for a fire catastrophe was always present.
Here, the auxiliaries had to ensure all gangways were kept clear and free from obstruction of any kind and that all exit doors were ready for immediate use. They had to acquaint themselves with all parts of the premises and with the means provided for extinguishing fires.
The firefighter would take up station in the wings near the releasing gear for the fire-resisting curtain, with a full view of the stage. He was expected to ‘make a round’ (carry out a safety check of the premises) an hour before the show, to stay on the stage until the audience had left, and ‘make a round’ again after they had gone.
Each member of the auxiliary force was required to live within a radius of 200 metres of his appointed fire station.
Shortly after daybreak on Wednesday, May 16, 1928 the General Alarm bells rang out in the Central Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay and in the houses of the auxiliaries.
A call had been received from gardaí at Kilmallock, County Limerick, urgently requesting a section to respond to a serious blaze in the town, which, with no fire brigade in attendance, was spreading uncontrolled.
Limerick Fire Brigade had been telephoned, but had no motor appliance available at the time, as it operated a horse-drawn steamer and a horse-drawn manual.
Captain Timothy Ring, the Cork fire chief, directed that a section of six men, including Auxiliary Firemen O’Connell and 34-year-old Denis O’Leary — a former member of the Irish Guards and one of the men O’Connell had joined to cover in 1914 — be tasked. These men quickly set out on an open Leyland fire engine on the 70-odd kilometre journey to Kilmallock and arrived on the scene about 7am.
Earlier, at 5am, Mr Lyons, the proprietor of the Central Hotel in Emmet Street, Kilmallock, had been alerted to “a crackling noise in the street”. Upon Investigation, he was shocked to discover the drapery premises of John Cahill, situated at the junction of Emmet Street and Sarsfield Street, was on fire. Hurriedly arousing those inside, he then quickly made his way to the Garda Barracks to inform Sergeant Murphy.
Then, as reported in the Cork Examiner: “The Civic Guards, under Sergeant Murphy’s command, set about confining the outbreak with admirable promptitude and courage. The Guards obtained chemical engines (fire extinguishers) from several shopkeepers, and many of the townspeople assisted by obtaining water in buckets and other utensils from the river. There were scenes of great consternation when residents in the danger area were knocked up and warned to be prepared for emergencies.”
Mr and Mrs Cahill and their staff, who had all been sound asleep, made their way out of the burning building with their children onto the comparative safety of the street. Only then was it discovered that, in the confusion, a child had been left behind, “and (Mrs Cahill) at once rushed back and bravely brought out the child at great personal risk”.
The fire was now spreading rapidly, fanned by a stiff northerly wind, and being carried across Emmet Street to the Central Hotel and Hayes’ drapery store. It was now a distinct possibility that it would morph into a conflagration and involve the whole street — even the town itself. Sgt Murphy decided to make the call to Cork for assistance.
At noon, the officer-in-charge of the Cork fire unit declared the blaze was now under control. The tedious task of ‘turning over and damping down’ now began, a process to uncover, and extinguish, any last remains of smouldering debris that might, if left unattended, flare up again hours after the brigade had left the scene.
Auxiliary Firemen O’Connell and Fireman O’Leary were operating a hose on the ruins of Cahill’s premises when, at about 1.15pm, and without the slightest warning, the front wall collapsed into the street, burying both under tons of masonry:
“The great weight of the masonry which struck the firemen was indicated by the fact that O’Leary’s brass helmet was crushed into a shapeless condition,” reported the Examiner.
“The accident, which was witnessed by a large number of spectators, occurred when the men were on duty under a wall in Emmet Street, which was supported only by the charred remains of one of the shop windows. The structure suddenly collapsed, and the men were buried under some tons of masonry before the eyes of the horrified crowd.”
The other firefighters, assisted by the guards and bystanders, immediately went to their comrades’ assistance, and, after some difficulty, managed to extricate them.
The two men were taken to the Central Hotel where they were attended by Dr McNamara, Kilmallock; Dr Byrnes, Bruree; and Dr Ryan, KIlfinane. The State Solicitor, Mr J.J. Power, had sent his car to collect Dr Ryan, who was on his rounds out in the country.
Rev Fr Moloney, CC, rendered spiritual aid and both men were removed to Croom County Hospital, about 20 kilometres away, and still conscious on admittance. Michael O’Connell was the more seriously injured — his back was broken — and, sadly, two days later, on Friday evening, May 18, he succumbed to his injuries.
The inquest was held by Dr Cleary, Coroner, at Croom County Hospital the next day. The remains were formally identified by Auxiliary Fireman O’Leary, who was still being treated as an in-patient. After hearing evidence by Dr Violet Madden, from the hospital, members of the public who were present at the time of the wall collapse, gardaí, and Captain Ring, the Coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.
Dr Cleary added: “It was very unfortunate and sad that the young man’s life was cut off so suddenly: but, of course, it was a pure accident, and nobody was to blame.”
Supt Holland, on behalf of the gardaí, expressed his deepest sympathy with the relatives and comrades of the deceased, and stated: “Cork brigade turned up in record time and did everything possible to save life and property. It was very sad that after their good work was done one of their men — a gallant young fireman — should have lost his life.”
A Guard of Honour of Limerick Fire Brigade under Captain Nolan was present when the funeral cortege left Croom on its sad journey to Cork. The casket was draped in the tricolour surmounted by the firefighter’s badly battered helmet. As the procession passed through Charleville, Buttevant, and Mallow, business was suspended to allow the public to pay their respects. On arrival at the outskirts of the city, it was met by a large crowd and firefighters in full uniform performed a guard of honour on a fire appliance.
Michael O’Connell was laid to rest, with full honours, on Sunday, May 20, 1928, at Ballyvinny cemetery, near Riverstown, County Cork. En route, the funeral weaved through the city centre with the hearse accompanied by six brass-helmeted firemen. The procession was “of enormous proportions, a large number of vehicles taking part which extended the entire length of St Patrick’s Street. The principal citizens were either present or represented”.
The 31-year-old victim was survived by his wife and three children, his mother and father, and siblings.
In February, 2004, a plaque in his memory was unveiled by the Cathaoirleach of Limerick County Council, Cllr John Clifford, on the wall of Fitzgerald’s Electrical store in Kilmallock where Cahill’s premises had stood in 1928.
The ceremony was attended by members of Auxiliary Fireman O’Connell’s extended family, members of Limerick County Council and members of the Fire Service from Cork and Limerick, and retired members.
Dormit in pace.
Volume two of Pat Poland’s trilogy on the history of firefighting in Cork, The Old Brigade: The Rebel City’s Firefighting Story 1900-1950, will be published later this year.