TODAY, fire has been reduced to a sporadic and isolated threat. Throughout the course of history, however, the constant risk of fire has left a deep and lasting imprint on every dimension of society and the destruction left in its aftermath has shaped many cities throughout the modern world.
Never has this contention been truer in Cork’s history than in the period of turmoil from late 1920 to the spring of 1923 when the city was buffeted by acts of shocking violence, many involving incendiarism. If quirky monikers were awarded, Cork would surely have qualified as the ‘Arson Capital of Europe’.
In October and November, 1920, the Superintendent of Cork Fire Brigade, Captain Alfred J. Hutson — a former British fire officer — and his small band of firefighters were stretched to the limit in dealing with arsonists. Beginning with the attempted burning of the City Hall on October 9, the following months, night after night, saw them turning-out to yet another maliciously-started blaze; a workload on top of the ‘ordinary’ emergency calls.
Now, however, in the wake of the Kilmichael ambush on November 28, a palpable ‘air of trepidation’ hung over Cork.
A further ambush on the ‘Auxies’ at Dillon’s Cross on Saturday, December 11, ratcheted up the tension. Upon hearing of it, the fire chief was convinced this was going to be ‘The Night’. Shortly after, calls began coming in to the Central Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay reporting houses ablaze in the Dillon’s Cross area: torched as reprisal for ‘harbouring Rebel forces’.
Cork, in 1920, had three fire stations; additionally, a small ‘out-station’ known as the ‘Fireman’s Rest’, manned only by night, stood near the Fr Mathew Statue on Patrick Street. The Central Fire Station was on Sullivan’s Quay, with sub-stations at Grattan Street and Shandon. The latter however, had no transport, the brigade having to trundle their equipment through the streets to the scene of a call.
The Grattan Street unit under Senior Fireman Tim Ring, a veteran of the Western Front, was directed to respond to the fires at Dillon’s Cross. Their only mechanized transport was a motor ambulance, so, taking their equipment with them, they set off through Patrick Street. There, they saw Grant’s Department Store was blazing and, in view of its enormity, decided to report to Capt. Hutson. He, in turn, rang Victoria Barracks and asked them to send their appliances to deal with the fires not far away from them, but his request was ignored.
Soon, store after store along the southside of Patrick Street was blazing, with ‘K’ Company of the Auxiliary Police in the vanguard of the arson attacks.
Now, on this night that would go down in history, Capt Hutson and his small but intrepid unit turned out to confront the biggest conflagration in Cork since the destruction of the city in 1622. On horse-drawn appliances they galloped into a city teeming with psyched-up, drunken veterans of World War I, armed to the teeth with revolvers, rifles, bayonets, hand grenades and jerry cans brimming with petrol.
For all they knew, a fusillade of bullets and bombs might greet them upon at the scene. As they quickly got to work, the plate-glass windows in even more stores were being broken, and the premises set alight.
Firefighters are used to taking control at an incident, setting its boundaries, containing the damage, and minimising injuries. But this was on a scale beyond their collective experience. Multiplying and mutating rapidly, it was unlike anything they, or their London-trained principal officer, had ever encountered.
They were now dealing with a conflagration for which they were singularly under-equipped. Hutson had to make the unpalatable decision to ‘triage’: many premises would simply have to be allowed to burn while he did his best to contain the more dangerous fires within a specific area.
As the enormous blazes sucked in more and more oxygen from the atmosphere to feed their insatiable demands, the paintwork on the buildings on the other side of Patrick Street was seen to blister. Hutson now was at his most apprehensive. At this stage the conflagration could have morphed into a ‘firestorm’: an enormous bonfire created when two opposing fires join up, fed by its own artificial wind.
Hutson would have been baffled at the term — not coined until 1943 after the Allied fire-bombing of Hamburg — but he knew his fire chemistry. If the Crown forces had been better co-ordinated, more imaginative, and not befuddled by alcohol, and attacked the opposite side of the street as well, Cork, instead of an eventual burnt-out area of some five acres, could have suffered a second Great Fire when the city was all but wiped off the map in 1622.
By Sunday afternoon the Cork firefighters were exhausted. Cold, soaked and tired, they had been on their feet since coming on duty at 7am on Saturday. With the outcome still far from certain — who knew, there could be a repeat performance that night — Capt Hutson decided to seek help. He approached Lord Mayor Dónal O’Callaghan for permission to call in outside assistance.
In 1920, fire brigades were few and far between. Limerick was 63 miles distant; Dublin, a daunting 163 miles. The Lord Mayor at once telegraphed his counterparts in these cities, and in each case the answer came swiftly: reinforcements would be on the way.
Members of Limerick Fire Brigade travelled to Cork in a private car laden with equipment and ‘after a very trying and inconvenient road journey’ arrived and got to work under Capt Hutson’s directions. (The Cork Examiner noted a unit from Waterford was also sent, but my research has been unable to confirm this).
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Captain John J. Myers had tripped the alarm switches in Fire Brigade Headquarters to quickly assemble the men for parade in the Appliance Room. He explained the nature of the task confronting them — not alone from burning and collapsing buildings but also the risk of being shot; four Cork firefighters had been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds and Timothy Ring spent four months in hospital when he was caught in a bomb blast. Myers asked for volunteers to accompany him to Cork. The response was overwhelming as man after man stepped forward. Eventually, he settled on seven.
John (‘Jack’) Myers (grand-uncle of former Irish Times columnist and author, Kevin Myers) had previously served in the ranks of Inspector and Lieutenant (i.e., Second Officer) with Dublin Fire Brigade. Appointed Chief Officer in 1918, he would head the brigade through the revolutionary period. He was known to be sympathetic towards the national movement, one IRA officer describing him as “a very fine fellow and, from the national point of view, thoroughly sound and reliable in every way”. He even managed to get a mention in James Joyce’s Ulysses when the author fantasizes that ‘Lieutenant Myers of the Dublin Fire Brigade by general request sets fire to Bloom’.
Myers died suddenly on March 19, 1927, and General O’Duffy, Commissioner of the Garda Síochána (and a former principal IRA officer) remarked that “news of the death was a source of deep regret to the Garda Síochána”.
Several members of Dublin Fire Brigade were secretly active in the republican movement and the Irish Citizen Army. Among their number was Joe Connolly, who joined the brigade in 1915. He, his four brothers and their sister Kathleen, were all members of the Irish Citizen Army. One of his siblings, Seán, was the first insurrectionist to die in the Easter Rising.
On the outbreak of the Rising, Joe Connolly left his fire station and joined the garrison in the GPO and later, St Stephen’s Green. Interned in Frongoch, Wales, with Michael Collins and others, upon release he was re-instated in the brigade, eventually serving as Chief Officer between 1930 and 1938.
Now, on this bleak December night, Connolly was among those who volunteered to travel with Capt Myers on the long journey to Cork. A special train was requisitioned to bring them from Kingsbridge (now Heuston) station to the south, on to which their most up-to-date Leyland fire engine was hoisted. A phalanx of newspaper men, and a British Pathé newsreel crew, accompanied them.
The actions of the Dublin firefighters were well covered in the newspapers and the Cork Examiner carried an interview with Capt Myers, who said: “It was an unusual experience and except for the fires of Easter Week it was the biggest blaze I have ever seen. When we arrived at Glanmire station about 1am the air was charged with smoke and Cork still burned furiously. I was sorry we were not called a few hours earlier, when we could have saved more fine buildings. At the station we were met by police and military, and, taking our place on the lorries, escorted under armed guard into the heart of the city, which was a regular furnace. We got to work right away, and laid down two lines of hose from the river at St Patrick’s Bridge on the burning buildings.
“I saw at once that this was no ordinary fire. Incendiary bombs had undoubtedly been used. In ordinary accidental fires most of the walls remain standing, here the whole place literally collapsed like a house of cards. To save the burning buildings was impossible but my men worked away like Trojans until the last spark was quenched.
“Outside the Victoria Hotel on our departure there was a great concourse of the citizens who greeted us with salvoes of cheers and ‘Up Dublin!’ Our efforts were gratefully acknowledged and of the kindness, courtesy and hospitality of the Cork people I cannot speak too highly.”
The Freeman’s Journal reported that he was “appalled by the destruction” in Cork: “When they arrived he did not think Cork could be saved. Six streets were aflame. He paid tribute to the manner in which the Cork firemen stood at their posts for two days; he said, ‘when I saw the brave boys still playing the hoses on the burning buildings, it made me cry to see such a scene of destruction. The only way to bring it home to the people of Dublin is to say that Cork is even worse than O’Connell Street and Abbey Street and the adjoining streets after Easter Week, 1916’.”
Unusually, he referred to Sackville Street as ‘O’Connell Street’: a full four years before it was named as such.
Forty years later, one of the group, Fireman Michael Joseph Rogers (a member of the IRA) in an interview recalled the time they spent fighting the fires in Cork. It was a unique occasion, for it remains the only time Cork and Dublin Fire Brigades have worked in tandem operationally. As such, his narrative, in my opinion, is worth repeating here in full: “The fire switches were pulled and in the usual 58 seconds we were ready to go. But this fire wasn’t in Dublin. Our Chief, Captain J. J. Myers, announced Cork was ablaze and the city’s Lord Mayor, Dónal O’Callaghan, had sent an urgent call for help to our Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill. It had been decided to send a section from Dublin and Capt Myers was looking for volunteers.
I was 24 years of age and wanted to be in the thick of everything. They were exciting times. Capt Myers picked seven of us from the bunch that volunteered — Christopher McDonagh, Bernard Matthews, James Barry, Joseph Connolly, James Keane, Nicholas Seaver, and myself. At 6.30pm on that Sunday we loaded the newest fire engine we had on a special train at Kingsbridge and set off on our journey. There was a boiler-makers’ strike at Inchicore at the time and I don’t think the engine on our train was a hundred per cent. That meant that the driver couldn’t exactly burn up the tracks.
Mallow Station was in black darkness when we pulled in there at 11.30pm. We were only half-an-hour away now — or so we thought. But the driver walked off the train and refused to go any further. I gathered that the routine was for the driver on a Dublin to Cork train to be relieved at Mallow. But there was no relief driver there — and wild rumours that bridges on the way to Cork had been blown up didn’t help in persuading our driver to carry on!
There was a long, drawn-out consultation on the platform between the driver, railway officials and the pressmen travelling with us. Thirty minutes later, we gave the driver a big cheer when he stepped back on the train. We arrived in Cork some time around 1am. Two members of Cork Corporation were waiting to greet us. But there was another ‘welcoming party’ as well — of RIC and ‘Tans’. We were ordered out of the carriage and scrutinised, but not searched.
In Patrick Street we saw for the first time the unbelievable extent of the fires. You will get some idea of the intensity when I tell you the woodwork of shops on the far side of this unusually wide street was badly blistered. We turned our hoses on the premises of Murphy Brothers in Washington Street. Capt Myers next gave us instructions to make down to the Lee at St Patrick’s Bridge and set up our hoses for the Patrick Street fires. We found the Cork steam fire engine out of action. Our plan was to cut off the advancing flames at Maylor Street.
“It was a mammoth task. Morning brought thousands to gaze in horror at the havoc wrought by the sea of flames. It was heart-breaking to see buildings falling like a cloud of white powder. The heart of Cork was as burned out as the tram at the Statue. It was an amazing sight to see one wall in Cash’s — it must have been five or six storeys high — standing on its own.
We stayed on until Wednesday, then Capt Myers gave us a few hours off before returning home. We walked through Winthrop Street, Oliver Plunkett Street, Robert Street, and Morgan Street, through Caroline Street, Maylor Street, Merchant’s Quay and many more, and the general opinion was that the scene was worse than O’Connell Street, Abbey Street, and adjoining streets in Dublin after the Rising.
“A group of women were waiting at the railway station to thank us for our work. They pinned little Sacred Heart badges on us. I still have mine. We were seen off, too, by an alderman who had looked after us well during our stay. As we boarded the train, he slipped us a five-naggin bottle of whiskey ‘to shorten the journey’.
There is an unwritten law in the fire station that any fireman who has an increase in the family must buy a drink for every man in the station. I had bought two rounds. We were expecting our third child, but I did not think the purse would stand up to another round just then, and had warned my wife, Chrissie, not to have anybody phone me after the birth. We were living in Harold’s Cross. I was not able to let her know I was going to Cork. But our first two children were daughters and Chrissie decided if the third was a son, I should get some veiled message.
When we got back to Dublin that night, Fireman Patrick O’Reilly called me aside. ‘I’ve some sort of mixed-up message for you that I don’t understand’, he told me. ‘I hope you’ll be able to make sense of it. A woman who wouldn’t give her name phoned the station yesterday and asked me to tell you that the parcel had arrived safely. I told her you had gone to Cork and asked her to hold on to it for you’.
Pat Poland is author of The Old Brigade: The Rebel City’s Firefighting Story 1900-1950, which details the Burning of Cork and the Troubles period.