Recalling the great inferno of Cork, 400 years ago

On May 31, 1622, Cork city was all but wiped off the map by a great fire. PAT POLAND recounts the events of 400 years ago
Recalling the great inferno of Cork, 400 years ago

Early firefighting equipment could do little when a conflagration started in a built-up area

IN 1622 Cork ‘city’ was roughly rectangular in shape, surrounded by the great sandstone and limestone walls that had first been erected by the Anglo-Normans.

Viewed from a distance, the town would have appeared encased in a red and white hue, which, it is suggested, gave rise to the famous ‘Cork colours’.

In the many towers rising high above the walls, bored sentries gazed vacantly at the swallows flitting out over the great marshes and sandbanks that stretched away to the east and west, swooping and diving in pursuit of mayflies. To their front, the only sound came from the plaintive cries of the waterfowl and the rustle of the wind in the bulrushes. Behind them, the low hum of the town going about its everyday affairs.

Within the city, the air resounded with the noise of deafening cart wheels, bellowing street hawkers and hammering coppersmiths, and winds brought either choking films of soot or pungent odours from nearby tanners and brewers.

'Traffic jams’ were frequent as the narrow medieval lanes and streets could hardly cope with the horse-drawn traffic. Excrement from horses, dogs and pigs spattered the streets, leaking dunghills abounded, and cess-pits were ever present.

The Main Street lay on a north-south axis, culminating at the northern end at the North Gate Bridge, and at the South Gate Bridge at the southern end. Both had drawbridges with protected fortifications spanning the entrances. The distance between both was (is) 630 metres, while to walk the width of Cork took only a matter of minutes. In all, the entire city covered an area of about 36 acres.

A map of Cork around 1600.
A map of Cork around 1600.

We may wonder at the temerity of our forefathers in calling such a small place a ‘city’, but then, and for centuries after, most European cities were very compact enclaves. For example, writing in 1596, one London scribe marvelled at the fact the circumference of the walls of his native place was all of two miles.

Just before noon on that fateful morning, May 31, 1622, John Coppinger, Mayor of Cork, (and distant ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales) left his house to walk the short distance to meet his city officials.

Suddenly, the clear blue skies of the warm early summer morning became pitch black, to the extent that people began to light lamps and candles in their shops and homes just to be able to see.

The low-hanging clouds that had turned day into night began to boil and roll like the contents of some fantastic witch’s cauldron, and with an ear-shattering clap of thunder, the very sky appeared to drip fire and fall upon the city on the eastern side, a spot which approximates to the Daunt’s Square (junction of Grand Parade and Patrick Street) area today. Thatched roofs burst into flames.

Hundreds of men, women and children spilled out of their homes and workplaces onto the streets, frightened out of their wits, and began to run, inexplicably, towards the fire.

Even as they did so, a second, almighty thunderclap was heard, and the thatched roofs on the western side burst into flames too. Prisoners in the gaols spanning the bridges screamed to be released.

The entire population was now trapped between two rapidly-growing conflagrations. The deadly cocktail of ingredients necessary for a firestorm was fast falling into place. The immolation of Cork was nigh.

******

The city’s fire alarm bell hung on the watchtower known as ‘Peter’s Tower’ situated behind St Peter’s Church on the Main Street, but if any warning was sounded, few must have heard it.

In any case, the fires were now spreading so rapidly that any warning was futile. No worthwhile attempt, it seems, was made to organise a firefighting effort, even though the city was surrounded by water.

An illustration from the report on the fire purports to show firefighting operations during the course of the conflagration. It depicts ‘preventers’ (long fire-hooks) at work pulling burning thatch from a building, and a bucket-chain working from a ladder. From the same house a child is being rescued by lowering-line.

However, as Bourne and Archer, the report’s writers, make clear, such was the rapid and overwhelming nature of the conflagration that no effective counter-measures were taken.

Indeed, any such attempt to use the primitive firefighting equipment of the period - leather buckets, preventers, and brass ‘squirts’ - would have been futile.

******

Fanned by the prevailing westerly wind, the process raced eastwards and soon joined up with the fires spreading west, until the whole of the city within the walls was a roaring furnace.

Roaring out of control with ever-greater strength, we may surmise the artificial wind had developed into a storm with the violence and ferocity of a hurricane.

Finally, the fires joined as one, and what previously had been individual fires now became a sea of flame with a temperature at its centre of more than 800C.

When the fires broke out, many people crowded into the stone-built churches where they expected to be safe. Here they crouched and prayed for deliverance, waiting for the horror to cease. But as the firestorm raged through the streets and lanes of thatched houses, the temperature in the buildings increased rapidly with the ingress of scorching hot air and smoke. The moment had now arrived when the people had to decide whether to stay or leave and try to find safety elsewhere.

Those who decided to try their luck indoors were in mortal danger either of suffering death from the extreme heat and lack of oxygen, or of being buried alive under collapsing buildings. Many must have peered into the street, saw everything seemed to be on fire, decided they could not get through, and withdrawn indoors.

As the blaze consumed all the available air, it was replaced by deadly carbon monoxide. Lamps and candles lit during the initial darkness, would not now stay alight. 

People would have lain flat on the floors of the churches to try to breathe in the slightest trace of clean, cool air. Trying to conserve their strength, unknown to them they had begun to breathe the lethal - invisible and odourless - carbon monoxide.

Finally, they would have fallen asleep and death would have come without pain in the form of slow suffocation.

******

Outside, the streets were canyons of pushing, struggling mobs, desperately trying to save anything. Adding to the confusion,maddened animals dashed about in a torture of pain from the red blizzards of hot cinders and sparks.

It was a world reduced to fire, heat and noise, pain, fear, and despairing attempts to escape. Clouds of sparks and firebrands tumbled through the air like red-hot snowflakes.

The embers set clothing alight, burned through the flesh, and seared into faces, eyes and necks. The people beat at their hair, faces and bodies trying to smother the flames. Those who fell to the ground with sheer exhaustion spontaneously burst into flames.

Many of the luckier citizens dropped from the city walls and waded through the sucking marshes to seek refuge on Island Negay (Oileán na nGé, where the Brent geese from the Arctic migrated between November and March each year) near to today’s Morrison’s Island. There they huddled, wet, shocked, and terrified.

By late afternoon, most of the burned-out buildings had collapsed and all the combustible material consumed. The howling artificial wind would have gradually dropped and here and there the odd fire still burned.

When all the combustible material had been consumed, the firestorm, sated, lost its force. The heat decreased slowly. Those who had been fortunate enough to reach Island Negay watched in awe as a great mushroom cloud of smoke, dust and soot formed over the city, blotting out the late afternoon sun.

By Sunday, the smouldering piles of goods in cellars cast an unearthly red footlight on the panorama of ruin.

Gradually, hesitantly, as survivors entered their devastated city, what scenes must have presented themselves. Stark desolation met their gaze on every side. All was a burned, twisted mass, the streets and lanes full of dead bodies, many welded together by the heat and shrunken to half their normal size, like mummies with leather-like skin.

Those who had crowded into the stone-built buildings had fared little better. Succumbing to the effects of carbon monoxide, we may speculate that whole families lay dead.

******

The chronicle on the Great Fire of Cork records that more than 1,500 buildings were consumed by the flames, a figure that probably includes lesser builds like out-offices, etc.

The serious proportions the fire assumed were immediately blamed on the almost total disregard for an existing by-law that forbade the roofing of houses with thatch.

There is little doubt the blaze was one of the greatest natural disasters ever to befall the city, matched only by the Black Death of 1349.

The record speaks of “many hundreds being consumed by the fire”, but what does this mean? The population of the city remained fairly static at about 2,500 over a 60-year period from 1600. If only 25% of the population perished in the fire (a conservative estimate if one is to take at face value the horrors described by Bourne and Archer) this equates to a death-toll of some 625.

Superimposed on today’s Metropolitan Cork with its population of 210,000, this percentage translates into an unimaginable 52,500 victims. When put in that context, only then does the scale of the catastrophe begin to sink in.

Small wonder the report circulated in London compared Cork to the city of Gomorrah, the biblical city annihilated by fire and brimstone.

******

Five months after the fire, Cork had a new Mayor - John Roche FitzPatrick - and on the night of his election, his first duty was to pledge a new by-law reaffirming the banning of thatch as a roofing material, with dire consequences for offenders. Anyone not complying would have his roof torn off and served with a fine of ‘Forty Pounds Sterling’, a sum that would have bought a modest house in 1622. The ‘Fire Prevention Order’ became effective at midnight on June 23, 1623 - a date still commemorated on the Cork social calendar as ‘Bonfire Night’.

The final part in Pat Poland’s trilogy on the history of Cork Fire Brigade will be published later this year. Entitled Cork City Firefighters - A Proud Record: A Visual History from 1950, it has more than 200 illustrations.

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