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Cork Lives
SOCIAL BOOKMARKS

Blaze left a shop and a reputation in tatters

75 years ago this week, a major fire gutted a landmark building in Cork city — but the fall-out for the fire brigade at the time was even worse. PAT POLAND revisits the events...

THE new development under construction at 14-23 Grand Parade is due to open soon, a major retail, business and food innovation hub at the western end of Cork city.

Many citizens will remember the site as the location of the former Capitol cinema, which opened in 1947 and closed in 2005.

But an older generation may recall when Grant’s occupied the same site, and it was here that a serious fire occurred on March 11, 1942 — 75 years ago this week.

The blaze gutted the landmark building and luckily there were no deaths or injuries. However, the repercussions were severe. An inquiry was held into how the fire was tackled and Cork’s Chief Fire Officer ended up being hung out to dry. This is his story...

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Liam (aka William) Monaghan was the son of Dublin parents, who had emigrated to England and brought up their family in Birmingham.

He he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery to fight in the Great War, where he won a medal for bravery and made sergeant by the age of 19.

Upon demobilization, Liam worked for car maker Wolseley and qualified as a motor engineer then, in 1924, he landed a job with Birmingham Fire and Ambulance Brigade.

With 20 stations and 55 appliances, the brigade was one of the largest in the UK. Liam passed exams with the Institution of Fire Engineers and by 1935, he was Station Officer at the busy Albion Street Fire Station in Birmingham.

He did not forget his roots and he and his wife, Winifred, were enthusiastic members of several Irish societies, including the Gaelic League, and were also described as “staunch friends to Irishmen imprisoned near Birmingham during the Anglo-Irish war”.

One day, Liam’s friend, Dr Denis A. Murphy, remarked that he had seen a newspaper ad for the position of principal officer of Cork Fire Brigade. He applied, was interviewed by the Local Appointments’ Commission, and got the job, taking charge of the brigade in September, 1935, under the new title of Chief Officer.

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The men soon came to respect their new chief, regarding him as having the three qualities on which any senior fire officer needed to rely: expert firemanship, unquestioned courage, and solicitousness towards their welfare.

Since the end of the Civil War 12 years earlier, there had been swingeing cuts across all public services and the fire service was not immune. As each principal officer before him had done, Chief Officer Monaghan brought to Cork Fire Brigade his own particular set of attributes.

Many of his recommendations for improving the service were allowed, especially when they did not involve ‘serious’ money. But others, such as extra permanent staff, provision of a turntable ladder, and a new station — all of which he deemed essential — were refused.

The reluctance of the city to release funds for these would take centre stage in a major controversy which put the blame for most of the brigade’s shortcomings unjustly on the albeit broad shoulders of Liam Monaghan.

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Alexander Grant and Co was regarded as an upmarket department store.

Its main footprint was on Patrick Street, where it occupied 52-54, but it also had an impressive four-storey frontage at 16-18 Grand Parade. The latter buildings housed the furniture and flooring departments, fancy goods, carpets, linoleum, beds, bedding, upholstery, and also the men’s and boys’ departments — all highly flammable materials.

Grant’s, which had the motto ‘The House with a Reputation’, had had the dubious distinction of being the first city centre business to be torched on the night of the ‘Burning of Cork’ in December, 1920. Now, in 1942, it was again about to take centre-stage in arguably the most controversial fire ever fought by Cork Fire Brigade.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, 1942, the last job for Grant’s staff before vacating the premises for their weekly half-holiday was to pull down the large navy-blue roller blinds to protect the window displays from the fading effect of sunlight: a custom widely in vogue at the time. Passers-by on the Grand Parade would now be oblivious to anything untoward happening within.

Over on Patrick Street, a similar routine was enacted, but here, several electricians and workmen were admitted to the premises to carry out essential maintenance in the otherwise deserted store.

Shortly before 5pm, one of the workers in Patrick Street became aware of a burning smell and crackling noise, and, on investigating, discovered a wall of fire advancing towards them via a passageway which connected the premises with the Grand Parade site.

Unable to do anything, they tried to close the fire doors and quickly made their way out onto the street. The first call to the fire brigade was logged at 5.03pm. Within two minutes, the first section from Sullivan’s Quay Fire Station, led by District Officer John McInerney, was on the scene, followed within seconds by a unit from Grattan Street station under Station Officer John F. Crowley.

As the firefighters brought their equipment to the hydrants and ran water supplies into the pumps, all — with many years of operational service between them — complained about one thing: the poor delivery from the mains.

In view of this, Station Officer Crowley took his pump to the junction of Grand Parade and South Mall and ‘made down’ to the river.

A new difficulty now manifested itself. Despite a large Garda presence, numbers of untrained, albeit well-meaning, civilians on their way home at rush-hour hampered the work of the small, hard-pressed corps of firefighters by generally getting in the way and mishandling the fire equipment.

Fireman Michael O’Mahony, operating the engine at the river, could not believe the cavalcade of vehicles that was allowed to pass within feet of his pump and drive over the hose. Well-known solicitor (and later, Lord Mayor) Gerald Goldberg, a member of the voluntary Auxiliary Fire Service corroborated the fireman’s evidence. He saw civilians “attempting to run out lengths of hose the wrong way”, while Fireman O’Mahony, he said, “was beset on all sides by civilians and small boys”.

Burning embers were carried on the wind, resulting in dozens of minor injuries amongst the watching public. The huge volume of smoke given off by the conflagration was choking, while the heat from the fire was terrific even 40 metres away.

As the eight firemen with their two fire engines doggedly tried to make an impression on the huge conflagration, into the maelstrom of smoke and heat, confusion, shouted orders, throbbing pumps and fractious civilian ‘helpers’, walked Cork’s first citizen, 66-year old Lord Mayor, Cllr John Horgan. He was not impressed by what he saw.

“I looked on,” he said, “for about five minutes and then felt so ashamed, that the people would be imagining that we had something to do with the brigade, that I went away.”

However, if the Lord Mayor had waited another half-hour or so, he would have seen a marked improvement in the firefighting effort, for around this time, officials of the Water Department arrived on the scene and began to manipulate the complicated network of valves in and around the city centre.

By 6pm, Chief Officer Monaghan considered that the fire was effectively under control; a remarkable achievement given the meagre resources at his disposal. The arrival of three auxiliary trailer-pumps and their crews gave the permanent firemen a welcome respite, the troops from Collins Barracks — who had been called out to control the crowds — returned to quarters, and the brigade, now with copious quantities of water available, began the long, drawn-out post-fire operation that would keep them on-site for several days.

Grant’s Grand Parade branch was a write-off, with flanking buildings also affected to a greater or lesser extent.

Cork, according to Seán O Faoláin, is a city of experts, and in the aftermath of the blaze the city was bursting at the seams with ‘fire experts’. If only they were in charge! Sadly, some had the ear of the First Citizen and now he was at City Manager Philip Monahan’s door, looking for answers. Amid claim and counter-claim, the council held a special meeting to consider reports from the officials concerned with the extinguishing of the fire.

Lord Mayor Horgan had asked the City Manager to ensure a verbatim record was made of the proceedings. When it transpired that this was not done, the annoyed elected representatives called on the government to establish a Public Sworn Inquiry.

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The Inquiry, conducted by William Ian Bloomer, Assistant Chief Engineering Adviser to the government, opened at Cork City Hall on May 12, 1942. All parties were represented by a phalanx of lawyers, including John A. Costello, SC — destined a few years later to be Taoiseach — who appeared for the corporation.

Two military officers, Colonel O’Sullivan and Commandant Blake, from the Military Directorate of Civil Defence, watched proceedings on behalf of the Department of Defence.

In the course of the three-day inquiry, testimony was heard from members of the fire brigade, including the Chief Officer, who outlined his constant battle for extra resources since taking office in 1935. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 had exacerbated the problem, with the availability of spares and parts for the ageing fleet a major headache.

On the day of the fire, only two of the brigade’s four fire engines were operational. The others needed parts, which, despite Monaghan’s best efforts, could not be sourced in Ireland.

To prove his contention, the very day before Grant’s fire, the fire service had taken delivery of a new Fordson fire engine with a pump capable of delivering 900 gallons of water a minute. However, it came minus the suction hose required to make it a fully-functioning unit. The hose was eventually delivered in July 1945, more than three years later.

The officials of the Water Department and the City Engineer were also called as witnesses. City Engineer Stephen Farrington opined that “civilian interference was a more likely cause of the hydrants not functioning than any inefficiency on the part of the fire brigade”.

“Considering the difficulties and the small staff,” he added, “the fire brigade did a very good job in putting the fire out and having it under control by 7pm”.

Station Officer John Crowley spoke for all his comrades when he pronounced: “I am not a water expert, but I was not getting sufficient water from the mains to the pump.”

Two days into the inquiry, Cork was beset by another major blaze, this time on Mulgrave Road, not far from the North Infirmary (now the Maldron Hotel). At 2am, four business premises were blazing. The two army officers, Col O’Sullivan and Comdt Blake, upon hearing the news, immediately dressed and proceeded to the fire where they watched the operations of the brigade, quietly making notes.

During the fire, the front wall of the building was blown clean across the road by the force of an explosion heard across the city, injuring Station Officer Crowley and Firemen Pat Hayes, Dick Carr and Billy Ring. Despite that, the Cork Examiner reported that little more than half an hour after receiving the call, the brigade, under Monaghan, had the fire under control.

The next day, the two army officers — both qualified engineers — were called to the witness box. Hours earlier,, they had closely monitored the same firefighters, under the same officers, using the same appliances and equipment, and employing similar tactics and standard operating procedures as had been used on the Grand Parade — and neither men could fault them.

The difference was that at Mulgrave Road the firemen had ample quantities of water and, as it was the early hours, not rush-hour, were not beset by hordes of people and traffic.

When the inquiry’s report was submitted to the new Lord Mayor, Alderman Dick Anthony, ten months later, all reference to the military officers’ laudatory evidence was omitted.

It was highly critical of Chief Officer Monaghan and his brigade, and the City Manager. It ruled that, despite the evidence of the fire staff and others to the contrary, “an ample water supply at a sufficient pressure was available at the time in the mains” and the brigade failed to make proper use of this “ample supply”.

Consequently, the report concluded, the fire engines’ efficiency was greatly impaired.

Among 11 hard-hitting conclusions, it recommended the fire brigade be reorganised “under a new and experienced” officer and the chief be retained in a subordinate rank. The staff should be increased — it was: but with the introduction of a two-shift system the on-duty availability remained practically the same; a turntable-ladder should be procured (which was commissioned some 30 years later, in 1972!); and a new Central Fire Station should be built (which finally opened in 1975). Monaghan had pressed for all these things, with no success.

Lord Mayor Dick Anthony, with remarkable candour, declared: “If the fire chief had asked for the extra equipment now mentioned six months before this fire, he would have been told it could not be done. But now, because of the fire on the Grand Parade, everything will be done.”

Monaghan was not the guilty party, rather it was the system that denied him the staff and materiel to carry out his mandate effectively.

In short, the dire lack of investment, over many years, was the real transgressor.

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Grant and Co took the episode on the chin. The building was fully insured — for £23,000 — and Sir Stanley Harrington, Chairman of its Board, reported soon after that the company had had “a very successful trading year”.

Liam Monaghan never accepted the findings of the inquiry that impugned his good name and saw him demoted to Deputy Chief Officer. He spent years trying to get the conclusions revisited, even engaging the services of the famous barrister Seán MacBride, SC. But the city, the lawyers, and the fire service moved on. The cause of the fire was never established.

In February, 1947, Monaghan severed his links with the fire brigade,becoming the city’s Superintendent of Public Lighting. He died in 1961.