All rise... and flee! Day the Cork courthouse burned down

125 years ago this month, on March 13, 1895, The Grand Jury of County Cork took possession of the new courthouse on Washington Street, four years after the old one burned down. Here, PAT POLAND remembers that devastating fire at Easter, 1891
All rise... and flee! Day the Cork courthouse burned down
A DRAMA UNFOLDS: A painting, 'The Fire At Cork Courthouse', by the artist Eugene McSwiney, who witnessed the blaze that day in 1891 while stood outside Dwyer and Co and lived in nearby Grattan Street

LEGAL sages will tell you that 1891 marked the only time a Cork court sat in judgement on a Good Friday. And just like the trial of Christ himself, it didn’t end well...

On that day, March 27, an inferno swept through the courthouse in Washington Street — holy smoke indeed!

For hundreds of years, the judicial centre of Cork had lain in that rectangular piece of real estate between St Augustine’s Street and Castle Street. As far back as the early 17th century, Courts of Justice were conducted in the King’s Castle there.

But, in 1831, the authorities decided the now decrepit building was no longer fit for use, and on July 1, a £16,000 contract for the erection of new premises on nearby Great George’s Street was awarded to architectural firm George R. Pain.

In the ensuing decades after the new courthouse opened, many Irish nationalists stood in its dock as judge after judge, robed in imperial red, harangued them for their disloyalty to the Crown.

It was fate that intervened and led to a special sitting of the Cork court that Easter in 1891.

In September, 1890, a special Crimes Court in Tipperary, set up to break Charles Stewart Parnell’s National League, had imposed jail terms on 11 men for conspiracy, including MPs William O’Brien and John Dillon.

Outside the court, there were chaotic scenes when followers of the accused tried to force their way into the packed building. Five men were arrested and the authorities decided to try them away from the feverish atmosphere, in Cork.

The trial took place in the run up to Holy Week, 1891, and was coming to an end by the fourth day, March 27. The court did not sit until 2pm because it was Good Friday, and shortly after 3pm, several people remarked that they thought they could smell burning wood, but they were ignored.

Later, as the first shadows of a late spring evening began to fall, the closing speeches for the prosecution and the defence were delivered and Mr Justice Monroe began his address to the jury.

A hush came over the thronged courtroom as his voice echoed across the chamber.

Then another, distinctive, sound was heard: the unmistakable crackle of burning timber.

The sub-sheriff whispered urgently in the judge’s ear and an uneasy murmur rippled through the court. Hesitatingly, deferentially, people began to rise from their seats to leave. “Sit down!” snapped the judge, “it is only a chimney fire!”

Then a frightened exclamation was heard, and all eyes focused on the circular glass ceiling where the supporting woodwork had suddenly burst into flames.

Only when the molten lead from the window frames fell into the room in hissing drops, did the stubborn judge authorise the sub-sheriff to announce: “This Court stands adjourned for half an hour. God save the Queen!’”

As he rose from the bench, Monroe glanced at his pocket-watch. It was 6.15pm. Four years would elapse before a court would again sit in the building.

******

As a member of court staff put through an urgent telephone call to the fire brigade, frantic efforts were made to save priceless records, including ancient dossiers on Cork city and county which had been transferred from the old courthouse. Sadly, their efforts only partially succeeded.

O’Brien and Dillon, who had attended the trial as witnesses for the defence, were ushered out of a side door onto Courthouse Street and, with a mounted police escort, conveyed in side-cars to the County Gaol on the Western Road.

The fire brigade, comprising just four permanent firemen and a small number of ‘auxiliaries’, promptly arrived under Superintendent Mark Wickham and went about the daunting task of bringing the blaze under control.

The Cork Examiner reported: “A hose was brought in through one of the windows at the Nile Street (now Grattan Street) end of Courthouse Street and was carried along the top of the gallery, and from a position over the door the firemen began to play on the flames, which at this time were vigorously breaking out at the top of the roof. The water was turned on but had very little effect. The supply of water was very weak. This was a distinct failure, the water not rising more than 20ft.”

The fire was making headway with tremendous velocity, and a north-westerly wind blew diagonally across the building, licking the flames along. The County Grand Jury room was a mass of flames, which burst through the windows, sweeping the conflagration inwards.

In the City Grand Jury room, a timber statue of William III — actually a statue of James II with the head supplanted by a loyalist corporation — burst into flames.

IMPRESSIVE: The Courthouse in Washington Street in 1956
IMPRESSIVE: The Courthouse in Washington Street in 1956

An urgent plea for assistance was relayed to Victoria Barracks and within the hour, 250 men from the Berkshire and Shropshire Regiments under Major General Davies were on the scene with their fire engine.

A ring of steel was thrown up around all approaches to the building, allowing the firefighting operation to proceed unimpeded by the throng of onlookers who had gathered from all points of the city to witness the late evening spectacle.

The inside of the building was now a cauldron of fire. When flames swept from the Grand Jury room to the staircase, it promptly gave way, and several firemen narrowly escaped death. The debris blocked their escape route through the corridor, and the hose had to be abandoned. A burning rafter also fell between two firemen, fortunately injuring neither.

The firemen managed to exit the doomed building and all efforts at suppression were now concentrated from outside. The water supply had improved, but even in the comparative safety of the street, it was perilous work.

By 7.30pm, the heat became so great that it began to tell on the limestone façade. The supports inside having been taken away, the weight of the stonework caused the cornice to give way and the enormous mass of stone fell with a tremendous crash into Courthouse Street, lying up to 20ft high.

The impact was terrific and several windows in the houses opposite were shattered.

The inferno was eventually subdued around midnight. In the immediate aftermath, there were inevitable dark mutterings about it being an act of nationalist arson, but it was blamed on something more mundane: the flue of the hot water furnace catching fire.

******

Although the fire brigade had failed to douse the fire, its standing was high among the press and public, and many agreed the firemen had tried everything to save the building and risked their lives in the process.

At a Cork Corporation meeting High Sheriff, Mr Pike, declared that he “wished to say that from beginning to end Cork Fire Brigade used every possible exertion under the circumstances. He would like if they got a better fire engine. The brigade men did their work splendidly, and showed the greatest pluck, but they had not a sufficient supply of water”.

Cllr Eugene Crean agreed, and remarked how, early in the evening, he had climbed onto the roof of the courthouse to gauge the extent of the fire. If an engine had been available the fire could have been cut off from the unaffected part, he said. (Sadly, the brigade’s only engine was a decrepit manually-operated one, built in 1858; a gift from an insurance company which had no further use for it).

But there were voices of dissent and the Town Clerk deplored the fact that fire chief Wickham “appeared to work as one of the men instead of superintending them”.

He failed to appreciate that a comparable blaze in Dublin would have warranted a full muster of its entire firefighting force and appliances, or, in London, a ‘District Call’ from the first-attending officer would have brought a response of up to eight steam engines and their crews.

In the Town Clerk’s eyes, one of Cork’s best-known buildings was now a grey smoking hulk on Great George’s Street.

A scapegoat was needed and Wickham, who had clashed with the Town Clerk in the past, was a marked man. Five months later, Wickham, who had been Cork’s fire chief since its brigade was founded in 1877, was demoted to Assistant Superintendent.

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