On a freezing night in 1827, the iconic Blackrock Castle went up in smoke. PAT POLAND recalls the inferno, and the 190th anniversary of its grand reopening
Old Blackrock Castle, with majestic height
Salutes by day, and guides our boat by night.
SO wrote local poet and lawyer Henry Bennett, alluding to the lantern on the castle that served as a beacon of comfort to the fishermen abroad on Lough Mahon in the darkness of night.
Shortly after he penned those lines, however, it wasn’t the beam from the lighthouse that lit up the surrounding area, but the castle itself.
For early on the morning of Tuesday, February 27, 1827, Blackrock Castle burned to the ground in a spectacular blaze.
Although formal records do not begin until about the middle of the 16th century, there are indications that a fortification of one type or another has stood on the tiny promontory jutting out into Cork Harbour since Anglo-Norman times.
Over the years, the little ‘castle’ was further developed and strengthened to discourage potential enemies, and during the reign of King James I — son of Mary, Queen of Scots — when the threat of a Spanish invasion had long receded, ownership of the building reverted to the corporation, who imposed, it must be imagined, an unwelcome tax on local fishermen to pay towards its maintenance.
During the night, the beacon on the tower was kept fuelled by turf as a lighthouse for shipping. This probably contributed to an accidental fire which seriously damaged the building in 1720.
Following its reconstruction, Blackrock Castle became the main venue for the corporation when entertaining ‘High Society’ where (British) success in distant battles with unpronounceable names was toasted, and every royal birth/birthday/engagement/wedding/ coronation/death, or any other half-baked excuse for a good old-fashioned knees-up, was celebrated in lavish style — at the city’s expense, needless to say.
A typical example of these ‘convivial gatherings’ was the ceremony of ‘Throwing the Dart’. This tradition, which stretched back to 1452, involved the Mayor of Cork, in his capacity as Admiral of the Port, accompanied by innumerable hangers-on, throwing a 4ft long inscribed ‘Dart’ out over the waters from a vessel, indicating the city’s jurisdiction over the harbour.
A right old shindig was sure to follow.
During just one such ‘bash’ at the castle on the windy and bitterly cold night of Tuesday, February 27, 1827, with the great and the good of Cork living it up in the ground-floor chambers, nobody heard the large slate dislodging up on the cupola roof and crashing through the glass lantern onto the burning lamp.
Soon, a fire was raging, undetected, in the lantern room.
Blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding above their heads, it was only when a passer-by came knocking loudly on the great front door that the alarm was raised.
The cry went up: a messenger on horseback must be sent, with all dispatch, to the city to fetch the fire engines.
But one man among the crowd now thronging the front lawn, watching the fire take hold, knew that such a journey was a waste of time.
Sheriff Robert Evory was second only in line to the Mayor in the City Establishment. However, in his business life he was the ‘Agent’, or CEO, of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation, whose office was on South Mall.
In 1827, no public fire brigade existed in Cork (nor would for another 50 years). Firefighting was left to the Church of Ireland, with its invariably decrepit, ‘parish pumps’, and three insurance companies — the Royal Exchange, the Atlas, and the West of England, which operated private fire brigades.
Sheriff Evory, therefore, may be loosely described as one of three ‘fire officers’ in the city; the others being Sir Anthony Perrier (Atlas) and Thomas Harvey (West of England). As the Royal Exchange was the oldest-established brigade (1799), Evory was probably regarded as the ‘senior officer’ of the three.
Evory knew that the fire engines depended on a supply from two sources, either (a) from street hydrants (then called ‘fire plugs’) or (b) an open source such as a river or lake.
But the fire plugs did not extend beyond the immediate city centre, and now, glancing over the wall into the water, he realised at once that the alternative source was also, on this night, unavailable for a very simple reason.
The River Lee was frozen over.
Evory had a quiet word with the horseman who was about to make the journey into the city to raise the alarm. There was nothing for it. The castle would have to be allowed to burn down.
The Royal Exchange was the first insurance company to locate in Ireland. In 1722, it opened an office in Dublin, but 77 years would elapse before it moved south.
By the 1820s, the company was well established in Cork, having a dedicated fire station at 5, South Mall, complete with fire engines and firefighters dressed in green uniforms, silk top hats, white stockings, and black patent buckled shoes: just the perfect gear for fighting fires!
An advertisement of the time states that their appliances were ‘very capital ENGINES’ and were of the largest size, ‘the first ever seen in this Kingdom’.
The horse-drawn engines were provided with springs, brakes, spoked wheels and a driver’s seat. The firemen sat along either side. Along either side were long pumping levers, hinged at either end so they could be folded back when in transit.
Engines were produced in a variety of sizes, ranging from those worked by 12 men up to the largest, which required 40 pumpers: 20 at work and 20 at rest.
At a fire, as the insurance firemen tackled the blaze, the pumpers were recruited from the crowd and only the strongest men were selected for it was back-breaking work. In return for their services, each was provided with a metal disc called a ‘ticket’ which, on being handed in at the insurance office, ensured payment of the order of one shilling or one shilling and sixpence.
As a further inducement to people to volunteer their services, it was the custom to provide a beer ration which was consumed during the rest period. As they worked the levers up and down, the pumpers chanted ‘Beer, oh! Beer, oh!’, in anticipation of the treat to come.
If word got round that the beer supply was running out, the chant might turn to ‘No beer? No water’! and they would ‘down tools’.
For all that, it was vitally important that the pumpers did not get drunk and Evory and his engineer would keep a close eye on proceedings. Steadiness of pumping was all-important as drunken men could damage the valves or pistons on the fire engine. Forty strokes on the levers per minute was regarded as optimum, and the larger engines could deliver some 775 litres (170 gallons) of water per minute, throwing the jet to about 36 metres (120ft).
Now, early on that fateful morning in 1827, all of this was quite academic. Sheriff Evory, and what was left of the guests (most of whom, it is probably safe to say, had left for home rather than stand around in the freezing rain which had now begun to fall) could only look on helplessly as Blackrock Castle was consumed by the flames before their eyes.
It wasn’t the lack of beer that would inhibit any firefighting effort on this night, but the lack of water.
The Freeman’s Journal reported: “About half-past two o’clock, Blackrock Castle was observed to be on fire, and in a few minutes presented a very imposing sight. The waters were illuminated, and the surrounding hills completely lit, presenting more the appearance of noon-day than of a dark night.
“Immediately after the cupola blazed with the greatest splendour, the heavy leads caught fire and sent to the river a liquid body of burning lead, the concussion between the red-hot lead and water sending forth a crash resembling the noise of artillery; the rain which fell about the time on the burning lead roof, yielding a noise like the fire of musketry.
“The whole presented a grand and awful sight, and continued burning with unabated fury for upwards of three hours.
“The roof has completely disappeared, and the timbers in the wall were burning this morning at seven o’clock. Fortunately, the inmates escaped unhurt.
“Had the wind been in another direction, the surrounding houses would probably have been destroyed.
“The fire is supposed to have been caused by a slate having broken the glass of the river light which is kept on Blackrock Castle for the use of ships, and the fire caught the roof.”
Ten months later, on December 14, 1827, Cork Corporation voted a sum of £800, and the Harbour Commissioners £200, for the rebuilding of Blackrock Castle.
The architect brothers James and George Richard Pain, who were responsible for other iconic public works in Cork, were awarded the contract for the design. They added three additional storeys to the original tower and rebuilt the out-buildings. The neo-Gothic complex of buildings one sees around the courtyard today is essentially as it first appeared more than 190 years ago.
In the intervening years, the castle has been a private residence, occupied by a motor boat club, and served as the location for several restaurants.
In 2001, the building was bought by Cork City Council and developed under a joint venture with Cork Institute of Technology.
Today, CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory is a popular tourist destination, replete with exciting interactive exhibits, including the ‘Planetarium’ and the award-winning ‘Cosmos at the Castle’, which highlights recent discoveries of extreme life-forms on Earth and their implications for life in Outer Space.
During 2019, the castle will lead Ireland’s celebration of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) centenary with an exciting series of events.
Blackrock Castle was handed over to Cork Corporation on March 3, 1829 — 190 years ago next week. A plaque on the front wall commemorates the event.
The name of Robert Evory, Cork’s de facto ‘Fire Chief’ on the night it burned down, also appears on it.
Pat Poland is author of the recently-published The Old Brigade: The Rebel City’s Firefighting Story 1900-1950.