The era when Cork fire brigade ran an ambulance service

Today, the sight of the ‘lemon-and-lime’ vehicles of the national ambulance service en route to a medical emergency is commonplace. A generation of Corkonians has grown up who do not remember when city ambulances were red. On the 40th anniversary of its stand-down, PAT POLAND reflects on the origins of the Cork Fire Brigade Ambulance Department.
The era when Cork fire brigade ran an ambulance service

ON CALL: Cork Fire Brigade’s first horsed ambulance at the South Infirmary in 1902

THE word ‘ambulance’ was coined during the Napoleonic Wars, when French Army surgeon Baron Jean Dominique Larrey introduced what he called ambulances volantes — ‘flying ambulances’ — on the battlefield.

Sixty-odd years later, his methods were embraced by a corps known as the Ambulance Irlandais, an Irish field unit comprising 31 surgeons and 250 men, who volunteered for service with France in its war with Prussia.

They fought under under Marshal MacMahon, whose family hailed from Limerick and who later became President of France, and organised themselves into five companies, bringing with them five ‘ambulance wagons’ made in Dublin.

However, as late as the 1890s, no ambulance service existed in Ireland. Accidents and cases of sudden illness were usually dealt with by the Royal Irish Constabulary, who would stop the first passing horse-drawn vehicle — which might be carrying anything from putrid offal to wet bags of coal — to take a casualty to hospital.

The RIC had no special first aid training, their only function being to persuade the carter to go out of his way to take the patient.

In 1892, Belfast received the gift of a ‘horse-drawn ambulance carriage’ from a benefactor and the authorities decided it should be operated by Belfast Fire Brigade.

Although fire brigade ambulance services were commonplace in Britain, Europe, and the U.S (in the latter two, it is still the case) it was the start of a fire brigade involvement with the ambulance service in Ireland which would see vehicles operated by Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Dún Laoghaire, Pembroke, and Rathmines and Rathgar Fire Brigades.

Pat Poland, the author of this article, as a seven-year-old in 1953, being treated by ambulance crew Firemen Dave O’Brien and Jim O’Hara in a demonstration.
Pat Poland, the author of this article, as a seven-year-old in 1953, being treated by ambulance crew Firemen Dave O’Brien and Jim O’Hara in a demonstration.


In 1893, Cork fire chief, Captain Hutson, had persuaded the city council to purchase two ‘ambulances’ as used by the St John Ambulance Association. Also known as ‘gurneys’ or ‘litters’, these were regarded as ‘state of the art’ but were little more than covered stretchers fitted with a single axle and pneumatic tyres to give them a degree of mobility.

Costing two guineas (£2.2s.0d) each, they were housed at the Central Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay and the Fireman’s Rest on Grand Parade. In addition, ‘ambulance stretchers’ (the basic canvas pole ones often seen on World War I newsreels) were supplied to police stations at Tuckey Street, Shandon Street, Blackpool, Bridewell, King Street (MacCurtain Street), Great George’s Street (Washington Street), as well as the Central Fire Station.

In 1901, Hutson exhorted the council to establish an ambulance service because “there was a general desire in the city that a horse ambulance should be kept at the fire station, as is the case in many large cities and towns”.

With the backing of the Public Health Committee, a special space to house the new ambulance was constructed in the yard of the Central Fire Station and the horsed ambulance became operational on Friday, October 17, 1902.

From then, Cork Fire Brigade Ambulance Service provided the accident service for the city (and a large part of the county) until, in April 1979, its functions devolved to the Southern Health Board Ambulance Service (now the HSE National Ambulance Service).


Captain Hutson may have reported a “general desire in the city” for an ambulance service, but the statistics appear to suggest otherwise. Typically, in its first year of operation, only two or three calls a week were received, in spite of numerous accidents being recorded.

The citizens of Cork, it seems, were wary of this new contraption in their midst. From time immemorial they had managed without it, utilising all means at their disposal — horses, ponies and traps, coaches, even sedan chairs — to get to hospital; and the stigma attached to the litters and carts that brought half-dead unfortunates to the gates of the Fever Hospital and Workhouse in the desperate Famine years still loomed large in the public consciousness.

This stigma was not confined to Cork. The Cork Examiner, reporting on the Ambulance Service in New York, described how “the noisy gong of the hospital wagon warns everyone to ‘clear the track’. It is a nuisance to drivers and promenaders. One rarely sees a well-dressed occupant being carried to a hospital by ambulance… many people stricken ill betray a dread and distrust of the ambulance”.

When a poor woman was knocked down by the fire brigade ambulance on Douglas Street in Cork and died at the South Infirmary, it can have done little to dispel the public’s distrust.

But as the years passed, the ambulance gradually became to be accepted and appreciated. The Fire Brigade Annual Report on March 25, 1914, revealed that the number of calls had increased, year on year, to 432.

Unlike Dublin Fire Brigade, whose numbers could afford to have three members on an ambulance (one driver and two attendants), in the early years of the Cork service the paucity of staff meant that usually the driver alone accompanied the ambulance to the scene.

The Brigade ambulances before the service was stood down, with, from left, Firemen John Lynch, Jerry Aherne, Gerry O’Toole, John Barry, Fred Leonard, and Tom Croghan.
The Brigade ambulances before the service was stood down, with, from left, Firemen John Lynch, Jerry Aherne, Gerry O’Toole, John Barry, Fred Leonard, and Tom Croghan.

The lone fireman, having received basic training from Dr D’Alton, the brigade surgeon, would do his best to minister to the patient on arrival. A policeman, or preferably someone with medical training, would then travel to the nearest hospital with the casualty.

At times of high emergency activity, the fire chief was empowered to hire extra horses. Usually, this was no problem. Messrs Richard Cronin and Sons, funeral undertakers, on Sullivan’s Quay, or Edward Cantillon at Marina Terrace, were often ready to oblige, the going rate per horse being of the order of 10s 6d for city work, two guineas (£2.2s.0d) for county jobs.

But when an excursion train from Killarney to Dublin carrying 200 passengers, derailed at high speed at Lombardstown, Co. Cork, on the evening of August 5, 1912 — a Bank Holiday — resulting in a fatality and 96 injured, the fire chief found there wasn’t a spare horse available in the whole of Cork city. Having dispatched the two brigade ambulances to the Glanmire Road rail terminus to meet the injured, it left them with just one horse to cover anything else; being a holiday, all available horses were out on hire pulling wagonettes and similar vehicles on excursions.

After the Lombardstown accident, a fourth horse was acquired. The brigade commissioned its first motor ambulance 100 years ago, in 1919.


Providing an ambulance service during the War of Independence and Civil War often called for courage of the highest order. On occasion, units were caught in cross-fire between Crown forces and the IRA, and later, between the National Army and the Anti-Treaty forces.

Six firefighters were treated in hospital for gunshot wounds, but luckily none of the bullets hit vital organs. Ambulances, which were allowed to operate during curfew hours, were frequently stopped on pitch-dark streets by nervous, trigger-happy young squaddies, who then usually waved them on. The ‘patients’ lying ‘unconscious’ in the back, however, weren’t always what they appeared to be; IRA volunteers, caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the city, were regularly facilitated by the firemen in getting back to their own lines.

In the Civil War, fire brigade ambulances were commandeered by both sides. During heavy fighting, they were requisitioned by the Anti-Treaty IRA, travelling into Limerick and Tipperary to collect casualties and convey them back to Cork city hospitals.

On August 31, 1922, the National Army commandeered the Brigade’s latest Buick ambulance and some weeks later returned it in a wrecked condition. After an official complaint, the Provisional Government replaced it with a new ambulance made by O’Gorman’s of Clonmel. The Buick was auctioned off for £15.10s.0d, the proceeds being given to the local Red Cross.


In 1934, a branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade was formed in Cork and, for the next 33 years, all fire brigade members were trained in first-aid and CPR techniques at St John’s Headquarters on MacCurtain Street.

Until health authorities, and later health boards, were established with their own dedicated services, Cork Fire Brigade ambulances, on an almost daily basis, were tasked to places as diverse as Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. On one occasion, in 1931, one responded as far away as Newcastle, Co. Wicklow: A round trip of 580km.

In 1966, the National Ambulance Training Board was established with its Training School at Ratra House in Phoenix Park. Henceforth, all ambulance personnel, including members of Cork, Dublin, Dún Laoghaire, and Limerick Fire Brigades, were required to complete the ‘long’ residential course here, with extra modules in participating Dublin hospitals. The first course commenced on April 24, 1967.

In the intervening years, the ambulance service nationally has evolved into a dynamic and competent group of medical professionals. Of the original eight fire brigades that operated an ambulance service, only Dublin Fire Brigade, established in 1899, continues in that role, and all its members are now qualified paramedics. They train at Dublin Fire Brigade Training Centre at Marino and at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Institute. Their Cork City Fire Brigade colleagues are all PHECC qualified Emergency First Responders, and can provide initial life-saving interventions.

Almost 40 years ago, on Saturday morning, April 14, 1979, the control room at the Central Fire Station on Anglesea Street logged its last ambulance call, having been tasked to 16 emergencies during the tour of duty.

The next ‘999’ call was transferred to the Southern Health Board Ambulance Control Centre at Cork Regional Hospital, now CUH. This quietly, without fuss or ceremony, brought the curtain down on more than three-quarters of a century of proud service and unselfish commitment to the citizens by the Cork Fire Brigade Ambulance Department.

Pat Poland is the author of The Old Brigade: The Rebel City’s Firefighting Story 1900-1950, published recently

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