Cork’s fire hero... and a blazing row over a flag

Captain Alfred Hutson was labelled a hero for his work as Cork’s fire chief during the Burning of Cork, but PAT POLAND recalls how, earlier in his career, he almost lost his job when some City Fathers and members of the public took umbrage over a flag
Cork’s fire hero... and a blazing row over a flag

A wreath laying ceremony at the National Monument on Grand Parade in 2013. The old Cork fire station where the offensive flag flew is the red building on the right. 

IN the summer of 1896, a great ‘International Fire Congress and Exhibition’ was held in London. It hosted delegates from all over the world, including a party of fire officers from Canada and the United States, who travelled together as a group.

After the event ended, the North Americans decided to stay on a while and embark on a whistle-stop, fact-finding, visit to the principal fire brigades in England, France and Ireland.

And that is how they came to arrive in Cork on July 4 — U.S Independence Day — in 1896, as guests of Captain Alfred J. Hutson at the Central Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay.

Their visit, indirectly, almost scuppered Hutson’s career as Superintendent of Cork Fire Brigade.

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Following visits to London and other English brigades (with which, by and large, they were singularly unimpressed), the North Americans went to Paris for a few days. The French were far too militaristic for their liking (the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers was — and still is, since Napoleon Bonaparte’s time — an integral part of the French Army), and they quickly hurried off on the next leg of their tour, in Cork.

The group leader, Chief E. S. Hosmer of Lowell, Massachusetts, recounted their European experiences to the Massachusetts’s Firemen’s Association at its annual convention the following September. His remarks provide an interesting perspective on how an outsider viewed the state of Cork Fire Brigade at the end of the 19th century:

“At Cork we were heartily received by Chief Hutson, and in the afternoon he gave us a pleasant ride on one of those back-breaking instruments of torture called a jaunting car. We visited the Blarney Stone where it cost us a shilling to go on top and kiss the Stone, and another shilling to get down again. Sunday afternoon the Chief took us out to the Park, where we saw a hurling match, and in the evening we took another enjoyable ride in the suburbs.

“On Monday morning the Mayor, Sir John Scott, invited us to remain and partake of a banquet in the evening, which he desired to give in our honour, an invitation which we were reluctantly obliged to decline for lack of time. We had our photograph taken with the Mayor at the Chief’s headquarters.

“The Brigade here is not very large, which the Chief accounted for by saying they do not have many fires, and a large force is not necessary. He has a few permanent men, the remainder being Corporation employees. The apparatus at headquarters consists of one horse, one two-wheel hose reel, one two-wheel hose cart drawn by hand, one manual fire engine and one fire escape. There are two manned escape stations on the streets, the same as in London. They have no steam engine, the Chief stating that the water pressure is sufficient to cover everything, and they don’t need one. The alarm system is by telephone, and very little of that. There are small standpipes and hydrants the same as in London.

Captain Alfred J Hutson, who was embroiled in a nationalist row in 1898, more than two decades before he bravely led his brigade during the Burning of Cork
Captain Alfred J Hutson, who was embroiled in a nationalist row in 1898, more than two decades before he bravely led his brigade during the Burning of Cork

“That night we stayed in Glengarriff, the next night in Killarney, and from there we went to Dublin where we received a royal welcome from Chief Purcell. I hope I have given you a fair idea of what they have in the Old Country, so far as our observations extended. But as an American, I cannot refrain from saying in conclusion that the idea I have heretofore entertained, inspired possibly by a spirit of patriotism, has been solidified into a conviction by my observation abroad — and that is, that this hustling, bustling progressive Yankee nation of ours has, and will always have, the most complete and efficient system of firefighting on the face of the earth.”

The party from North America was shocked at the smallness of the Irish and British fire brigades, the size of the water mains, the inadequacy of the telephone system, and, overall, at ‘so meagre and inadequate a fire service’. Wheeled fire escapes were unknown in Canada and the U.S, and they were highly critical of a system whereby these heavy ladders had to be manhandled through city streets, which they considered archaic and unnecessary in the light of new technology. American rescue ladders were mounted on mobile apparatus which, of course, were considerably faster in arriving on a fire ground.

The visitors’ sojourn in Cork had been a pleasant diversion, for a few days at least, for Hutson and his staff. In every way he regarded it as an unqualified success.

As they departed, various small ‘keepsakes’ were exchanged between host and guests, including, apparently, the gift of a flag from the Canadians. Hutson folded it carefully and placed it in a drawer with some other knick-knacks, and promptly forgot all about it.

The subsequent fall-out from this seemingly innocuous present propelled him into the limelight of controversy, and very nearly cost him his job.

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Two years later, in 1898, a committee was established in Cork to explore ways and means of ensuring that the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion would not pass unnoticed.

It was decided that a monument — later to be known as the National Monument — should be erected, which would also serve to commemorate the subsequent risings of 1803, 1848 and 1867. A site was selected near the river’s edge on Grand Parade, close to where the equestrian statue of King George II once kept its lonely vigil. The committee made its plans and fund-raising began.

A great fanfare in connection with the laying of the foundation stone was planned for Sunday, October 2, 1898, and Capt. Hutson was approached by the Centenary Committee with a view to the fire brigade assisting in the erection of decorations on the Grand Parade. Hutson readily agreed, releasing fire escapes and men for the purpose, and the firemen enthusiastically threw themselves into the work.

The foundation stone for the Monument in 1900
The foundation stone for the Monument in 1900

At the Berwick Fountain, two fire escapes were placed so as to form an arch of banners and streamers. The chief was also notified by the Mayor, Patrick Hagin Meade, that the brigade should be officially represented at the ceremony.

On the Sunday morning, as thousands began to throng the Grand Parade (sniffed the anti-nationalist Cork Constitution, ‘Nationalist demonstrations have become such a rarity in the South of Ireland that yesterday’s function in the city must have been heartily welcomed by the publicans’), some of the firemen thought it a shame that the fire station — situated directly across the river from the monument site — looked so bare, and suggested to the chief that it, too, should be bedecked with flags and bunting.

Hutson consented, ‘provided they had any to spare’, and then he remembered The Flag.

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The fire chief later said that he had been told on good authority that the flag had connotations with Brian Boru and the ancient tribes and clans of Ireland and he thought it was, therefore, a most suitable banner to display on the day that was in it. Many thought it was some sort of Canadian flag: to others, it looked suspiciously like the Royal Standard. There were dark whisperings that, looked at in a certain light, it even resembled the Union Flag.

Nobody had a clue what it was, but, whatever it was, as it fluttered cheekily from the fire station in the soft south-westerly zephyr, the general consensus on the Grand Parade was that the English-born head of Cork Fire Brigade was giving the proverbial ‘two fingers’ to the great throng of Nationalists assembled across the river on this, above all, their special day

It was like the proverbial red rag to a bull.

Fuming, members of the organising committee marched off in high dudgeon to confront the Mayor, who quickly sent flunkies scurrying over the South Gate Bridge to have the offending banner removed: and they wanted Alfred Hutson’s head on a plate.

Despite a full statement from the bewildered chief that no offence was intended, and if, inadvertently, the flying of the flag had offended anyone, he apologised profusely, the debacle dragged on at both meetings of the full City Council and the Waterworks and Fire Brigade Committee for more than two months, occupying numerous column inches in the newspapers.

The Council received a memorial signed by 25 concerned ‘Citizens and Ratepayers’ referring to ‘the action of Captain Hutson in hoisting a British standard on the day of laying the foundation stone of a monument to the national heroes... and in the name of the people of Cork we demand an apology’.

In the event of the chief refusing to apologise, they requested ‘an alternative course be adopted’.

Stormed Councillor Barry: “No official of the Corporation should dare presume to flaunt a rag that is disagreeable to his fellow-men. We have a sense of our own, and we can understand what is offensive and what is not, and the sooner this gentleman, or any other gentleman who comes here from another country and takes upon himself to be offensive to the citizens... the sooner he is brought to his facings, the better for himself. If I thought I would have any support, I would certainly move Captain Hutson’s discharge.”

Councillor O’Shaughnessy said he had “read the history of Ireland, in fact he had three works on it at home, and he never heard a word about Brian Boru’s Castle ’til a gentleman from Brighton came over to teach him. They could not expect any national feeling from Captain Hutson.”

The Mayor and others spoke in Hutson’s defence. Councillor Scully said he ‘knew Captain Hutson since he came to Cork, and he believed he would cut off his right hand before giving offence to anybody’.

But some seemed bent on humiliating the fire chief in public, relishing the developing schadenfreude.

The Mayor — addressing Capt. Hutson, who has yet again been summoned before the Council — said: ‘You explained to me that your action was due to pure inadvertence; that it was not your intention to give pain or offence to any of your fellow citizens, and that if you hung out any flag or emblem that was displeasing to them you are sorry for it. Is that what you say?’

Captain Hutson: “Yes, sir.”

Alderman Edward Fitzgerald: “I object! He said that in a whisper!”

Councillor J. Banks: “What nonsense!”

The Mayor: “Say it loud, Captain.”

Captain Hutson, in a loud tone: “Yes, sir. I regret it!”

The Mayor: “That finishes it, and I hope, Captain Hutson, it will check your ardour in the future.”

For Alfred James Hutson, it had been a salutary lesson. As he left the council chamber, only the vein that pulsed in his forehead betrayed the storm in his heart. In future, he would keep his distance at all political demonstrations, irrespective of shade.

Ironically, the outpouring of invective against him was not matched with largesse in equal amounts for the monument project and it almost foundered through general apathy and lack of funds. The foundation stone lay on the Grand Parade, half-forgotten, the site derelict and weed-strewn.

In 1902, the project was resurrected under the aegis of the Cork Young Ireland Society, fund-raising recommenced in earnest, and a contract was signed with Ellis’s for £2,000. The 15 metre high monument, described as ‘Early Irish Gothic’, was designed by D. J. Coakley and executed by sculptor John Francis Davis, who carried on a sculpturing business at Sunset Terrace, College Road.

The central figure of Erin is flanked with statues of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Michael Dwyer, Thomas Davis and O’Neill Crowley. 

More than 40 names are etched on the monument, all of them men, bar one, Anne Devlin.

The National Monument was unveiled on St Patrick’s Day in 1906 by the famous Fenian and Rosscarbery native Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

The Grand Parade was thronged to capacity for the ceremony, with sections from all walks of life from the city and county marching in the huge procession.

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