Sunday 25 February 2018

1875: when the streets of the Liberties ran with piping hot whiskey

It's the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, but Dublin had its own savage blaze

Spirited effort: The fire of 1875 blazes through Dublin's Liberties
Spirited effort: The fire of 1875 blazes through Dublin's Liberties

Damian Corless

This week 350 years ago, the Great Fire of London roared unchecked for three days and nights, razing large swathes of England's jerry-built capital to the ground. When the inferno of 1666 was finally extinguished, 13,500 rickety homes had been levelled, together with towering landmark buildings such as St Paul's Cathedral.

The numbers that perished are disputed, but tens of thousands were left homeless, while an orgy of looting injured the economy of Europe's fastest-growing city. When the smoke cleared, a memorial was erected to the dead and dispossessed. The inscription, erased after Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Movement won Catholic Emancipation in 1829, blamed arson born from the "treachery and malace of the Popish faction".

Less well known is Dublin's great fire of 1875, often dubbed the Liberties Whiskey Fire. The blaze left a deep scorchmark seared through the oldest part of the city, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the disaster is that of the 13 people who died, not one fell victim to the smoke or flames.

On a June evening that year, a bonfire ignited in the early Viking settlement of the Liberties, perched high above the Liffey skirting Christchurch Cathedral. A blaze at Malone's bonded warehouse burst open 1,800 large barrels of whiskey known as puncheons, and a lava-like torrent of flaming hot spirits cascaded onto the streets.

It was high summer and the surrounding dwellings were not built to withstand the onslaught of a substance with the destructive power of napalm. Thatched straw roofs were still commonplace, as were doors and interior walls made of flimsy inflammable wattle. As the flames began to lick the walls of one house on Chamber Street where the occupants were holding a wake, they had to flee with the corpse and gaze on helplessly as their earthly possessions went up in smoke.

The smoke turned thicker and blacker as the flames consumed a tannery full of leather hides, and the frenzy worsened as squealing pigs, spooked coach horses, goats and geese stampeeded through the narrow streets. The inner city of 1875 was crowded with livestock kept in filthy, undrained dairy-yards and laneways, many of the animals earmarked for dispatch in one of the many backstreet abbatoirs in the locality.

The flaming deluge seemed certain to hit both the Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite convent on Ormond Street, and when a kindly wind turned the tide away, the delighted nuns reportedly offered up thanks for a miracle.

A generation earlier, the capital had been badly burned in another great fire, but on that occasion the faithful of the Bethesda Chapel on Dorset Street may have felt a little forsaken by their God. The so-called Great Wind of 1839 had howled down chimneys at night, fanning and tossing about fireplace embers until the capital, in the words of the Dublin Evening Post, was "a sacked city".

Only hours before catastrophe struck, the Bethesda congregation had given thanks at Sunday service for their safe delivery from an outbreak of fire the previous day. Sadly, the fire they believed extinguished was seemingly fanned back to life by the gale, and that night a fresh blaze destroyed the chapel, along with its female penitentiary and orphanage. Fires caused by the same hurricane destroyed 71 buildings in Loughrea and 100 in Athlone.

In fact, for centuries before the advent of modern housing regulations, urban living in thatched houses with lots of timber carried a mighty risk that any small blaze could spread like wildfire. In 1785, the Co Offaly town of Tullamore was the scene of the world's first major air disaster when a manned balloon came down in flames. The tightly clustered streets went up domino fashion, destroying much of the town.

At the time of the 1875 fire, Dublin's fire brigade service was just 13 years old. The head of the Dublin Fire Department was returned emigrant James Ingram, who'd learned his fire-fighting skills in New York. Many of Ingram's early recruits were sailors well-drilled in the tightly coordinated on-deck manoeuvres that could be easily transferred to fighting a blaze.

Ingram's New York experience proved key to bringing the Liberties fire under control. He ordered the locals to stop throwing water on the flaming spirits, as that would only spread the blaze. Instead, he had his men load horse manure onto carts (there was no shortage close by in this horse-drawn age) and dump it in the path of the deadly flows. With the pouring inferno mopped and blocked, the firefighters set about saving the surrounding buildings as best they could.

Saving the locals would prove a sadly different matter, as large numbers sought solace from their trauma in the free-flowing alcohol. According to the Illustrated London Times: "Crowds of people assembled, and took off their hats and boots to collect the whiskey, which ran in streams along the streets. Four persons have died in the hospital from the effects of drinking the whiskey, which was burning hot as it flowed.

"Two corn-porters, named Healy and M'Nulty, were found in a lane off Cork Street, lying insensible, with their boots off, which they had evidently used to collect the liquor. There are many other persons in the hospital who are suffering from the same cause. Two boys are reported to be dying, and it is feared that other deaths will follow."

The expression "filling their boots" was never rendered so sombre.

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