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The 1875 Liberties Whiskey Fire.

April 9, 2014 by dfallon

One of the most destructive fires in the history of the city occurred on 18 June 1875, when a disastrous fire in the Liberties area of the city saw burning whiskey flow through the streets of the area like lava. A malt house and a bonded warehouse went up in flames, leaving the burning liquid to flow down Ardee Street and Mill Street. The fire began just after 8pm, and contemporary news reports give an idea of just how much burning booze was involved, with the Illustrated London News reporting:

The fire was at Reid’s malt-house and Malone’s bonded warehouse, in the Liberties. The former had above £2000 worth of malt in it, and the latter, which immediately adjoins it, had 1800 puncheons of whisky, the property of various distillers, and worth £54,000.

The Illustrated London News reports the blaze. (Image digitised by South Dublin County Libraries, http://source.southdublinlibraries.ie/handle/10599/11048)

The Illustrated London News reports the blaze. (Image digitised by South Dublin County Libraries, http://source.southdublinlibraries.ie/handle/10599/11048)

The lava proved devastating to all in its path, at one point seeming to endanger both the Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite convent in Ormond Street. The wind blew the flames in the opposite direction from the convent, which was hailed by some as a miracle, though the fact many tenement homes were destroyed instead leaves any ‘miracle’ in doubt! In their history of firefighting in Dublin, Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead recounted that the fire wreaked particular havoc on Chamber Street, with a pubic house disappearing in flames, while at another home on the street a wake was in progress, and “the occupants were forced to flee with the corpse to mourn elsewhere, while the home of the bereaved and their belongings were totally destroyed.”

A particular problem in this area of working class Dublin was the presence of quite a lot of animals. At the time animals were frequently to be found kept at the rear of tenement buildings, while horses were still utilised as a widespread form of transport in the city. The presence of confused animals running up and down the streets of the Liberties only added to the pandemonium of the situation, and when a tannery went up in flames the smoke and smell must have been overbearing. Luckily, the Watkins Brewery at Ardee Street somehow avoided both the flames and the flowing lava, though it goes without saying a brewery going up would have compounded an awful situation.

The Dublin Fire Brigade did arrive on the scene, under the stewardship of James Robert Ingram, the first Chief Officer of the brigade. We’ve featured Ingram onthe site before. Amazingly given his contribution to public service in Dublin, and the fact the Fire Brigade he established is now over 150 years old, he is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Ingram was something of a maverick – a Dubliner by birth, he had learned his trade in the New York Fire Department, and modeled his fledgling Dublin fire service on that of Manhattan, initially christening it the Dublin Fire Department and decking his men out in red shirted uniforms. On one occasion he dealt with a ship drifting into Dublin Port ablaze by ordering the Royal Navy to open fire on it and sink it into the bay, so it’s far to say Ingram was never bound by the restraints of conventional firefighting!

Ingram understood that pouring water on the flowing lava, as some well-meaning locals had done following the outbreak of the blaze, would have disastrous consequences. Instead, he ordered horse manure to be loaded onto the streets, a change from the Corporation’s usual practice of removing it! The manure, from a nearby depot, successfully stopped the flow of the liquid, allowing the Brigade to focus on the task of burning buildings. Las Fallon, a Dublin firefighter and historian of the Dublin Fire Brigade, has recounted the story for Storymap:

When it was all over, the Liberties pieced itself back-together, having survived the most costly fire of nineteenth century Dublin. There was a great response to a plea from the Lord Mayor for financial assistance for those affected by the blaze, but beyond the loss of property over a dozen lives were lost. Not a single person burnt to death in the flames, nor did they die of smoke inhalation. Those who died perished because they drank the lava that was flowing through the streets! The Illustrated London Times noted that:

Crowds of people assembled, and took off their hats and boots to collect the whisky, which ran in streams along the streets. Four persons have died in the hospital from the effects of drinking the whisky, 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.

There is no plaque in the Liberties to commemorate this event, though funnily enough a new Irish whiskey has adopted the name ‘The Flaming Pig’, as a reference to that crazy night in Dublin, when pigs ran in all directions and the Liberties was saved by horse manure!