Started by a spark from a baker’s oven in September 1666 and fanned by a strong wind, London’s Great Fire raged for four days, sweeping through the city’s narrow streets with their overhanging timber houses. The roof of old St Paul’s Cathedral melted and lead flowed down Ludgate Hill; pigeons with singed wings plummeted to the ground.Thousands of people fled, their houses destroyed. Remarkably, only four Londoners are are believed to have died.
Fire is no stranger to cities. The lives of Dubliners have also been devastated by fire. And none more than that which started just after 8pm on Saturday, June 18, 1875. The location: Reid’s malt-house and Malone’s bonded warehouse in the inner city Liberties. As the Illustrated London News reported: “The former had above £2,000 of malt in it, and the latter, which immediately adjoins it, had 5,000 barrels of whiskey, worth £54,000” [modern equivalent €6.5m].
Vast sheets of flames lit up the night sky while burning whiskey flowed like lava through the streets. Crowds gatherered to collect the free hot liquor in every pot, pan and jar they possessed; and when these were full they drank it from their hats as it ran down Ardee Street and into the adjoining streets. Two porters, Healy and M’Nulty, were found “lying insensible” in a lane off Cork Street, with their boots off: they had evidently used them to collect the whiskey.
Within two hours the fire had wreaked havoc on all the houses on one side of Mill Street, and several in Chamber Street. A pub disappeared in flames while thick black smoke poured from a large tannery in Mill Street, adding an overbearing stench to the atmosphere.
The bereaved occupants of one house “were forced to flee with the corpse to mourn elsewhere while their home and belongings were totally destroyed.” A change in wind direction saved the Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite Convent; the newspapers treated it as an act of God. Unfortunately as historian and former Dublin fire fighter Las Fallon wryly comments, the same act of God destroyed a row of tenement houses opposite. Chaos ensued as people left their homes and possessions, and ran for their lives. Many Dubliners at that time kept animals, and the presence of carthorses and pigs maddened by heat added further to the pandemonium.
The Dublin Fire Brigade arrived, under the leadership of Captain James Robert Ingram, who had been a fire officer in the New York Fire Department, and was renowned for his “unconventional” strategies to control fires. On one occasion he had ordered his men to resist putting out a fire on a blazing ship in Dublin harbour, and asked the Royal Navy to sink it instead. Ingram knew that to pour water on the fire would be disastrous as the whiskey would float on top of it like petrol and spread the fire throughout the city.
Instead, he sent for soldiers and ordered them to pull up paving stones and pour a mixture of sand and gravel on the whiskey. But he soon realised that wouldn’t be enough as the whiskey started to seep through the sand. Horse manure. Heaps of it lay in depots around the city. Ingram ordered that it be brought to the Liberties by the cartload and shovelled back onto the streets, from where it had once come, to form dams. As the burning whiskey met the damp manure it was soaked up and the fire slowly began to subside.
In view of Ingram’s great contribution that day, it seems odd that he is buried in an ummarked grave in Mount Jerome cemetery. The fire proved to be one of the most destructive in the history of Dublin. The mayor set up a fund and several hundred pounds was raised to help those who had lost their homes and furniture. Thirteen people died in the fire. Not from burns or smoke inhalation but because they had drunk burning booze: a lethal cocktail of whiskey, manure and toxic effluent from the city’s gutters and sewers. Tales of the Great Whiskey Fire are still very much alive today. Earlier this year, a new blend of craft whiskey was launched: called Flaming Pig after that crazy night.