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The Great Whiskey Fire

A Forgotten Calamity

DFB historian Las Fallon talks to Adam Hyland about his new book on the Great Liberties Whiskey Fire of 1875.

Among the strange and eye-opening stories that lie within Dublin Fire Brigade lore, the fire that threatened to destroy a large part of the south inner-city in 1875 when a whiskey warehouse suddenly began throwing flaming liquid into the streets is probably one of the strangest. Stranger still is the fact that many elements of the story have remained unknown, but in his latest book, DFB historian and former firefighter Las Fallon has pieced together the events of that night. The Great Liberties Whiskey Fire details what happened, and the repercussions from a bizarre incident when burning whiskey flowed through the Liberties, much to the delight, then dismay, of the citizens of Dublin.

“The story of the whiskey fire interested me particularly because it happened in my area,” Las tells me. “I was a firefighter in Dolphin’s Barn for 30 years, so the Liberties area was just down the road. I had fought fires on those streets, and knew the area.

“I’d heard of the whiskey fire before, but it was one of those stories that had grown legs over the years, so I had sort of written it off as an exaggeration. But the first mention of it I read was in Tom Geraghty’s work on the history of the Dublin Fire Brigade, and all of a sudden, I realised, oh, this did happen, and it was on the scale that people had told me about.”

With his interest piqued, Las started researching and found old British newspaper archives containing illustrations to accompany the reports.

“Once you see the illustrations depicting the scale and madness of the incident, I got very interested,” he tells me. “These images were not favourable to Irish people, and even though there was probably some exaggeration, not every one of these newspapers could have been exaggerating the incident, so I began to see how big the story was. It was essentially the largest fire in Dublin in the 19th century in terms of the area affected, in financial terms, and in terms of loss of life. I started looking into as many records as I could, anything I could get my hands on, and slowly started to gather the story together.”


The story itself is a remarkable one. On 18 June, 1875, a huge bonded whiskey warehouse in the Liberties area containing at least half a million litres of whiskey owned by Dublin’s major distilleries, suddenly erupted in flames, sending burning whiskey flowing into the streets. The fire quickly spread along the narrow roads and alleyways, igniting buildings and sending the city into a panic. Locals, however, ignoring the obvious danger, saw their chance to enjoy a free drink, and reportedly began scooping the whiskey up into whatever receptacle they could find, or simply drank it straight from their cupped hands. Word of this sudden bonanza spread as quickly as the fire, and soon the streets were packed with people, increasing the danger and adding to a scene of mayhem.

Responding to the fire were just 15 men from the then newly-established Dublin Fire Brigade, led by their Fire Captain, Robert Ingram. Aided by 150 policemen and 200 soldiers, their actions and quick-thinking helped quell the fire and save the city, but not before 13 people had consumed lethal amounts of spirits.

The story has never been fully told, until now. Las was approached by Micheál Ó Doibhilín of Kilmainham Tales, who had seen Las talk on the subject, and suggested he put pen to paper and write a book about the fire.


The timing was also perfect for a book on the whiskey fire, with the rejuvenation of the whiskey industry in the very same area of Dublin city taking hold, but while more material was coming to light, there were still many problems in finding all of the details regarding the fire and its aftermath.

“One of the big problems I had was that I knew 13 people had died, but I couldn’t find any trace of them,” Las says. “I went to the register of deaths, but unless you know the name of the person who died, you won’t find them.

“I went into the national archives, got the coroner’s records for Dublin, but nothing was coming up. I did find a report of a woman who had died of alcohol poisoning a few days after the fire, so that was a starting point. Eventually I turned up five names, all of whom died in the same way in the immediate aftermath of the fire.” 

The information that could be gathered showed that Dublin at the time had a thriving whiskey industry. A change in the licensing act in 1823 meant that distillers only had to
pay tax on their whiskey when it became available for sale, rather than when it was first barrelled, and this opened up the market to commercial bonders who would store the barrels for the distilleries.

Lawrence Malone quickly became the biggest name in the bonded warehouse business, establishing a huge storage warehouse in the Liberties. “There were others, but Malone was the biggest,” Las tells me, “and while he created an industry in Dublin, he also created a ticking timebomb. There was now a huge amount of flammable liquid in one huge building, sitting behind narrow city streets, without any provision for fire safety.”

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but what is strange is that the first reports describe it as a major fire bursting through the roof of the warehouse, some 30-foot high. “It must have been burning for some time before it got to that level, but nobody reported smelling smoke, nobody saw anything, until it was fully developed,” Las says.


When the fire was reported, the Dublin Fire Brigade (which consisted of just 23 men, 15 of whom were available including Fire Captain Robert Ingram) arrived within ten minutes, and when the Police got to the scene, “they obviously got a sense of not just what was happening, but what might happen, because they sent for massive reinforcements of 150 men,” Las says. “Two premises were on fire, flames shooting into the air through the roof, flammable liquid was flowing out under doors and through windows, blue flames flowing down the streets. It’s the worst of two possible calamities – a flood finding its way under doorways and into houses, into every crack and crevice and down every street and alley, and it’s also burning as it goes. They couldn’t put water on it because it is already liquid, so it was like petrol. There’s also a very steep drop on those streets.”

Soldiers – some 200 – were also sent for. “Soldiers were important because they could help with salvage, but also man the pumps so the firefighters could use the hoses, and control the crowds, which was becoming ever-more important,” Las tells me. “Some soldiers arrived armed and threatened a bayonet charge on a group of citizens who attacked them as they tried to guard 60 barrels of whiskey that had been salvaged.” The utter chaos of the scene is hard to imagine, even with the vivid illustrations of the day.

“There were 13 deaths, but not one of them was caused by fire itself,” Las says. “They were all to do with the madness that took hold. Some of the stories were very sad, but some of them were also bizarre. My favourite is the house where there was a wake going on. The people there put themselves at risk to save the corpse, but they only save him enough to make sure he doesn’t burn, before they all run back to get themselves some free whiskey. I like that because it is just so human.

“The madness started early, as soon as it became clear that this was whiskey flowing down the street. The thing was that it was a mixture of whiskey, immature spirits, probably some brandy and wine too. The sight would have been unusual. People wouldn’t have seen this type of flaming blue liquid before, like the flames on a lit Christmas pudding, but on a massive scale.

“Buildings started to burn with proper fires as well as this burning liquid fire, and a tannery went on fire. At the time, many people kept pigs to supplement their family income, while there were also a large number of stables in the area, so when the fire broke out, there were animals everywhere, pigs, dogs, horses running around.”


Captain Ingram came up with an ingenious idea, Las tells me. “He realised that he needed something to slow the whiskey fire down, and soak it up, something organic. That’s when he decided to use the holy trinity of ashes, tan and manure, because that’s what was available. It was a poor area, so there were a lot of tanneries around. It was brilliant thinking. A hundred years later they would have fought the fire with foam, which is organic too, so using what was available, he was a hundred years ahead of his time.”

Ingram’s actions were successful, managing to first block and then extinguish the many fires that had been caused by the flaming blue liquid. “Had they not contained that fire, it would potentially have flown to Christchurch and could have destroyed a huge area. In theory Christchurch itself could have been in danger,” Las says.



Though the DFB had saved the city, the story was very quickly forgotten about, even to this day, and as Las explains, there were many reasons for this.

“In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Dublin became a laughing stock,” he says. “There happened to be a huge number of British and American journalists in town to cover a rifle match in Sandymount, and they were witnesses to this bizarre event. The press wanted local colour, and the scenes they saw were gold to them. You couldn’t make it up. There was no point in writing about a big fire in Dublin for American or British readers, there were big fires everywhere, but the story of Irish people running around, the streets in flames, scooping up and drinking whiskey off the road had been played up by the British and American press.”

Because of this, the Irish press quickly began to play the incident down. “There was a sense of embarrassment,” Las tells me. “We made eejits of ourselves, had fulfilled every stereotype. Within days the papers were talking about the great law-abiding citizens. On the night itself you couldn’t move for the amount of people trying to get to the whiskey, but suddenly the story was changed and they were all law-abiding citizens who came to offer assistance.

“The whiskey industry, which was huge, didn’t want the story to be of people drinking their product and dying. So, they used their influence to play it down. Social norms at the time also meant that poor people were considered as lesser, so 13 poor people dying was quickly forgotten. If the fire had been at Merrion Square it would have been a different story.”

Nevertheless, some important legacies did arise out of the incident. “Fire safety and the fire brigade having a role in it were still 100 years away,” Las says, “but this made the distillers aware of the fragility of their product. They started to set up fire brigades of their own within the distilleries.

“The major legacy is that this fire happened only 13 years after the establishment of the Dublin Fire Brigade, and there were still a lot of people in the city who didn’t understand why Dublin needed a full-time fire brigade. It was seen as an unnecessary financial burden. But all of a sudden, they realised that but for the fire brigade, there would have been a major incident that could have destroyed a significant part of the city, and the businesses within it. So, in a way it was the incident that justified the fire brigade. It was the fire that showed their importance. They saved the city.”


The loss of 13 lives is obviously tragic, but to some degree the fate of Captain Ingram is also tinged with sadness. Though he was the father of the Dublin Fire Brigade, his legacy is almost forgotten. “Ingram died in 1882, and he just seemed to slip by in the history of Dublin,” Las tells me. “There is no statue, nothing to commemorate him, there is only one, blurred photo of him – which is strange given that he lived in a time when photography was becoming established – and his grave is an unmarked patch of dirt in Mount Jerome cemetery.

“He was promoting a fire service that the business people of Dublin didn’t want. It was for the benefit of everybody, but not everybody was paying for it, is how they saw it, and so he fought an uphill battle to have the organisation recognised, and his own input acknowledged. I hope this book can bring him and his contribution to the fore for historians and the people of Dublin alike.”

The Great Liberties Whiskey Fire by Las Fallon is available online from and from Teeling’s Distillery and the Irish Whiskey Museum. Kilmainham Tales is an innovative publisher of academically rigorous but affordable and easily read books covering the period during which Kilmainham Gaol was in operation (1796 – 1924). Listen to Las talk about the fire on the Three Castles Burning podcast here:

Retired members: Noel Hayden

Conor Forrest caught up with retired District Officer Noel Hayden, who spent the best part of his career fighting fires on Dublin’s southside.

In the days when Dún Laoghaire fire station was a standalone unit, yet to become integrated with Dublin Fire Brigade, funds and finances were not so readily available. The process of officially mending or replacing something could be quite bureaucratic, and so it was often easier for a member of the crew to get out their toolbox and mend the broken lock or door. “There was no money for anything, and there was no gear – I had better tools in my car,” recalls retired District Officer Noel Hayden, who spent more than three decades fighting fires in Dún Laoghaire. A Crumlin man born and bred, Noel initially envisaged a life spent working in the trades. Beginning as an apprentice carpenter and joiner in Kennedy’s Bakery, he picked up plumbing, electrical and various other skills in the years that followed, including a stint as a carpenter with the now defunct Modern Display Artists. In fact, the house he and his wife Deirdre (along with their five children) have lived in since around 1983 was built by Noel, his brother-in-law Dennis and colleagues in the brigade at the time.

Though Dennis was a firefighter, the thought of joining the fire brigade had never crossed Noel’s mind. He was working on a job in Kilbarrack Shopping Centre in 1972 when Dennis suggested he join the brigade, and Noel agreed to look into it. A week or two later an advertisement for Dún Laoghaire firefighters appeared in the paper, and Noel’s wife Deirdre duly went to the town hall to collect an application. As they had none printed she was directed to the fire station, where they had none either, though the second officer, Willie Kennedy, accompanied her back to the town hall to duplicate the form. By the time Dublin Fire Brigade launched its own recruitment drive several weeks later, Noel was a firefighter in Dún Laoghaire. 

“It was handy enough until I got the pay!” he recalls of those early weeks with a laugh. Prior to joining the brigade, Noel was earning £35 a week with a builder in the city; the fire brigade’s starting salary was substantially less at £20 a week. Couple that with the fact that he had bought a house on the northside and was commuting down, and circumstances were a little strained.

“It was a bit of a struggle when I went into the fire brigade at first,” he tells me. “Then when the petrol crisis came that really knocked the socks off me. The train wasn’t always a good idea, and we didn’t always have the bridges we have now. If you were coming from the northside you had to go around Butt Bridge and right back down the quays on the far side to get to Dún Laoghaire. It was a long, slow trip.” Noel’s first chief in Dún Laoghaire was Kerryman Michael Murphy, who was cautious about needless spending, but had a sense of humour. “One time the chief officer said ‘You’ll have to act station officer tonight’. I said ‘I never did it at night-time before’. Says he, ‘There’s no difference, it’s just dark’!”

Noel quickly became involved with the social side of life in the brigade, joining the Sports and Social Club and spending 20 years on the committee. During that time they formed a boat club and, with Paddy Lee, a benevolent fund. In 1974 Dún Laoghaire hosted one of the biggest annual dinner dances in its history, with around 340 people attending from brigades around the country. “We improved a lot of things – we reorganised the television room in the station and I made seating for it. We got another recreation room that also had bar seating – one of the boys knew somebody who was closing a bar down,” says Noel.

Noel was one of the
firefighters stationed in Dún Laoghaire when the new station was opened in 1991

Improving conditions

Given his background, and the lack of funding available, Noel would do maintenance work around the station, while lending the mechanics a helping hand from time to time. It was during this time that he became involved with the union, and a committee began to meet with the Corporation manager once a month to voice complaints or request funds. A potato peeler was an early addition, then a dishwasher. A washing machine for PPE was also acquired after some negotiation, and the issue of lighting within the station was a common complaint. “Lights used to be switched off at 11pm in the fire station – it was like being in a reformatory!” he explains with a laugh. “We got extra lights fitted in toilets etc., and generally improved the conditions.”

The funding situation improved under the brigade’s new chief, Tom McDonald, a veteran of DFB. A greater emphasis was placed on training and equipment; the station’s firefighters began with a breathing apparatus course and new appliances were purchased. Sub Officer Christopher Cummins was dispatched around the country, visiting each fire station to see what they had, and made a list of requirements. The result was an impressive emergency tender featuring some of the latest innovations, including radios for communicating with marine rescue, housed in a small onboard control room.

“We did our BA course in the OBI [where his grandfather attended school almost 90 years previous], and other courses too. We did our own pump training in Dún Laoghaire – myself and Aidan Carroll ran that,” Noel explains. Exercises, too, became a regular occurrence, and the crew at Dún Laoghaire took part in one of the earliest Sealink joint rescue exercises in the Irish Sea, conducted alongside Holyhead Fire Brigade, the RAF and the Irish Air Corps. “We continued to progress,” Noel adds. “It was a smaller brigade so it was easier to do, you could train everyone in a couple of weeks.

Despite this increased focus on training and equipment, Dún Laoghaire’s ambulance service ran into difficulties in the late seventies/early eighties. Rewind just a couple of years and there were three Dún Laoghaire fire brigade ambulances operating in the district – two regular ambulances and a fever ambulance. However, staffing issues began to arise and Noel explains how – rather than manning the ambulance for a full shift as happens today – personnel would switch between the fire tender and ambulance throughout the course of a shift. 

“You could come back in, get off the fire tender, wash yourself very quick and get into your dress uniform, get onto the ambulance and be out on a call five minutes later,” he says. The ambulance service finally departed in 1982, falling under the remit of Colmcille’s Hospital in nearby Loughlinstown. Though Dún Laoghaire moved to their present station in 1992, and amalgamated with Dublin Fire Brigade in 1994, the station remains the only one in Dublin without an ambulance today. Still, the crew was by no means underworked. The chimney van was one of the busiest appliances in a time when people were still burning the old coal. “When I was there first you would do 15 chimney fires a night. The best thing Mary Harney ever did for the country was get Dublin smoke free [in 1990]. It cut down on the chimney fires, as did the natural gas and gas-fired heating,” Noel explains.

Noel at his home


Noel’s time in Dún Laoghaire lasted 30 years, but eventually he moved on. Having been promoted to sub officer in 1984 (acting sub officer since 1979), and station officer in 1994, he joined Donnybrook fire station in 2003. Three years later he was posted to Phibsborough as the district officer and saw out his remaining years on the northside, eventually retiring in 2009. Throughout that time he has met some great characters (some of whom dubbed him ‘Luigi’ on seeing his jet black hair). They’re the type of people you remember years after you’ve left the job, the type of people who take you under their wing, who make you laugh and learn, and most of all who make the job what it is.

“I’ve worked with some great characters, some very skillful and smart people. I had a station officer, Tim Mahony, he was one of the first station officers I worked for. Myself, Aidan Carroll and a few others, we used to be called Tim’s lads. We had some great times working with Tim. He used to say ‘There’s some equal lads and others more equal!” Noel recalls. There are memorable incidents too – good and bad. Noel remembers a call to attend to a 12-year-old girl who wasn’t breathing. Though they quickly reached the scene she was beyond help, and all they could do was bring her to hospital. “I think that’s the one that sticks in my mind the most,” he explains.

But lives have also been saved. One day Noel was teaching another firefighter how to drive the appliance when they were flagged down – a fire was burning outside a nearby shed with two children trapped inside. Leaving his colleague to operate the pumps and raise the alarm in the station across the road, Noel managed to locate and rescue a young boy and his friend. Three years later, the crew were walking out of the station’s kitchen, and could smell something burning. A house was on fire around the corner and they quickly turned out, Noel circling around the back while several others came through the front door. Spotting a crack in a pane of glass from which smoke was emanating, Noel quickly removed the glass and climbed inside, passing two kids out to safety. With colleagues in BA sets approaching and the smoke getting to him, Noel retreated to the back yard having warned that somebody else was trapped in the house. Then he heard a noise, and he was handed a baby.

“It was the same family as the young lad in the shed – that was the four of them I rescued from fires!” he explains. “I must say, in the 37, 38 years there I enjoyed most of it. I might have had about three bad days, and two of them I can’t remember.” Noel has retired from DFB, but life after is by no means quiet. “The things I miss most are the days off!” he laughs. Still quite handy with a toolbox, Noel is the go-to man in the family and his neighbourhood when something goes wrong. He’s also started a family tradition – his son Rod has been in the brigade since 2004, stationed in Dolphin’s Barn, and thoroughly enjoys the hectic life of a firefighter. “He likes being busy,” says Noel. “He’s happy in his work.

Retired members: Michael Dineen

Michael Dineen

Michael Dineen (left) and F/F Michael Healy (right) on the switch at Tara Street in the 1950s

Conor Forrest sat down with retired D/O Michael Dineen to discover more about life in the fire brigade more than 50 years ago.

In their comprehensive book on the history of Dublin Fire Brigade, Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead write of one of the worst attacks on the city of Dublin – something they refer to as the forgotten tragedy of the Troubles. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings took place on May 17th 1974, a series of co-ordinated explosions in both Dublin City and the centre of Monaghan town during rush hour. The first bomb was concealed inside a green Hillman Avenger on Parnell Street, and exploded at 5.30pm; the second went off at the same time on Talbot Street. The third exploded at 5.32pm on South Leinster Street, close to the railings of Trinity College. A fourth bomb went off around 6.58pm in Monaghan town centre. The streets of Dublin were busier as a result of a bus strike, but no warnings were given.

“The explosions were heard in both Tara Street and Buckingham Street fire stations so the men on duty hurried to the engine rooms. Soon the control room in headquarters was alive with calls and fire engines and ambulances were being dispatched to the scenes of the carnage,” the authors recount. The bombs killed 33 civilians (some count 34, as a full-term unborn child also lost its life), while around 300 people were injured. No-one has ever been charged for the deadliest attack of the Troubles.

“When the immediate shockwave of the ferocious blasts began to subside, the rescue crews arriving in the smokey darkness heard the first sounds and movements of the stunned victims. The scenes of carnage unfolded; there were wrecked cars, windowless buildings, debris-strewn streets, massive amounts of dust and floating paper. In the midst of all this mayhem were the cries of the maimed, the injured, the shocked and the traumatised. Due to a change of shift at 6pm crews were coming on duty to empty stations and those in Tara Street were dispatched in any vehicles available to assist at the dreadful sites. The emergency plan was immediately activated. All ambulances were routed to the terror-filled streets to be loaded with victims and rushed to the designated hospitals.”

Station photo, Tara Street, 1958. Michael is in the second row from the top, second on the left

Rescue operations were made difficult as a result of heavy traffic, and emergency vehicles had trouble getting through to the scene. Vehicles from DFB were aided by civilian cars, taxis, health board ambulances and a bus in a bid to remove the wounded and the dead from the scene, amid fears that further bombs would explode. “The working firemen had no time to wonder who was responsible as they searched the damaged buildings nearby for further casualties. Within four hours all those dead or requiring medical assistance had been removed to hospitals and the taped-off streets were deserted. Staff going off duty in the Dublin Fire Brigade were finally heading for home and trying to forget as much as possible the terrible trauma they had faced only hours before.”

One of these men was retired D/O Michael Dineen, he tells me, though understandably he doesn’t say much about what he witnessed on Dublin’s streets that day. “It was a sad day for the people that were killed,” he says. Attending such a grisly scene was difficult for all those who aided the sick and dying that day, as Michael notes. But, in the end, DFB’s firefighters had a job to do, and the mood didn’t change following the incident. “The fire brigade is the fire brigade,” Michael states sagely.

Michael was one of a number of firefighters present at another historic incident which took place in the capital in 1966. “I was there for the bombing in Sackville Place, when the pillar was bombed in 1966,” he explains. Built in 1808-1809, Nelson’s Pillar commemorated the famed British Navy officer, Horatio Nelson, and his victory at Trafalgar in November 1805. Despite criticism, it remained in place until March 8th 1966, when a bomb destroyed the upper structure of the pillar. The device had been planted by a number of former IRA volunteers, which some believe to have been in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Nobody was hurt, though a nearby taxi driver saw his car destroyed. Because it was too badly damaged, the Irish Army carried out a controlled demolition on the remainder of the pillar which, ironically, caused more damage on O’Connell Street than the original blast.

On duty at North Strand (front row, second from the right)

Humble beginnings

Michael is originally from a small farm in Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, and travelled to Dublin 1951 to take up employment as a barman in Phil O’Reilly’s on Hawkins Street. As some DFB members frequented the pub at the time, Michael came to hear that the fire brigade was recruiting. It helped, of course, that a healthy and active lifestyle was something he was interested in. “The lads of the fire brigade used to drink in the pub, and they said to me they were taking recruits over there [and asked me] ‘would you be interested?’”

Michael was very interested, and so began a long and enjoyable career with DFB. Beginning in 1955, he first spent a month in training at the Tara Street fire station, learning techniques and conducting pump and hose drills. Having completed his training, his first posting outside of HQ was to Dorset Street, followed by spells in Buckingham Street and Rathmines fire stations – all since closed. He can’t, however, choose a favourite station. “They were all pretty good. There was good comradeship in all the stations,” he says with a smile.

Throughout the proceeding years, and as he moved around the various stations, Michael’s career continued to develop. “I got promoted after seven years’ service, so I was a Sub/Officer.” The next step took him to the post of Station Officer, spending five years in Dolphin’s Barn and before he retired, he had achieved the rank of D/O, serving the final 12 years of his career in North Strand.

Michael’s retirement party, 1987

Different times

Life in DFB back in the 1950s was undoubtedly very different. The fire brigade’s remit during this period was expanding – the Factories Act of 1955 meant that DFB was taking on extra work, required to inspect more than 250 city factory plans, deal with certificates, inspect public places including resort and lottery premises, and other areas of concern. Two years later, in 1957, the auxiliary fire service was re-established, and chief fire officers across the country, including in Dublin, were tasked with training this new force. A 54-hour week would be reduced to a 45-hour week in June 1974, and down to 42 hours in April 1975.

At the time when Michael started, however, firefighters would work for a day and a night, and would then be on leave for a further day and night. Not one to complain, all Michael says of those times is “we didn’t mind, really,” and agreed that having spent such time in the station, it became a second family, a home from home, something which hasn’t changed to this day. One of the worst incidents Michael recalls was a fire at the Regent Hotel on D’Olier Street. “There were a couple of people burned,” he says. “The fire more or less went up through the hotel itself.”

Gas, however, was the major challenge, he tells me. Throughout his time in the brigade, a number of gas-related incidents claimed a number of lives, and levelled buildings. Tom Geraghty’s book, for example, notes a number of gas explosions, including one which destroyed two houses on Finn Street, in 1970, with two others suffering damage. Two months later, another explosion injured five people after a shoe shop on Glasnevin Hill went up in flames. “We were down in a block of flats down in the docks one day, and there were two lads who got gassed – the lads had to go in and pull them out. They (gas incident precautions) were pretty good [for example] you couldn’t switch anything on or off, or open the window,” he says.

But it wasn’t all pressure and stressful situations. Michael recalls several trips abroad, of a social nature, visiting firefighters in other countries to share their experiences. “The firemen were very good. We visited Belfast and talked to firemen up there, and we went to Cork, and I went to England and talked to the firemen there, and I [also] went to America.” One of the places he visited in the US was Secaucus, a small town in Hudson County, New Jersey, a 30-minute drive from New York City. Instead of finding differences, whether in perspective or the way in which they operated, Michael found that those firefighters operated to the same standards as those back home. “They were more or less on the same level,” he recounts.

Michael Dineen

These days

Now settled in Santry with his wife Philomena, to whom he has been married for 54 years, Michael is enjoying his retirement, effective since 1987, though he hasn’t simply sat back and watched the years go by. Once out of the job, he went to work with children with special needs in St. Michael’s House for 12 years, something he’s had an interest in for a long time now, and a calling echoed by his daughter and granddaughter. In his own words, it was an opportunity to give something back, to help those “who weren’t as lucky as we were.”

Though he has moved on and is making the most of civilian life, and as a regular with the Retired Members Association, he still keeps in touch with other retired members, sharing stories and trips across the country and beyond, it’s clear that Michael has fond memories. “I have no regrets and I enjoyed my time,” he tells me. “I worked in six different stations, with some of the very best firefighters.”

Retired members: Harry O’Keeffe

Harry (bottom row, far left) and his colleagues in DFB.

Conor Forrest caught up with Harry O’Keeffe, a former firefighter who spoke about his career with Dublin Fire Brigade, his role as a special service man, as well as his efforts to improve the workplace for his fellow firefighters.

One hundred years ago, a small group of men and women marched out on the streets of Dublin, Enniscorthy and Meath to proclaim an independent Irish Republic. It was an event that would change the course of Irish history, though perhaps not exactly how Padraig Pearse and his comrades in arms would have imagined. It was also the year in which Dublin Fire Brigade’s oldest firefighter was born, three days after rebel leader James Connolly was executed in Kilmainham – one Harry O’Keeffe.

To say Harry has led an interesting life would be something of an understatement. Born in 22 Holles Street in May 1916, he grew up alongside the new State that had its origins among the ruins of Dublin that year. His childhood was a happy one, with a loving family, and among his earliest memories is attending the State funeral of Michael Collins, perched on his father’s shoulders at the age of six.

In those days, jobs were scarce, but he managed to find employment in his early teens, first with Cantwell and Corcoran, which produced soft drinks, where he was interviewed by union leader Jim Larkin about the company’s employment policies. That was followed by a stint with the Grand Canal Company, and then the Calendars Overhead Cable Company – Harry cycled every day from Boyne Street to work in Drogheda, beginning at 4am and camping out during the week as the work moved further from home. Wicklow became a fond destination during his teenage years, particularly Kilmacanogue, and he often cycled there on his own or with friends to a cottage they had rented on the side of the Sugarloaf. Among the first group of girls invited to the cottage was one Teresa Maxwell, his future wife.

Harry was presented with several tokens on his 100th birthday

Onwards and upwards

Having trained as an electrical and mechanical engineer in his youth, this stood to Harry when an opportunity to join Dublin Fire Brigade arose, halting plans to move to Canada with Calendars. From many hundreds of applicants, only six were ultimately successful – including Harry. The manner in which he secured his job was perhaps an indication of the impact he was to have on DFB. “I was up in Castle Street, I went in before a few men, one of them was the young chief, Comerford. He was doing most of the speaking and he was summing me up,” Harry tells me. “When he was finished, I said ‘do I get the job?’ ‘Do you get the job? We’ll let you know in due time’.” This, however, was an unacceptable response in Harry’s mind. “Says I, ‘I’ve waited a long time to get this far, and I’d like to know where I stand.’ So he talked to the other men and said ‘Well O’Keeffe, you can take it you’ve got the job,” Harry recalls with a smile.

He began his new career in 1938, under the command of Major Comerford, an ex-Irish soldier, and later under Captain Diskin following the untimely death of the former. “Him and I got on pretty well together,” Harry says of Major Comerford. Harry spent the majority of his DFB career in Tara Street as he was what was then known as a ‘special service man’ – because of his electrical knowledge, he was tasked with maintaining and servicing the old fire alarms on the street, which operated before the introduction of telephones.

It was this role that prevented him from travelling to Belfast during the Blitz in 1941 – despite volunteering to travel – as he would have been difficult to replace should the worst happen. Among the many stories from Harry’s career with DFB, that of his role in the bombs that dropped on Dublin during World War II stands out, particularly those that fell on the Terenure area in South Dublin early in the morning of January 2nd 1941. That story was captured in The Bombing of Dublin’s North Strand: The Untold Story by Kevin C. Kearns, as explained by a colleague of Harry’s who joined DFB at the same time, Paddy Walsh.

“This bomb hit the end of a terrace of houses, at the back garden. Made a crater in the garden and the house fell in, but not much fire. They were up-market houses, a place where there was a Jewish settlement. A woman was trapped there, in her bed. The roof had collapsed down and the joists were all criss-crossing on the bed,” Walsh recalled. “Now I was just five foot nine but another lad with me was a hardy fella, Harry O’Keeffe. So we got in and everything was in a heap, the front of the house was still intact, but the whole back was down. There was one joist holding most of the roof still on. So he got down on his hunker, if you like, and held it. Then he says to me, “I’ll hold that and give you time to get in.”

Harry O’Keeffee (seated)

Changing times

Workers’ rights were extremely important to Harry, and he expended great effort in agitating to improve the position of firefighters in Dublin, quickly developing a reputation as a force for change. When he first joined the fire brigade, firefighters brought food with them to work. However, noting that their counterparts in the UK and Northern Ireland had modern catering facilities where Dublin did not, Harry took the cause to City Hall, fighting long and hard for a mess to be provided for the stations.

“It was disgraceful the way the Dublin Corporation treated the working men that had to be fed. There’s not a place in the world that has their staff in but they make some provisions to feed them. I took it up to City Hall and I had a row with one of the officials there,” he explains. That particular official had the temerity to enquire as to whether the firefighters would like their daily dinner at the Gresham Hotel. Harry struck the table and said he would get the men to fi ll their larders with tinned food because it would be a long strike.  Eventually, the Corporation caved. Once they got the mess, however, it still wasn’t quite plain sailing. “We had a woman who used to look after the mess. She had a fancy for George O’Dowd,” says Harry. “George fell in love with a retired schoolteacher. And when she heard that, there was skin and hair flying!”

A life well lived

Harry’s tireless efforts on behalf of his colleagues and peers – which included reducing the retirement age for the city’s firefighters – didn’t cease when he left DFB in 1963 to join the Corporation Rents department, a job which provided a more stable life for Harry and his young family, along with an improved salary. His son Brendan recalls a story of Harry standing before a judge in the case of a tenant in arrears. Despite Harry working for the Corporation, he was pleading on behalf of the tenant, which perplexed the judge. Looking back, it’s clear that Harry’s life was one of dedication – to his family, his colleagues in Dublin Fire Brigade, and to his lifelong principles.

“I believed in the worker getting his right to speak, to criticise whatever was chosen for him. I didn’t believe in a man being too quiet, and not allowed to speak his mind. So I spoke up,” he tells me, his voice suddenly strong. “I stood up on a few occasions and I spoke to the whole lot of them [his colleagues]. I would have a go at them – ‘we can’t be falling out with ourselves, it is important that we unite. Unity is strength, we must stand together’.”

As with all of his tales of his fascinating experiences, Harry sums it up best himself. “It was quite a chequered life,” he says with a characteristic smile.

A man ahead of his time

Harry was an avid reader, a trait sparked in early life, and he would regale his children with stories of exploration and adventure around the fire (his sons Brian and Brendan, son-in-law George and grandson Ciarán would follow him into the brigade). His other passion was singing, and he was known for his rendition of Night Time in Nevada. He was also

He was also fascinated by space. In those days, meat would arrive wrapped in butcher’s paper, and Harry sketched out details of how a moon landing might happen. In July 1969, his visions were vindicated as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Nobody knows if this drawing still exists, but included on the sheet was a list of DFB colleagues who had signed up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Retired members: Paddy Rooney

Conor Forrest sat down with former firefighter Paddy Rooney to learn more about his time in the brigade, the changes he has seen over the years, and the memories that have stayed with him.

It was the year in which Beatlemania first began, when Martin Luther King lead the March on Washington, when US president John F. Kennedy gave his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech to a raucous reception in West Berlin, and the year in which he lost his life in Dallas, Texas. Back in Ireland, 1963 was also an important year for the 27 new recruits who began their lives with Dublin Fire Brigade on Monday, July 15th. One of these was Paddy Rooney, who had been working in England at the time, but successfully applied to the brigade and returned home. “I was glad to get home and into the fire brigade,” he recalls. “There were 27 of us who started in Tara Street. We did six weeks’ basic fire training and when we came on duty, we [worked] 24 hours day on, day off.”

On the move

The first six months of Paddy’s career were spent in Tara Street. From there he moved to Rathmines as the new station in Dolphin’s Barn was opened, around the beginning of 1964, he remembers. Another move, this time to Buckingham Street, was prompted by the reduction of working hours from 72 (or 96) down to 58, with an added influx of recruits to facilitate this.

After several years there, Paddy was on the move again, transferring to Tara Street and then onto Kilbarrack when they opened the station around 1971. Paddy would spend the next 11 years in Kilbarrack, during which time he completed a turntable ladder course. With turntable ladder operators required to be station in HQ, Paddy was off again, and finished out his remaining days in DFB at Tara Street, retiring at the end of August 1993. “I gave them 30 years,” he says. “I enjoyed it, I made great friends.”

Times, unsurprisingly, were quite different. Back then, training was conducted at Tara Street fire station and was enhanced by lectures from a number of different individuals, including one Dr Newman on a Monday night, while a Mr Cassidy from the John’s Ambulance taught recruits how to prepare splints and other basic medical procedures. Ongoing training was as much a part of the job then as it is now – Paddy recalls carriage wheel exercises in Buckingham Street, turntable ladder drills in Tara Street and, once BA sets were introduced into the job, they became acquainted with how they worked in smoke chambers in the training centre. However, as Paddy recalls, the real training came out in the field. “You wanted a turn out…that’s when you learned your trade from the senior men.”

Newspaper clipping from the year Paddy joined, featuring DFB, from the OBI collection

Paddy smiles when I mention the recent RTÉ show Firefighters, which followed a number of the last batch of DFB recruits through the gruelling training process, and as they settled into life in their first posts. Life was a little different in DFB 30 years ago, not just in terms of the training regimes, but the appliances they had to hand.

“I was watching that Firefighters programme, the equipment they have and the way that they’ve [been] trained,” he says. “I remember I did a shift over in Dorset Street. There was an old blue ambulance there and it was just a glorified van. I remember we got a case down at the Parnell monument. We came down and there was no stairs on the door to keep it open while we were getting the stretcher out. The wind was coming up O’Connell Street and closing the doors! So I had to turn the ambulance around so the wind was blowing into the back.”

Paddy isn’t lamenting the loss of the good old days, however. In his mind, the changes and upgrading of equipment, training and health and safety can only be a positive step forward. “With the group we have, the retired members, the Firefighters programme was on and we said ‘were we in the same job at all?’ It’s great to see it though, it wasn’t healthy. It was [a more dangerous job]. There was no such thing as breathing sets, you just got in there. But we got through it.”

One thing that hasn’t changed (and probably never will) is human nature. Paddy agrees with a wry smile. “The thing that used to drive me mad when I was driving an ambulance or a fire tender [was] when you came up behind a car and they’d pull in, but they’d keep driving. And then there’d be a parked car and as you’d be going to pass them out they’d swing around the parked car. They wouldn’t just stop and let you go! And then you’re trying to change down and get your speed back up to try and catch up again. Just before I left, all the ambulances and fire appliances coming were automatics, in our time they had a crash gearbox and you had to know how to change your gears or you’d hear a lot of scraping and banging from the gearbox!”

Reliving the past

Some memories, however, are better than others. One case that he has never forgotten took place out by Newbridge House, on the way to Donabate. At the time, Paddy was serving in Buckingham Street, and he remembers the details perfectly.

“It was a summer’s evening about 10 o’clock, during the 1960s” he recalls. “The ambulance from Dorset Street was ahead of us. It was a straight stretch of road, there had been a head-on collision between a scooter and a car. The lads out of Dorset Street were taking people out of the car, so they just said there was a BID, brought in dead. It was a young-ish chap, he was on the scooter. He went over the handlebars and was killed.”

The body was taken to a nearby morgue, accompanied by the guard who had been at the scene. Once he had finished the paperwork, the guard returned to measure the road, and discovered a girl’s shoe. Crossing into the grounds of Newbridge House, he found the shoe’s owner, a passenger on the scooter who was thrown out of sight over the wall. “She was dead,” Paddy says. “I reckon that if somebody had known, she might have lived. When we brought her into Jervis Street the doctor said she just had a broken femur, she probably died of shock, lying there for four or so hours. They stick in your head, these things – if only. But nobody knew she was on the scooter with that man.”

Paddy Rooney

It could be a dangerous job too, at times. Paddy recalls one particular fire that burned in the city’s docklands, which caused hundreds of Kosangas cylinders to explode. “It started about 1am. The place was devastated, it was like a bomb site. The oil tankers were trying to get out because these things were shooting up into the air, you wouldn’t know where they were going.” Perhaps by a stroke of luck, or fate, Paddy was elsewhere for some of the most deadly incidents during his decades of service – most notably the Dublin bombings in May 1974, and the Stardust fire that occurred on Valentine’s Day 1981. For the former, he heard the bombs go off as he was going to work that evening, a large booming noise ringing out across the city. For the latter, he had worked the previous two nights, and was off duty on that night. “I was lucky, I didn’t have to see things like that,” he says. “It stays with you. I know some of the lads who were at the Stardust and they didn’t sleep for ages after.”

So how did they deal with such incidents? “Counselling wasn’t there in our time,” he explains. “We were in one of our meetings one night and the mobilisation officer in Tara Street said that he had got a call to say that the lads in Dolphin’s Barn were after getting a bad accident. The casualty officer in James’ rang and said ‘those men are going to need counselling’. So he rang the officer in charge in the Barn and asked what was going on. The man in the Barn said that the lads were having their dinner, so he’d have to wait until they were finished to see what did they want! No matter what they got, they got their food and into them quick. No counselling then. We had our own counselling.”

A quieter life

Paddy is long since retired from the hustle and bustle of daily life in DFB – 22 years now. What he enjoys most is the freedom – freedom to make plans without checking his work roster, for example. “When you’re retired, you can say ‘I’ll be there’, he says with a smile. The Retired Members Association also keeps him busy – they meet on the first Thursday of every month and organise any number of trips for their members; visits to other fire brigades, leisurely trips to all corners of the country, and beyond.

“It’s great to see the old crowd, people you would have worked with. We’ve been to China, we’ve been to Budapest. I was on three cruises,” he says. “The first cruise we took was to the Caribbean. We were all sitting on deck there one evening, having our cocktails. One of the lads said that if somebody had told us 30 years ago that in 30 years’ time we’d be in in the Caribbean drinking cocktails on a cruise…”

Retired members: Patrick Madden

Conor Forrest sat down with retired District Officer Patrick Madden to discover more about a career well spent.

If you enjoy hiking through the mountain ranges of Ireland, Scotland and further afield, chances are you might bump into Patrick Madden. Retired from the job as a District Officer since 1995, the outdoors remain a great passion for the man from Glasnevin and, when I pay him a visit, he proudly shows me a photo of himself and his wife, taken at the top of Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles. “I was at work one day and some of the lads said they were going hill walking. I asked if I could go with them – that’s nearly thirty years ago now – and I fell in love with it,” he says.

Early days

Patrick’s first exposure to Dublin FireBrigade came at a very young age, growing up in Sandymount. His father, also a firefighter, was on duty in Tara Street, and his mother brought the young Patrick in for a visit. “While we were there, just as we were leaving, a fire call came in and my father went out on the appliance,” Patrick recalls. “He was on the turntable ladder standing on the side of it. That was my first introduction to the service.”

A move to Chapelizod beckoned, and the family relocated to the quiet area sitting in the shadow of the Phoenix Park. Patrick recalls with a smile that he would cycle into the city on Christmas Day on a mission to deliver the Christmas dinner to his father, who by then was working in Buckingham Street. Patrick loved being around the station, chatting with the firefighters and admiring the polished engines – somewhere in those visits, a small spark was ignited. “It was great – meeting the lads, seeing the fire engines and everything so clean and spotless. I really couldn’t have seen myself working as anything else,” he tells me.

Patrick joined DFB in 1962, following several years in the hotel business. His first application had been turned down and he was in the process of applying to London’s fire service when word came that DFB were recruiting once again. He jumped at the chance, and thus began a career that would last more than 30 years, spanning four decades. Following his six weeks of training in Tara Street, Patrick remained there for less than two years, transferring to Dorset Street station under the watchful eye of Station Officer Paddy Hanratty. It was during his time in Dorset Street that the Noyeks timber factory fire occurred – in 1972 – an incident Patrick remembers well. “I had only been on the premises a few days before. We knew a lot of the staff who went by Dorset Street station on their way to work, and you’d often say hello to them. It was a terrible tragedy, eight people killed – a very sad occasion,” he says. By coincidence, several years later Patrick brought his car into a garage for

It was during his time in Dorset Street that the Noyeks timber factory fire occurred – in 1972 – an incident Patrick remembers well. “I had only been on the premises a few days before. We knew a lot of the staff who went by Dorset Street station on their way to work, and you’d often say hello to them. It was a terrible tragedy, eight people killed – a very sad occasion,” he says. By coincidence, several years later Patrick brought his car into a garage for repairs, and got chatting to the mechanic about his work. When he discovered Patrick was a firefighter, the mechanic revealed that he was a brother of one of those who lost their lives in the blaze. Not all of his memories are sad ones, however, and Patrick recalls a serious fire at the Central Hotel on D’Olier Street. Despite being trapped by the flames, many people were rescued. “I was so proud of the lads and the job they were doing,” he says.

Recalling such incidents brings us to another topic, one which was touched upon previously by Paddy Hanratty – counselling, or a lack thereof for firefighters in those days. Patrick mentions a case that took place many years ago, close to Christmas, in which a mother, her daughter and grandchild perished in a fire. “It’s great that there are now counselling services which modern firefighters can avail of,” he says. “There was one of our lads who worked with me when I was in Finglas – a great guy, a very nice fellow. He was on ambulance duty one night, a few years after I had retired, and he was attacked for no reason at all. It affected him so much that he had to retire a year or two later.”

Patrick Madden

Moving on

For Patrick, his father and many of their respective generations, working in the fire brigade was most definitely a calling, as pay was low and many other occupations could provide a much more promising financial incentive. Though he opted for life as a firefighter, Patrick was initially offered a position in hotel management, by a man he had worked with in the Russell Hotel in Stephen’s Green. “My father was earning something like £12 a week, and I was earning £20 or £25 in the bar business at that stage – it was incredible, the difference. Many men down through the years dropped money to join the service, and that’s called having a vocation,” he explains.

His departure from Dorset Street after 12 years was brought about by a promotion to Sub Officer, and Patrick spent the next few years doing relief work across a number of stations. His next, more permanent, post was in Finglas, where he arrived as a Station Officer following the death of his predecessor in a road accident. He would remain there for eight years. “It was a very busy station, covering Ballymun, the Airport and all of North County Dublin. It was a busy station but it had a great crew – I really enjoyed working with them,” he tells me.

After another stint at HQ, Patrick moved to Phibsboro, which had replaced the now defunct Dorset Street station in the intervening years. Chances are, one of Patrick’s exploits (and those of his crew) during this time were caught on camera, and could be gathering dust in a musty archive somewhere in Donnybrook. On turntable duty one Sunday lunchtime in Tara Street, a call was received concerning a fire in a building near Moran’s Hotel on Gardiner Street. With the fire having taken hold in the lower floors, a number of people were trapped. The turntable crew sprang into action and rescued those inside, with no injuries or deaths.

“Everything worked out perfectly. There were two women in it, one or two men and, if I remember correctly, a young child,” says Patrick. “What we didn’t realise when we were there that, while all of this was going on, there was a camera crew from RTÉ who were on the way to Croke Park for a match, and they got the whole lot on camera! It was on the news that night at six o’clock, fantastic coverage, and it was on the news later that night as well. We were all pleased at the way it went, it was great that it was successful and everybody was saved, but we never realised we were on camera.”

His time in Dublin 7 saw him promoted once more to District Officer, with a move to the O’Brien Training Institute not far behind. Moving from shift work to regular office hours was something of a shock to the system. “I was a bit dubious about it at first. I had been on shift work for those years, and then to be going in 9-5…” Having his weekends off, however, was a very welcome change. “I didn’t realise how many weekends I had missed when working the shifts, you just took it for granted, you went in and did the work,” he adds.

Winding down

Following two enjoyable years at the training centre, Patrick retired in 1995. It wouldn’t be fair to say, however, that he is taking things too easy in his retirement. Having decided that he would remain an early riser, Patrick is quite active – on the several mornings he goes swimming, he’s at the pool for 7am. Once a week he hikes with his wife Clare and their friend John Williams, whose father was in the fire brigade, in the Dublin or Wicklow Mountains, and they often travel away to take in a different view. He also enjoys being an active member of the Retired Members Association, which keeps him in touch with those he might not otherwise see.

Looking back, Patrick is keen to stress that, if he had the chance to turn back the clock and take a second shot at life, he wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s nice to be able to say it – I’ve said it many times and I’ve heard other people saying it – if my life could be lived over, I’d do the same job.”

The Ultimate Price

In October 1936, three Dublin firefighters lost their lives in a fire at the Exide Batteries shop on Pearse Street.

On the night of October 5th 1936, three of Dublin Fire Brigade’s finest lost their lives when a routine fire on Pearse Street delivered a cruel surprise. Located within striking distance of DFB’s headquarters on Tara Street, a barber’s shop and hotel occupied Number 163; an Exide Batteries shop was located on the ground floor of 164, along with several vacant first floor offices and a family of seven on the top floor. The basement of Number 164 was home to a factory, where the batteries were manufactured and stored. Writing in their seminal history The Dublin Fire Brigade, Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead describe a dangerous scene – several gas cylinders on the factory floor, and a basement back wall modified with a timber and felt annex. “Housekeeping generally in the factory was poor and there were boxes, cartons and their inflammable contents thrown around the factory floor,” they noted.

At 10.50pm that night, Thomas Kelly, who lived with his family on the top floor, spotted a fire in the building below. As he told the inquiry into the blaze the following year, he grabbed some clothes and evacuated his family from the building. Four minutes later the first crew from DFB arrived, with 12 men, a motor pump, turntable ladder and turncock. Despite all the equipment present, water supply posed an immediate problem with three hydrants failing to supply adequate pressure, and one onlooker described the pressure as “not enough to put out a bonfire”. Officers began the search for an alternative in nearby Merrion Square and Westland Row.

Believing that the Kelly family was still trapped on the top floor, three firemen – Robert Malone, Thomas Nugent and Peter McArdle – had already entered the premises when an explosion rocked the building at 10.58pm. It was the last time they would be seen alive. A second explosion followed the first, and in the confusion that followed their absence wasn’t noticed for an hour.  Malone’s wife passed the scene by chance, and stopped knowing that her husband would be involved. “Some seconds later there was a terrific explosion and I knew I would never see him again,” she later explained.

Those explosions sent the fire out of control, and the gathered crowd looked on at a chaotic scene, as the firefighters struggled to combat the flames with little water, and as the roofs of the three-storey buildings at Number 163/164 collapsed inwards, knocking parts of the back wall. “The streams of water from the nozzles of the hoses, instead of being dead-straight, were hoop-shaped,” said one witness. “Obviously there was no water pressure worth talking about… the word inadequate has been used, but the pressure was much worse than that. There was a lamentable shortage of water.”

The fire continued to burn until around 2.30am, with later reports suggesting that it had burned itself out rather than being extinguished. Once it had cooled, firefighters quickly entered the building, carrying out a frantic search for their missing colleagues. Despite the danger posed by the ‘smouldering debris and falling masonry’, the search continued until some time after 4am, when the first body was recovered from the rubble. It would be several hours before the remains of the other two men were discovered, aided by off-duty firefighters and members of the public.


Eighty years on from that fateful day, the three firefighters’ lives and deaths were marked at a sombre wreath-laying ceremony in Glasnevin. The ceremony was attended by a number of DFB personnel both serving and retired, as well as descendants of those three men, including Stephanie McArdle – Peter McArdle’s daughter. “Dublin Fire Brigade has been involved in a number of events in this, the centenary year of the 1916 Rising. However, this to me is the most sombre and reflective, both from a personal point of view and also the role that Dublin Fire Brigade performs in society, and the personal and high cost that can accompany this,” said Chief Fire Officer Pat Fleming, who spoke at the graves which lie side by side in Glasnevin.

An immense outpouring of grief flooded Dublin city in the days that followed the fire and the deaths of Malone, Nugent and McArdle. Their coffins lay in state at City Hall and their funerals took place on October 10th, bringing the city to a standstill as some 50,000 people gathered to pay their respects. Alongside Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne and Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, a funeral cortège wound its way through the streets to Glasnevin Cemetery, pausing outside Tara Street fire station where the men had served before their untimely deaths. Malone’s coffin was draped with a tricolour – he had served under de Valera in D Company at Boland’s Mills during the Easter Rising, and had fought in the War of Independence; he was survived by his wife and two children. Nugent was engaged to be married, and McArdle left behind a wife and seven children.

Pearse Street

CFO Fleming with family members of the three firefighters, including Stephanie McArdle.

“Their funeral, to this final resting place in Glasnevin, brought Dublin to a standstill as the city mourned its lost heroes, and here we return today to remember their loss and their sacrifice,” said CFO Fleming. “As a service, much is expected of our firefighters, and I would like to recall the words used in a newspaper editorial of the time in relation to these men. ‘More courage is demanded in the ordinary work of a fireman than in almost any other type of work’, and that is still true today I think.”


In December 1936 a tribunal of inquiry was announced, sitting between January and March of the following year in a bid to determine the cause of the fire, any issues of negligence, whether the water pressure was sufficient to tackle the fire, the efficacy of the steps taken to extinguish the flames, and why the three firemen lost their lives. The recommendations reflected on planning regulations and Dublin Corporation, including Dublin Fire Brigade. As to the cause of the blaze, a number of theories were put forward and no firm conclusion was ever reached, though a cigarette was deemed to be the most likely cause. Exide Batteries was not found to have been in breach of the law, despite the presence of inflammable materials in large quantities and a failure to safely store gas cylinders. An issue between the fire brigade and the waterworks department was highlighted, with the question posed as to whether DFB had correctly notified the turncocks (those in charge of turning on the water for the mains supply), or if a crucial valve had not been opened by the turncocks. The truth of what happened never emerged.

Dublin Fire Brigade as an organisation also came under scrutiny, with Captain Joseph Connolly enduring intense questioning. Water pressure gauges had not been checked before leaving the station, and the situation was likened to arriving for battle without any ammunition. The large turnout at the fire had meant that the rest of the city was left with very little cover. Equipment issues were also highlighted – firefighter Thomas Pott, who had survived the first explosion by jumping to safety on the flat roof of Number 165, had been issued with a cloth cap while new helmets were on order. For his part, Connolly noted that a better service could be provided with better resources. The tribunal’s report concluded that while individual officers and firefighters had acted bravely, there was a lack of supervision and direction on the part of senior officers, with the steps taken to combat the fire described as ‘inefficient’. The circumstances leading to the deaths of the three firefighters were noted as “sudden and violent explosions… increasing immediately the violence of the fire and creating a trap from which these men were unable to escape”.

Among the tribunal’s recommendations was the reorganisation of the brigade along with a more regular system of drills, that the water supply in the city be improved, prohibition of the use of basements for industrial or factory purposes, and the introduction of regular government inspections. Reform would take place within DFB, and quickly. A year later Captain Connolly had retired and was replaced by ex-army Major J.J. Comerford, who set about restructuring the fire service, moving firemen and their families out of the stations, introducing new equipment and recruits and a range of other reforms and investments.

Today the three fallen firefighters are commemorated with a plaque at 163/164 Pearse Street, while another monument to their sacrifice stands on the grounds of the O’Brien Institute in Marino. Eight decades on, they remain the most recent DFB firefighters to lose their lives in the line of duty. “These men acted in the best traditions of the fire service – they went in harm’s way and risked all for others,” said CFO Fleming as he stood by their graveside. “On that night 80 years ago they paid the ultimate price. We remember them and we honour them.”

Retired members: Paul Hand

From Dolphin’s Barn to the DFB museum, Paul Hand has seen and done it all. Conor Forrest caught up with the busy retired firefighter and current museum curator, to learn more about a career spanning three decades.

As Paul Hand describes it, February 13th 1978 was a fateful day. That was the former butcher’s first day in Dublin Fire Brigade, walking through the doors of Kilbarrack fire station to begin his training in a career that he would leave only following his retirement 32 years later. He was encouraged to join by friends of his already serving in the brigade – Timmy Horgan, Eddie Finley, Jim Murphy and others. “When they heard it was coming up, they said ‘Go for it, why not?’ And I never looked back,” says Paul. When his training was completed, Paul was first sent to Tara Street. “The first night in Tara Street I was checking the motors, and this gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Do as I tell you and you’ll be alright’,” he recalls. “I said ‘I’m your man’.” Having seen service in Tara Street, Rathmines, Dolphin’s Barn, Finglas, Kilbarrack and Buckingham Street, Paul spent most of his career in North Strand, a busy station with a broad area of responsibility on the city’s northside.

“I was sent to No 4 in 1980 and I was there for 30 years. When I went there first there were three cars there, 4-1, 4-2 and 3-2. Dorset Street had closed and they moved the car over to North Strand. It was one of the busiest cars in the city at the time. If you were on 3-2, forget about it – you were out all night. If there was relief needed anywhere in the city you were up first for that,” he says. “I stayed there and I retired out of there, and I have some great memories. They were good, solid men. The likes of Joe O’Brien, Jack O’Rourke and Martin Messitt – they wouldn’t let you go wrong. They were good men, family men. We were all there just to earn a wage to rear our families.”

Family was important to those within the brigade, but those in the job also thought of one another as their second family, Paul explains. “That’s what the fire brigade was all about. You were part of a family. I had a family at home, I had a wife and three kids, they were my family. But the fire brigade was the other family, they really were,” he says. “When I look at photographs, I look at Terry Fitzpatrick, an elderly man back then, he was an out and out gentleman, he wouldn’t let you go wrong. Officers would say to him ‘What do you think Terry?’”

Learning from the best

Though his training undoubtedly prepared him for life in Dublin Fire Brigade, Paul would go on to learn more about the intricacies of fighting fires from the senior men in the job. “In Tara Street, some of the characters in there, some of the senior men, I must only say they were brilliant, they were never offputting or gruff. They would tell you ‘Do as I tell you, and if I say stop, you stop.’ And that was the teaching we got,” he says. “When I went to North Strand first, Paddy Leavey was the District Officer there, a gentleman. He had a son in the job and his grandson is in the job today. Tony Rowan, he was a station officer, and Johnny McMahon, probably one of the best fire officers in Dublin Fire Brigade. He was straight down the line, he would tell you ‘Do your work and there’ll be no problem’. And you did your work, you weren’t afraid to work.”

It was teaching that would serve Paul and Dublin Fire Brigade’s new recruits well, as they would attend some major incidents over the following years. When he was stationed in North Strand, large scale blazes weren’t out of the ordinary, and Paul tells me about a fire in North Wall that took 20 appliances to contain, following a night of difficult firefighting. “It was a raging inferno. You don’t see that anymore because now it’s all units, so it’s surround and drown. But the likes of Castleforbes was so big that you couldn’t, you had to go in and go after it. We knocked the fire down that night,” he tells me. “Thermal imaging was only in its infancy back then. Nearly every truck now has two or three imaging cameras on it, and rightly so.”

In 1981 Paul was serving on D watch, which responded to the fire at the Stardust nightclub in Artane on the night of February 14th. Around 841 people had attended a disco there that night – 241 people were injured and 48 people lost their lives. Among those who lost loved ones in the fire was Paul’s colleague Jimmy McDermott, who had taken Paul under his wing that first night in Tara Street.

“On the night of the Stardust he lost three children. He was on leave that night and when we came back that morning the phone was ringing. He said ‘Paul, did you see the kids?’ I said ‘Jimmy, it was bedlam out there.’ That was a horrific night. That was a night when everything changed in the city,” Paul recalls sombrely. “People would ask you what sticks in your mind. I suppose the Stardust and children, they’re the two big pitfalls of this job. Children have seen very little of life, we’ve seen a lot. It’s tough to deal with but when you go back to your station and you look at your colleagues, any one of them could be your counsellor. We saw it all together.”

Main image: Class of 1978, including Paul Hand (back row, fifth from the left). Above: Paul (red jumper) with Greg McCann (on his left) and Greg’s family, one of many visitors to the DFB museum.


Taking on the museum

Paul retired from the job in 2009, and joined the Retired Members’ Association. Several years ago he was asked if he would take over the curation of the brigade museum following the departure of Las Fallon, and he agreed. His interest in the brigade’s history began during his time in North Strand. There he met two firefighters – Eamon Fitzpatrick and Tony McCabe – who had talked about starting a museum. Though they were on opposite watches, when they did meet, Eamon would talk about his family history in the job: his father had served in the brigade, fought in the Rising and had died in Rathmines fire station of an injury sustained during a gunfight with members of the National Army on Cavendish Road in 1922. Sitting in one of the old appliances one day, Paul discovered an old, wooden handled axe. “I went back to the station and the next morning, when Eamon was coming on, I said ‘Eamon, I know you’re starting a museum, there you go!’ And that’s how it started with me and him.”

Anyone who has visited the museum will know that it’s a fascinating place, running the gamut of the brigade’s history across two floors in the OBI. The collection is quite diverse, ranging from the old switchboard used in Tara Street in times long past, and the original red woollen uniforms, to a helmet which was once in the possession of James Conway, and early breathing apparatus, attracting not only firefighters past and present but members of the public, tourists, schoolchildren, Men’s Sheds and many others. When I arrived to interview him, Paul had just unearthed the first occurrence book for Kilbarrack when it first opened in 1972.

“There’s a lot of history here. From the time of the red turnout gear, the boots, the brass helmets. The donated helmet which came in from the Conway family, that has pride of place. They are very old – 99 per cent of the stuff here is on loan from families,” he says. “When you look at the pictures around the walls they tell of our history, and some of the men who died in their service.”

Last year was an understandably busy year for the museum, with Las Fallon spearheading various exhibitions around the city on the brigade’s role in the 1916 Rising, which is becoming increasingly well known. “I must say that Las Fallon is absolutely great with what he’s doing. Our chief, in fairness to Mr Fleming, has backed us all the way,” says Paul. “We have an exhibition over in City Hall, we have a number of exhibitions out in libraries as well. Even here we’re getting more and more items, there’s stuff coming into us every week. I need a bigger place!”

From his viewpoint in the museum, where Dublin Fire Brigade’s past and present collides, and in the OBI which operates as the beating heart of training and best practice, Paul believes that DFB is only getting stronger as the years go on. “When we joined the fire service you were trained to a fairly high standard. But now the standard of training is 100 times better. Dublin is the second safest city in the world to have a heart attack – Salt Lake City is the first,” he explains. “Health and safety is coming into it more and more. You now have a welfare officer here, and he’s doing great work. The brigade is going to get stronger.”

Paul’s son has followed in his father’s footsteps, and is loving his chosen career, stationed in Kilbarrack, where his father worked all those years ago. Paul himself looks back on those 32 years with fond memories. “I’d do it all again tomorrow,” he says with a smile.

Man of fire: Captain Thomas Purcell

Thomas Purcell

DFB historian Las Fallon recounts the life of Captain Thomas Purcell, an innovative man who contributed immensely to Dublin Fire Brigade.

Dublin Fire Brigade has a long history. The municipal brigade dates back to 1862 but the city fire service itself goes back to 1711 and the purchase of the city’s first fire engine, a fact which is sometimes forgotten. In fact the 300th anniversary of the event in 2011 passed unremarked. Along the way there have been many who have made their mark on the fire service, but for any student of the history of Dublin’s fire service, or indeed of the Irish fire service, one name sticks out above all others: Thomas Purcell, Chief Fire Officer of Dublin Fire Brigade from 1892 to 1917.

Thomas Purcell was a Kilkenny man by birth, an engineer by profession and a firefighter by vocation. Born in Kilkenny in 1850 he joined Kilkenny City Volunteer Fire Brigade as a young man and, at the age of 26, he was awarded the silver medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire for his actions at a fire in the city. The citation for the medal states that it was awarded to: ‘MR. THOMAS P. PURCELL OF HIGH STREET KILKENNY IN TESTIMONY TO THE INTREPID AND VALUABLE SERVICE RENDERED BY HIM IN THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE AT A FIRE AT MESSRS HENNESSEYS, DRAPERS, KILKENNY AT HALF PAST ONE O’CLOCK ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 19TH 1875 WHEN UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES OF MUCH DANGER AND DIFFICULTY RESCUING THE LIFE OF MISS WHITE FROM IMMINENT DEATH.’

The medal was presented to him at the Guildhall, London in July 1876. Later in his life, while working as an engineer in Limerick, he would be involved in saving the life of a workman trapped 95 feet underground when a tunnel collapsed.

Thomas Purcell married Margaret Phelan of Oldtown, Ballyragget in 1880. They had three children, all born while the family lived at St. John’s Quay, Kilkenny. Tragedy visited the young family and two of their children died in childhood. Michael died at the age of four in 1887, while Thomas was just one year old when he died in 1889. The couple’s remaining son Pierce would go on to a long life and a distinguished career in engineering, ending up as Professor of Engineering at UCD.

Purcell’s qualifications as an engineer and his involvement in firefighting would combine in his next venture. Among those who applied for and sat the written examination for the post of Superintendent of the Dublin Fire Brigade when it was advertised in January 1892 was ‘T. Purcell, civil engineer and volunteer fireman’. Purcell sat a written exam and was one of five names shortlisted. He was appointed to the job of Superintendent (Chief Fire Officer) of Dublin Fire Brigade in March 1892 at a salary of £300 per year. He formally took command of the brigade from the retiring chief, John Boyle, on April 14th of that year.

Purcell took command of a fire brigade formed only 30 years earlier. The first chief, James Ingram, had founded the brigade in 1862 and led it through many dangerous escapades. Ingram died of tuberculosis in 1882. His successor, John Boyle, led the brigade for the next ten years. Boyle’s time as chief was marked by a number of unfortunate and tragic events. Three firemen died in two incidents during his time in charge of the brigade. John Kite, killed in a building collapse in Trinity Street in 1884, was the first Dublin Fire Brigade member to lose his life while on duty. Christopher Doherty and Peter Burke were also to lose their lives while fighting a fire in Westmoreland Street in 1891 when a ladder they were operating on broke and dropped the men to the ground from a height.

Purcell’s first test as Chief Officer came in August 1892 when a fire broke out in the huge South City Markets complex, a mixed use building of 30 retail units, living accommodation and which included a bonded warehouse containing 7,000 barrels of whiskey. The fire was dealt with skilfully in spite of the dangers and Purcell and his brigade came in for praise from all quarters.


In the autumn of 1892 Purcell decided to visit the United States to study firefighting there and included a visit to a chief officers’ conference in Milwaukee. The visit was undertaken at his own expense and the DFB museum holds a medal given to him as a memento of his visit to the conference. He also left a diary (held by his family) which records the details of his trip on the SS Etruria. The diary reveals a human side to the man and is an interesting insight into Purcell both in the way he picks up on the technical details – the distance travelled each day, the amount of coal burned etc. – but also on his wry comments on his and his fellow travellers’ discomfort due to sea sickness. He also wrote to his wife recording the day-to-day life of the passengers during the voyage.

Thomas Purcell

A recent wreath-laying ceremony in memory of Captain Purcell in Deansgrange Cemetery. Photos courtesy Ray Bateson, the author of several books including ‘Deansgrange Cemetery & The Easter Rising’, which recounts the stories of 150 men, women and children associated with the events of April 1916 buried in the cemetery

Once back in Dublin, Purcell set about a reorganisation of DFB. Over the next decade his leadership would come to see significant changes within the brigade and in the fire safety of Dublin city. Through those years a series of major fires were faced and dealt with. In the background Purcell laid plans to improve the fire defences of the city. He planned a group of four fire stations to divide the city into quarters with a modern station in each, and saw this achieved at Buckingham Street, Dorset Street, Thomas Street and the new brigade headquarters at Tara Street. In response to the new electric tram system in Dublin and the opening of the Loopline railway bridge in the 1890s, both of which restricted the use of the brigade’s old street escape ladders, he would design a turntable ladder for Dublin that he was allowed to patent and which was popular in many UK brigades. It was one of the first effective turntable ladders in use. In 1898, following a visit to Belfast where he saw the Belfast Fire Brigade horsedrawn ambulance at work, Purcell designed an ambulance for Dublin and introduced the same service here.

Innovation and upheaval

Thomas Purcell had a huge interest in advances in the fire service internationally and visited fire brigades in the UK and in Europe. In 1901 he purchased the first Bader-Vajen smoke helmet to go into use in Europe (it was an American invention). The Bader-Vajen was the first breathing apparatus used in DFB and was worn by Purcell himself on May 13th 1901 at a fire in Green Street where four children perished. The fire was the scene of incredible bravery by members of the brigade. One fireman, Thomas Dunphy, climbed the escape ladder to rescue two children from the burning building under conditions of heavy fire. Purcell, seeing the danger, ordered that a hose be played on the fireman, who was badly burned in the rescue. Using the smoke helmet Purcell entered the engine for the opening of Thomas Street fire station in January 1913 and a motor ambulance, also built by Leyland, was also purchased around the same time.

The years leading up to the First World War were busy in Dublin on all fronts with political and social upheavals including the Lockout of 1913, the controversy surrounding the Home Rule Bill of 1914, the Curragh Mutiny by British Army officers in opposition to Home Rule and the foundation of both the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. In mid-1914 British troops opened fire on a crowd in central Dublin after the importation of arms for the Volunteers at Howth, and this was followed within weeks by the declaration of war against Germany.

After the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th 1914, Dublin Corporation introduced regulations to allow employees to join the British forces. Jobs would be held open, employees continued on half pay and military service would count as Corporation service for pension purposes. In spite of these inducements only two DFB members joined the British military out of the 189 Dublin Corporation employees who did so. Recent research has identified two recruits to the British military from each of the much smaller township fire brigades of Pembroke and Rathmines, which highlights the lack of interest among the unionised workforce in DFB in joining the Empire’s war. The main consequence of the war for DFB was the additional workload for the ambulances in helping to unload British hospital ships in Dublin Port and the increase in the cost of living and cost of services due to wartime inflation.

Thomas Purcell

Among those who attended the ceremony was Las Fallon (second from left), and Chief Fire Officer Pat Fleming (far right). Photo: Ray Bateson

Purcell and DFB would face their biggest test in April 1916. On April 24th, rebellion broke out in Dublin. Units of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army mobilised and held positions in Dublin city centre and elsewhere and declared a Republic. Throughout the week of fighting which was to follow, much of central Dublin was destroyed. Purcell directed the brigade throughout and after the declaration of Martial Law on April 25th he had to watch from the tower of Tara Street fire station as the city burned in what he called ‘the Great Fire’.

As soon as possible after the ceasefire and surrender on April 29th he mobilised his resources, including small groups of firefighters from the Guinness Brewery Fire Brigade and the Powers Whiskey Distillery Fire Brigade, and set to work. The brigade saved Jervis Street Hospital from destruction and contained the major fires burning in the city. In recognition of his work Purcell was awarded the Bronze Medal of the British Fire Prevention Committee, ‘….AS A TOKEN OF REGARD FOR THE SPLENDID WORK DONE BY HIM AND HIS BRIGADE IN MOST TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES DURING THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916.’

He was also awarded a cash bonus of £50 by Dublin Corporation as recognition of his work. The Corporation noted that his annual salary at this time was £500. In the aftermath of the fire Purcell was involved with the commission set up to adjudicate on compensation and sought compensation both for fire brigade property lost but also for a premises in Abbey Street in which he had a commercial interest.

End of an era

On November 16th 1916 Thomas Purcell was badly injured when thrown from his horse-drawn buggy while on the way to a fire in Suffolk Street. The carriage had not been properly hitched and in trying to bring the horse under control Purcell, then 66 years old, threw himself onto the horse’s back but fell to the side and was injured. His injuries put him in hospital and off work until January 1917. Purcell was not well during 1917 and in October he decided to retire. He retired in November 1917. He had built DFB into an efficient and well trained brigade which had proven itself in action time and time again. Thomas Purcell would retire to Dalkey where he lived until 1943.

In his later years he travelled widely and wrote a small book on a cure for sciatica which he had discovered on his trips to Germany with his son. He led a full life and left a proud legacy. His contribution to Dublin Fire Brigade was immense. He is an unsung hero. He is remembered in the DFB 1916 exhibition in Dublin City Hall and in July of this centenary year of the Rising Dublin Fire Brigade Chief Officer Pat Fleming, Acting Chief Officer of Kilkenny Fire and Rescue Service, John Collins, and the Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Council, Cormac Devlin placed wreaths on his grave in Deansgrange in a dignified ceremony. Many members of the extended Purcell family attended as did representatives of the fire service, serving and retired.

Thomas Purcell lies in Deansgrange Cemetery under a headstone built to his own design. In memory of his native place his imposing headstone is made from Kilkenny limestone.

An unusual culprit

On a lighter note and as an indication of a wry sense of humour which sometimes surfaces among the serious paperwork of the Chief Officer, Purcell noted an unusual cause of fire in his list of major fires and their causes in his 1914 Annual Report for Dublin Fire Brigade.

Among a list of causes which includes ‘defective construction’, ‘electrical defects ‘ and ‘gas explosions’ we find ‘rats with matches’! At the time matches were made with a high gelatine content and were often gnawed by rats as a potential source of food. On occasion the friction from the rats’ teeth would cause the match to ignite and the unfortunate rodent, well covered with fragments of match, would become a veritable torch.

One such rat managed to start a fire in Dublin that year and so brought itself to the attention of the Chief Fire Officer and immortality in the archives of DFB.



Retired Members: Damien Fynes

From planting the seed for Firecall to entertaining Russian firefighters after the cold war, retired D/O Damien Fynes recounts an interesting and eventful life.

One might say that Damien Fynes has had both a fortunate and interesting life. Take an incident that happened before he ever joined the fire brigade. Back in 1974 his wife Ann worked in the GPO, and Damien would pick her up and stroll down Talbot Street to catch the bus. On May 17th 1974 the buses were on strike. Damien had ten shillings in his pocket and on a whim, instead of making for Talbot Street, they went for a drink in a pub on North Earl Street. Not long after they sat down, one of three bombs detonated on Talbot Street near the junction with Lower Gardiner Street, killing twelve people immediately, in an event that would become known as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

A life recalled

Damien joined DFB later that year and was posted to B watch Dorset Street for two years alongside Martin O’Brien, who he describes as one of the finest firefighters he ever worked with. It was during these initial years that he and Martin decided to launch a publication which started off as Brigade Call, eventually morphing into the magazine in your hands today. Having moved to Buckingham Street when Dorset Street closed, Damien began to move up through the ranks, first securing promotion to sub officer on B watch and then D watch, where he would remain for the best part of his career. Further promotions resulted in a move to Dún Laoghaire as station officer on D watch, and he retired from No 3 having served as a D/O on D and then C watch.

“Buckingham Street had an atmosphere that was incredible, really close,” he recalls. “When we went in there were stables, and they even had an open water storage tank in the yard that was made up during the war. We went on a fire call from Buckingham Street [one day], and when we came back they had a turntable ladder outside the door – the chimney had gone on fire in the station while we were out, and they had to turn out Tara Street!”

In early 1978, just after his return to the job following an ankle break, he was among those who responded to a fire at Burgerland on O’Connell Street. A number of children were reported to be trapped in a crèche on the top floor – Damien and several other firefighters, including sub officer Fergus Ingram, went in to rescue them, though they had to turn back due to the intense heat (later it emerged that the children had been removed safely from the burning building). During the mop up operation, while he was removing a neon sign with Tommy Giffney, the sign swung loose and spun Damien’s ladder. Falling heavily on the ground, he lost all sensation in his legs, and was rushed to Jervis Street.

Although he left the hospital later than evening on foot to catch a bus to Raheny, Damien later discovered, after a trip to climb the Nine Dragons in Hong Kong, raising funds for DEBRA Ireland with the assistance of DFB many years later, that the accident had resulted in several crushed discs in his back. Luckily a five hour operation proved successful and, despite an offer of early retirement, Damien returned to work, keen to get back to the job he loved.

That attitude was prevalent throughout his career – he enjoyed the varied life in Dublin Fire Brigade and all that came with it. “It’s all about being personable, how you deal with people,” he says. “When I worked on the ambulance, you could always get the homeless people on your side by getting them to sing a song; you’d have them roaring singing by the time you reach Jervis Street or one of the other hospitals. Things seemed to be more harmless then.”

It was also that personable attitude that resulted in an invitation to France on behalf of the French Fire Brigade. While he was serving in No 3 as a D/O, there was a knock at the door one day from a French firefighter and his wife. Having invited the visitors in for coffee, Damien then fired up the D/O’s car and brought them on a mini-tour of the city. Three weeks later Damien, alongside two other firefighters, received an invitation to France to take part in an event celebrating the French fire service. Welcomed as VIPs, they took part in a line up inspected by the president of the French fire brigade, the only non- French personnel given that honour.

Founding fathers

Alongside Brigade Call, as the Sports and Social Club publication was first known, Damien was also a founding member of another DFB institution – the Pipe Band, the result of a simple conversation with John McBride, sparked from marching behind a pipe band in the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day parade. “Did you ever get an idea that just lights you up, and you become so enthused with it that you’re thinking about it all of the time? That’s what happened there,” he says.

Getting the band up and running was no mean feat, particularly during the 1980s – set up costs were estimated at £40,000. Despite initial difficulties, a plan was enacted which involved a loan from the sports and social club, paid back through the weekly subscriptions of members, the same model still in use today. A committee was elected, with Damien taking the role of chairperson, and Joe Brennan acting as secretary. Joe, who later retired as a D/O in Finglas, was one of the driving forces behind the band’s success, alongside Barney Mulhall, Tony Daly (now deceased) and Gerry Aldwell.

Their first major event, however, almost ended in disaster. Joe Brennan was approached about a gig in the National Concert Hall, with a brochure and performers to be funded through advertising organised by an external company. Two weeks beforehand, they got a call to say that the deal was off. Damien was faced with paying Damien leading of the group, and with no mobile phones the phone was usually brought to the table. “By the end of the week these Russians thought I owned the city because ‘Damien, phone call for you’ – everybody knew me!” he explains.

Damien Fynes

Following the parade on St. Patrick’s Day, the group returned to Wynns Hotel where the visiting firefighters were staying, and Damien was summoned upstairs to attend to an urgent matter with one of the generals, bringing Peter Barriscale along with him for support. Both were brought to the general’s room and told to sit on the bed. Perhaps understandably uneasy and confused, they watched as the door suddenly burst open and a dancing Russian entered playing the accordion with great gusto, followed by the general in full dress uniform. It transpired that the generals had experienced such a great time, they wanted to present Damien with the Russian flag, a huge honour he was assured.

Their positive experience also meant that an invitation to Russia was extended to the band, and a group set off for Moscow from Shannon in May. Met at the airport by a Colonel from the Ministry of the Interior, they made an instant impression on several older women cleaning in the airport, who fled as the DFB contingent walked through. Confused, they asked what was going on. The colonel replied, saying “the last time they saw uniforms like yours, it was the Germans.”

During their tour around Moscow and its environs the DFB group were treated as the most important of VIPs, aided by the presence of General Rubtsov, a national hero – wined and dined at the opulent Chudov Monastery, shown around the Russian cosmonaut training centre, brought the transport costs of the Garda Band who had been hired to perform, and for the hall itself. The committee went into action. Tickets were drawn down and sold by members and the brochure was printed on a Communist Party print press, arranged by Tony Daly, who also took on the role as MC in the concert hall. In total, the band made £800 profit. Refusing to touch that money, he explains that he spent around two months’ worth of mortgage payments in buying drinks for those who helped make the night happen. “Without Ann’s involvement or without me putting my house on the line, it would never have happened,” he says.

Entertaining the Russians

One of Damien’s stand out memories is both highly entertaining and almost unbelievable. The year was 1993, the Cold War wasn’t long over, and American firefighters were coming to Dublin to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. In the spirit of reconciliation, an invitation was also extended to the Russian fire brigade through Ann’s brother-in-law, who had business in Russia, with their air tickets sponsored by another brother. Seventeen stepped off the plane in Shannon, including 13 generals and a member of the Ministry for the Interior (formerly the KGB), who sent a fax before their arrival requesting that his presence remain a secret. Included in the party was one General Rubtsov, who had received acclaim as the commander in charge of the fire in Chernobyl in 1986.

“That was the start of the biggest adventure of all,” Damien recalls. The following week would prove to be an interesting one, filled with sightseeing, functions in Guinness and the Russian embassy, and some memorable events that must remain untold. Damien was placed in charge of the Russian contingent, as it had been his idea to invite them over, showing them around the city and ensuring they were well fed (various establishments around the city fed the Russians at no cost). Damien often took calls at the restaurants or pubs from other members on a shopping expedition from which most members of the group returned with pairs of skis for $1 (despite the absence of snow in Ireland) and were guarded by a unit of Spetsnaz (Russian special forces) at their hotel throughout their stay.

During a visit to the fire brigade museum, they were shown a section containing all of the presents given to the general in Ireland, including a photo of Damien and the group. A musical session in Moscow’s Gorky Park with the Russian Army No 1 band and a feast at Mikhail Gorbachev’s summer home rounded off a trip that nobody involved has ever forgotten. Though another Russian visit to Ireland was planned, a visa issue meant that the Russians never boarded their plane, and they never heard from their friends in Moscow again.

Retired Life

These days, Damien still keeps busy. An active member of the Retired Members Association, he also continues his role as drum major with the Pipe Band, which says is still looking for recruits, and occasionally meets with firefighters from other countries, showing them around Dublin city. His sons Dan and Chris have both followed their father into the job, and he has shared with them his own personal motto – never take no for an answer, one that has served him well throughout the years in the fire brigade (and outside).

“As I said to Dan, if you’re going to be the boss, be the boss – take charge, do. Just because somebody tells you that it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t,” he says. “The two things that I started, the magazine and the band, are still going strong. I’d like to think that I contributed something to the brigade. And how many people can say that?”