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The Italian Job: Part II

Brendan Lodola reflects on a recent cycling trip to Tuscany, a wonderful physical tonic, and an extraordinary outing in the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

Tuscany is one of the heartlands of Italian cycling and, having cycled in Italy for the past few years, an opportunity to share my wonderful experience is precisely what I had in mind when I decided to try gather a group of enthusiastic cyclists from DFB to ride through this beautiful part of the world. The group who came on this trip could be forgiven for thinking that this would be a leisurely spin over rolling hills, dropping into Tuscan village cafés, sipping Italian morning espresso, lazing over lunches in medieval towns and sloshing back one or two glasses of Chianti Classico in the local vineyards. That wasn’t quite my plan!

Little did they know that they would take in the four corners of Tuscany, conquering sections of the eight and ninth stages of the 2016 Giro D’Italia, stepping in and out of the Strada Bianche professional route (which starts and finishes in the medieval town of Siena) and covering part of the terrain of the L’Eroica amateur route over its white gravel roads which starts and ends in the town of Gaiole, not far from our base. With six months of training in Dublin, the Wicklow Mountains and further afield, we were ready for the challenge, or so we thought! These hills are described as rolling, but include climbs of over 20 per cent and long drags that go on for miles with decent gradients. This was going to be four consecutive days of cycling, more than 400 kilometres right in the thick of the hills.

After our journey from Pisa airport it was great to arrive at our base, Norcenni Girasole, warmly greeted by Paulo and his staff. Villa Norcenni, a rustic Tuscan villa and villino, is set in the heart of the Chianti hills with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. We settled into our rooms and headed down to the restaurant where we were greeted by Claudia, Maria and Oanna who would look after us for the five nights. We had been travelling from early that day, so we were hungry and ready for some local Italian cuisine and we were not disappointed – traditional food at its best, washed down with a glass of Chianti Classico.

Siena

The next morning we strolled down for breakfast, the sun taking the edge off the early morning chill. Sitting, discussing the day ahead over coffee, there was a buzz in the air. Everyone was excited with what the day would bring. Our bike supplier Marco was spot on time again to set up everyone with their full carbon road race bikes. We had Jimmy and Domo (the backup support team) ready and waiting with the support car full of food and water – nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the day’s cycling. We were off! As we left Norcenni we took a left, straight onto a 10km drag, climbing past the small villages of Ponte Agli Stolli and Dudda. We were immersed within the historic olive groves, honey-coloured stone farmhouses and immaculately maintained rows of vines down sloping hills, with dense forests as far as the eye could see. What an opening to a day’s cycling.

We pushed up past our first peak, with Ciaran and Barry biting on the bit, then prepared for our first long descent into Greve! Dave O’Toole wove in and out, changing positions, capturing each rider as they descended down the winding roads at great speeds with the GoPro fixed to his seat post. It promised to be a special piece of footage, hopefully available on YouTube soon. We would get to climb up this 20km descent another day. Greve in Chianti was the finish of the ninth stage of the 2016 Giro D’Italia and we were about to cover a good section of that stage through the towns of Panzano and the fortress town of Castellina in Chianti. This is where we would try to contact our support team while taking a couple of snapshots of Mick and his big Gallo Nero on our way to Siena.

Piazza del Camp, Siena

Eventually we got on our way again with some big climbs towards a region between San Leonino and Topina, which I have to say took my breath away. A classical image of Tuscany rolled into view, with lines of cypress trees standing tall on driveways leading up to hillside estates, small olive groves sitting next to symmetrical lines of vines sloping down the rolling hills towards us, and hilltop houses and towers covered in terracotta tiles with fading hills behind. Did our multicoloured mob of road cyclists know we were, and would be for the next four days, riding through one of the most beautiful parts of the world? With all that in mind we still had 35km of hills to climb before lunch in Siena. Piazza del Campo, the venue for the Palio di Sien, where jockeys ride bareback circles of the piazza on thick layers of dirt, was a welcome restful haven. This magnificent medieval piazza is a focal point for the Italian cool with its narrow cobbled streets and stylish coffee shops surrounding the piazza. After a few tellings off from the locals because we were cycling on the pedestrian streets, we arrived at the Ristorante Alla Speranza. The sun beamed down as we had a few moments to absorb the historic Gothic architecture of the arena.

After much needed sustenance for the homeward stage, and with some tired legs, we gathered our bikes with a little encouragement from the local carabinieri. They didn’t like our 15 bikes propping up the historic pillars! We eventually reached our destination after a bit of assistance from Garmin, through challenging hills and parts of the L’Eroica route. This is a vintage race held every year from the town of Gaiole where cyclists dress up in vintage gear and ride vintage bikes over white gravel and tarmac roads. As we made our way down long descents towards Montevarchi the light was starting to fade, so we pushed it hard on the flat through San Giovani and on home to Norcenni. We covered nearly 140km with an elevation of just under 2,400m, with a lot of tired legs.

 

 

Caprese Michelangelo

Another beautiful day greeted us the next morning as we were about to take on a round trip of 150km to the birthplace of Michelangelo in Caprese Michelangelo. This was to be a route with a few drags and then a steep climb before we reached Caprese. Little did we know how much of an adventure the day was going to be!

We started out from Norcenni and turned right down the 4km descent into Figline Valdarno, the local town, with everyone feeling good after the spin yesterday. With barely 10km completed we came across our first obstacle; a road that finishes on one side of a stream and starts again on the other, without a bridge! And so the slagging began. We crossed the river with bikes over our shoulders and continued our spin on our first taste of the controversial gravel roads. “Do you know where you’re going Lodola?” echoed more than once from the back of the double line of 15 cyclists. “Of course I do, and I didn’t even charge you extra for the gravel,” I replied. You can imagine the response.

A little more concentration was required on the 5km of gravel before we reached a smooth surface again. We continued on and had our first bike casualty. Five of Barry’s spokes failed (nothing to do with all the bunny hopping he was doing) and we had to pull in and call for the backup team who were on the scene in minutes. After they finished their cappuccino of course! With the bike and rider in the support vehicle we began a section of stage eight of the 2016 Giro from Quarata to Anghiari with a little unexpected detour.

After contacting the transport department and arranging to meet them for a pit stop near Chiassa Superiore, we were fuelled up and began to head towards our first taste of a real Strade Bianche road (which I have to say was not in the original plans). I felt an air of disbelief from the group as the Garmin was bleeping for a left turn off the smooth surface. There were a few expletives heard in the background, not mentioning any names, but we pressed on. On such a bright day the white gravel really reflected back at us as we steadily munched our way along its surface. I was hoping that this would just be a few hundred metres and then we’d get back to the smooth stuff. It wasn’t to be. It took a while to adjust to the uncertain feel beneath the tyres. The road started to kick up in the thick of the forest and it became more difficult to control our bikes. “I’m expecting a bear to jump out from the trees and give me a hug,” a concerned Peter White explained.

Tuscany

Our first experience of a Strade Bianche road

This road had concealed sloping edges that could send you slipping off the road into the ditch if you strayed too close to the edge. The tight cambered corners have ridges embedded into their surface from the weight of heavy farm vehicles, which force you to ride wide rather than lose speed and rhythm on the bumpy inside line. This forced you to relax your body using your arms as natural suspension. You also learned to pedal smoothly and stay seated, which was more difficult – standing out of the saddle was not an option as the rear wheel would spin. Anticipating and absorbing any changes in the surface without overreacting or disrupting your tempo was a must or you ended up on your backside.

The only sound to be heard on the car-free road was laboured breathing; we had climbed over 500m in only 8km. We regrouped at the top of the climb with some pretty tired legs and a few looks of disbelief that we actually took that on and got to the top unscathed. Fausto Coppi and his arch-rival Gino Bartali would have been proud of us. They are probably the most famous Italian cyclists who raced in arguably the most famous Giro of them all, the 1949 Giro D’Italia. Tuscany was the home of Bartali, Coppi was from neighbouring Piedmont, and they were fierce rivals. With a few punchy climbs and a couple of steep sections of descent, which were pretty challenging, concentration was a must as we approached Caprese. Not surprisingly Michelangelo was not at home and the town was having a nap, so our lunch stop would be a short one.

Time was not on our side so a steady but determined mindset was needed to set off positively homeward bound, as this would be one of the most challenging sections of the day. Not only were we tired from our morning climbs, but we would encounter some more significant hills. Searching for somewhere to eat on the way home we came across a welcome osteria which could cater for 15 very hungry cyclists. A delicious bowl of pasta ragu freshly made by our host, some local chunky pieces of bread and aqua frizante (sparkling water) was just the tonic to recharge our batteries as we prepared to beat the fading light. With one more pit stop near San Giustino Valdarno, Dave P Byrne and Mick Whelan would get on their way with the transport team to get the other cars.

The final stretch of the day’s ride was about sheer determination and the group pushed hard along the relentless rolling tarmac, but we were forced to succumb to the light and pull into a mountainside town called Loro Ciuffenna and wait for transport. This was certainly a longer, more lively and interesting day’s cycling, where fitness and skill on the bike was very evident. There would be some very tired legs in the morning!

Montefioralle

The weather on our third day was once again sublime. There was a slightly pensive mood over breakfast brought about by our increased awareness of what we were about to let ourselves in for. On paper, this was to be the most difficult of the four days, with a loop of over 125km with nine big climbs and a total elevation of more than 3,500m without too many flat sections. As arranged the day before, Marco arrived at reception with a new wheel to restore our group to full strength. Between one thing and another we were behind time. With a sense of joy because of the fantastic countryside, and apprehension because we knew the terrain, we set off left up the Via di Norcenni, our legs adjusting again to a hard day’s cycle. We had covered this climb on the way to Greve on the first day and we looked forward to the upcoming long descent. In the arched loggias of the main piazza in Greve, while sipping on our espressos and cappuccinos, it was apparent that time would not allow us to get to reach San Gimignano before dark. Disappointed in not being able to see this medieval town, a decision was made to do a much harder but shorter course. Some would do hill repeats into a beautiful little town called Montefioralle, while a few others would, let’s say, have a longer brunch, then head back and practice for the evening tennis match. A likely story!

Tuscany

The Garmin facing off against our transport department’s trusty map

The transport team had already done a recce to the town of Montefioralle and beyond, warning us that even the support vehicle found it hard climbing the hills which led to this town. They weren’t joking – in 32km we climbed 930m. To take a passage from Dino Buzzati’s coverage of the 1949 Giro: “Surely it was a crime, in a sense, to make use of such enchanting scenery for such unrewarding, bestial labour”. I thought there would be a crime committed when we reached the top with the looks I was getting!

Once again vineyards, cypress trees, hilltop villages and villas were regular features of the surrounding countryside, providing a welcome distraction from the relentless hard pedalling! Montefioralle (sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), is a magnificent medieval village with narrow cobbled streets lined with small entrances to traditional shops and restaurants. Aromas of local Tuscan cuisine filled the air as we painfully climbed these great hills, giving us something to look forward to on our way back down later for lunch.

We welcomed the sight of the Taverna del Guerrino where we stopped for some lunch. Sitting on the veranda, we had a few moments to absorb this postcard-perfect part of the Tuscan landscape and enjoyed a well deserved meal of pasta, antipasti, dolci and a small glass of vino. Fuelled up and ready for the 20km climb on the way back that we had come down on the first day, we set off knowing the pool was waiting, not to mention the Dún Laoghaire tennis aces ready to give us a display of their ability. The two professional players were brought in to give the group a tennis demonstration – Domo ‘Statue of Liberty’ Campbell and Mick ‘Good at Corners’ Whelan.

It was obvious from early on that the opposition wasn’t up to much, with Dave ‘Good on the Dance Floor’ Kenyon and Ciaran ‘Shep’ McConnell not returning any serves. It was decided to split the teams up with one professional playing with one of the novices. This livened the game up a bit and drew a small crowd of onlookers. The serves were cutting and the slagging was quick and accurate. It wasn’t long before both teams warmed up and got into the cheating at full match pace. This encouraged the onlooking crowd to join in the banter much to the amusement of any passing onlookers. Eventually, after a couple of fiercely disputed sets, a ceasefire was called with all parties retiring to the bar for some well earned wine tasting.

Tuscany

Overlooking Florence from Fiesole

Fiesole

The final day’s cycling would be all smooth roads, as I knew this route from previous years. We would cycle an 85km loop with a 1,250m elevation gain – flat compared to the previous three days. We were heading north into a town called Fiesole which overlooks the city of Florence. With some tired legs and bodies out there a casual pace would be a welcome relief. But we were in the Chianti hills after all, so there were still hills to climb. “Pull it back half a click” was heard more than once through the group and the ones who didn’t say it were thinking it!

A long downhill brought us to the start of the mayhem of Florentine traffic. Surprisingly we got through without incident, apart from a few expletives from the local drivers. One more long drag would get us to the finishing town of the 2014 world championships, Fiesole. The mystical beauty of Fiesole, less than 10km outside of Florence, encompasses centuries of history and it is amazingly well preserved. Largely unknown by many, this small town hides a wealth of surprises including the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with the concept of flight, and the Roman amphitheatre that still serves as a stage for the Estate Fiesolana summer events. We were greeted with O Sole Mio by a local while having lunch, and we sang along with our version, Just One Cornetto! The last stretch of the final day’s ride would give us some nervous -15 per cent to -20 per cent descents out of Fiesole, with very tight hairpin turns requiring alł of our concentration. We cycled back for the last time to Norcenni in relative silence with the occasional bit of encouragement shared. There was just one more kilłer 3km climb left up to our base and there was still a lot left in some legs for a token race. The jury is still out on that one!

This was definitely a trip to remember. After what had seemed like torture at times, I think that there was a great sense of achievement. This group covered more than 400km over four days, on very tough terrain, with more than 20 hours in the saddle conquering some of the steepest hills you can find. Pretty heroic I think! So with that in mind I’d like to say that it’s the group that makes the trip, not the trip that makes the group, so well done everyone and thanks a million.

Tuscany

Hard earned refreshments in Siena

On behalf of the group, I’d like to say thanks to Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and Dublin Fire Brigade Sports and Social Club for their support. A big thanks to Liz Hanley for organising the fabulous cycling gear, to Mick Whelan and his brother-in-law for their support, and to Jimmy and Domo from the transport dept. Thanks also to CFO Pat Fleming, the Red Torch Restaurant, and everyone at Norcenni Girasole for looking after us so well. Next it was time to have a few well deserved drinks and maybe a twirl or two on the dance floor. Until 2018 then, salute!

Class of ’76

Jeremiah Greally reports on the 40 year reunion of Class 2 1976, who shared memories and recalled those who have since passed on.

The firefighters of Class 2 1976 had a jovial reunion on September 1st last at the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street in Dublin. The 26 recruit firefighters began their training at Kilbarrack fire station on August 3rd 1976. This was the same year that the Apple computer company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Heffo’s army defeated Kerry in the All-Ireland Football final and the Concorde entered service on transatlantic flights. All of this group of firefighters have now retired and there were lots of fond memories and discussions on the night.

Tributes were paid to the training officers: Third Officer Joe Kiernan (RIP), Third Officer Joe Bell (RIP), Third Officer John L’Estrange, District Officer Frank Collins and District Officer Harry Lawlor. All the officers did a sterling job moulding 26 lay people from all walks of life to become professional firefighters and work as a team. Also remembered on the night were some members of this group that have gone to their eternal reward, namely Firefighter Peter Leap (RIP), Sub Officer Gerry O’Byrne (RIP), Firefighter Frank Rock (RIP), Third Officer Martin McDermott (RIP), Third Officer Joe Kiernan (RIP), and Third Officer Joe Bell (RIP).

Standing from the back left: Victor Pointon, Dermot Dowdall, Brian Finney, Niall Farrell, Fintan Lalor, Terry O’Neill, Mick Finglas Larry Madden, Danny Colgan, Tom Byrne, Patrick Duggan, Michael Daly and Jeremiah Greally. Seated training officers:D/O Jim Byrne, D/O Frank Collins, F/F Alan O’Rourke, Third Officer John L’Estrange

The summer of 1976 will be remembered by many as one of the best summers we have had in the last 40 years. Twenty-six recruits assembled at Kilbarrack fire station to learn the craft and techniques required to become professional firefighters and ambulance personnel. The 14-week training was tough and gruelling but the rewards were to be felt for the rest of our careers.

We have seen many changes and improvements in the fire service in the last 40 years and I would like to state that today’s firefighters who also work as ambulance personnel and paramedics are as professional and competent as can be found anywhere in the world, and provide an excellent service to the citizens of Dublin city and county.

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.

Fortification

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.

 

 

From Kilbarrack to the world

We spoke with Kilbarrack firefighter and The GreenPlan founder Neil McCabe to discover more about his recent exploits. 

Six years ago, Neil McCabe’s life changed forever with the publication of The GreenPlan, a guideline for sustainable development within Dublin Fire Brigade that was three years in the making. Changes made within the flagship station, Kilbarrack, led to significant savings and the establishment of a ring-fenced fund for the sustainable development of other fire stations across the city, a project that is still underway today.

But Neil’s influence hasn’t remained within Dublin city, or indeed Ireland. In 2011, he was invited to speak in the UK’s House of Commons concerning climate change by the then coalition government, who sought his advice on how they could factor this issue into their budget. His expertise is also in demand across the EU, and he has served as an expert analyst providing improved ways by which to procure services for fire brigades. The opportunity to spread his ideas beyond our borders is certainly aided by his role as an Ashoka Fellow, part of a global network of social entrepreneurs striving to make a real difference in collaboration with those who can effect change.

“Because of that, as a social entrepreneur, it has pulled in a lot of big support, where people want to help make this happen because they believe in the whole ethos of what I’m trying to achieve,” he explains. “I’m very lucky for that. The vision for The GreenPlan is to improve the quality of life on Earth for present and future generations.”

His tireless work was most recently recognised by the International Corporate Social Responsibility Award, which he was presented with at the Mansion House in August. “The idea is that it’s saying that, for large corporate businesses, there’s finally a best practice that is genuinely sustainable, and that’s The GreenPlan. And they’re saying that large, global companies need to take on board The GreenPlan to bring real change to their businesses. It’s a huge honour to receive that.”

Heading Stateside

The impact The GreenPlan is having on a global scale is perhaps best highlighted by Neil’s participation in the 2016 Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI), an international exchange programme which brought 47 Europeans from 45 European countries to four different US states in a bid to enhance ties and stimulate economic growth between the US and Europe. “That was without doubt one of the biggest things I’ve ever done in my life, other than getting married and having children!” he says with a laugh. Selected to represent Ireland by the US Embassy here, Neil was whisked to the US by the Department of State to spend a month there with the initiative. His time began in Washington DC with discussions surrounding entrepreneurship and innovation in the US, followed by two weeks at the helm of a business in Seattle, at the same time as Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn for $28bn.

“We actually took over the whole company that we went to, which was just a crazy experience. I was a firefighter the week before and then I was running a corporation in America! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says. The programme concluded with a week in San Francisco, with the fellows given the chance to attend the Global Entrepreneur Summit in Silicon Valley as guests of The White House at Stanford University. “Apart from the many adventures and experiences we had, we got to meet [former] President Obama who I can now say knows about The GreenPlan,” says Neil.

That’s impressive in and of itself, but that trip also saw Neil giving a lecture on climate change to some of the foremost business minds in the world. “If I could prove my point there I could prove my point anywhere else in the world,” he tells me. “One strange thing happened later that day – I met Reid Hoffman, the CEO and founder of LinkedIn. I had a masterclass on how to think in an American corporate way for social good, and while that was happening all I could think about was that two days beforehand he sold his company for $28bn while I was in Seattle!”

The Seattle cohort of US fellows from seven EU countries. Photo: Neil McCabe

Alongside meeting President Obama, he also had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Singularity University in the NASA Research Park in California, a think-tank that aims to get people to think outside the box, and spent a day there taking masterclasses on how to think different. At Google HQ he met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet. “To become an alumni of the Department of State for life is really a fantastic honour. I still haven’t fully digested or comprehended the scale of this, because the opportunities that are coming off the back of this are just so big in scale – it’s just an exciting time,” says Neil.

One such opportunity arose at the beginning of October last year, when Neil addressed the EU Parliament in Brussels on the subject of transatlantic trade. He was there as a guest of John Kerry, who told gathered leaders about the positive impact that Neil’s involvement in YTILI will bring to the US and the EU.

Moving online

Neil’s busy schedule doesn’t stop with presenting his ideas to some of the world’s foremost minds at Stanford University or in Brussels. Perhaps his main focus of late has been the release of The GreenPlan as a massive open online course (MOOC) – available at alison.com – giving communities across the globe free access to these materials in a bid to grow The GreenPlan to scale, and shifting the focus from fire brigades to communities around the world. In Ireland, seven communities are already enacting the principles of The GreenPlan. Mulranny in Co Mayo became the country’s first full accredited village, and was the overall winner at the 2016 Irish Responsible Tourism Awards. Dublin’s Lord Mayor Brendan Carr is also onboard, having pledged to contact every mayor in Ireland and urge them to both undertake this course and encourage others to do so.

“That has taken so much effort – writing the course content as a manual, writing the toolkit, preparing everything, the feasibility of whether communities will elect community leaders to take on the project,” he says of the project. “That has been more than full time! I really wanted to get the idea out that this thing called The GreenPlan does work, and it’s verified around the world as being best practice. The best way to do it is to give it away for free, to create real impact and real change.”

He’s also the co-founder of a young, vibrant clothing company based in Dublin which launched online last summer – Grown, an ethical clothing brand which places sustainability at the heart of its operations. Neil’s role is to embed sustainable development into every aspect of the business. The brand uses renewable technology to produce the energy required to make the garments, makes use of earth positive materials and inks and recycled water, while plastic materials are recycled and turned into wool.

Back to earth

Despite his growing influence around Ireland, the EU and the US, where he and The GreenPlan are making huge strides in trying to build a better future, Neil still works as a FF/P in Kilbarrack, which he tells me helps to keep him firmly grounded.

“The lads in the fire station are fantastic supports. They’ve got behind me on lots of different projects, but they also keep me grounded,” he says. “I’ve won so many different global awards, international best practice awards, and the lads get great craic out of saying to me the next day ‘don’t forget you’re on the ambulance on Wednesday night.’ And that brings you down to Earth pretty fast!”

Nevertheless, Neil is understandably pleased with the nine-year journey that has brought him to this exact point, where his creation is spreading across the world in a bid to generate change on a global level. “From humble origins in Kilbarrack fire station I can really see, finally, that this is going to happen properly. The fact that it doesn’t need me, and is completely non-exclusive, is something that I am really proud of,” he explains. “I owe that to my family, I owe that to my friends, I owe that to the lads in the station. I am now starting to see the full scale implications, and I am genuinely proud of it.”