Posted tagged ‘Dublin Fire Brigade’

The Dublin Fire Brigade and 1913 by Las Fallon

May 14, 2013


Among my collection of Irish fire service historical memorabilia built up over many years I have a few favourite pieces. One is a small booklet which I bought some years ago from a Canadian collector. It is the’ Fifty-first annual report from the chief officer of the Dublin Corporation Fire Brigade Department for the year ending 31st December 1913’. Any of these early annual reports provide a wealth of history for the researcher but the date alone on this one resonates with anyone who has an interest in Irish history and in the history of Dublin.

1913 was one of those turning points in Irish history and is remembered today and commemorated this year for the events of the lockout – the battle to unionise the bottom rung of labour –the transport and general workers.

The Dublin labour world of 1913 was heavily unionised at the top end. Craft workers each belonged to their respective unions and the city firefighters had been unionised in the Dublin Fire Brigademens Union since 1892. ( The 120th anniversary of the founding of the DFBU –the first firefighters union in these islands or elsewhere for that matter -passed unnoticed last year with no ceremony or plaque to mark such an important anniversary in our history – a pity, and another lost opportunity)


In 1913 the poor of the city –and this was a poverty stricken city – were the workers who competed at the lower end of the scale, carters, general workers and transport workers including the staff of the city tram system, the Dublin United Tramway Company (DUTC).

The DUTC was owned by the Catholic, Nationalist and very successful capitalist William Martin Murphy. Murphy owned the DUTC but also a host of other enterprises including the Imperial hotel in Sackville (O’Connell) Street,

The Irish Independent, Evening Herald and Irish Catholic newspapers and he had major shares in railway stock not only in Ireland but abroad .

Murphy and many other Dublin employers were concerned at the growth of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The ITGWU had been founded by James Larkin in 1908 and was growing in strength. Between 1911 and 1913 the union membership grew from 4,000 to 10,000. A series of strikes had raised wages and established the unions reputation as effective organisers. Dublin’s employers looked on uneasily and decided to do something.


In July 1913, three hundred Dublin employers met under the chairmanship of William Martin Murphy and decided to move against the ITGWU. Dublin employers laid down the gauntlet and demanded that workers sign a pledge not to join Larkins union. On 26 August 1913 tram workers walked off the job and the lockout started. Membership of Larkins union or any attempt to join a union not to the liking of the employer would be met by locking out the workers. The tactic was simple and as old as warfare – divide and conquer, and starve out the enemy.

The history of the lockout has been well documented and I don`t intend to cover it here except as it is reported along with the rest of Dublin life that year, within the pages of Captain Thomas Purcells annual report.

The annual report starts, as they all did, with a listing of the fires in the city for that year. There were 245 calls to fires that year, an increase of 26 on the previous year. Of these 146 were fires within the city boundary and 17 were outside the city. There were 55 chimney fires, 1 collapse of houses and 26 false alarms. These bare statistics hide a wealth of history. The lives of sixteen people were threatened by fire that year, of whom twelve were saved by the brigade.


The sad tales of the other four were as follows: in Geraldine Street, Mary Carey, 70, was burned and died in hospital when her dress ignited from an oil lamp explosion. In Capel Street, A. Field (gender not given) 70, died of suffocation in bed. In Quirkes Lane, Mary Tunstead, 80, died in hospital after her clothing ignited and finally on Sarsfield Quay, J.Whelan, 70, jumped from a top floor window to escape the flames and died from his injuries.

These sad tales pale however beside the events of 2 September 1913, when in Purcells words:

‘ the brigade worked all night in rescuing some of the inmates and recovering the dead bodies of six persons who lost their lives by the sudden collapse of two four-storied tenement houses in church Street.’

Another feature of the life of the DFB that year was the unusual number of calls to fires outside the city boundaries. Fires in hay and agricultural stores were often thought to be acts of retaliation from locked out farm labourers .On 14 August Lieutenant Myers and the motor engine with a crew of eight, attended a hay fire in Mulhuddart. On both the 18 and 27 September they refused to attend fires in Hazelhatch. (Refusal to attend could be caused by a lack of available water in the area for firefighting or by a refusal by the owner to undertake to pay the brigade for their attendance).

They did attend a fire in Artane on 21 November to deal with 29 tons of straw well alight in an iron shed and again on 23 November they worked at a fire in Brackenstown , Swords. It was a busy night as there was another out of area call to deal with a fire in a rick of thrashed oats in Crumlin. On 8 December the brigade found itself in Kilbarrack, outside the city limits, dealing with a fire in a quantity of straw but refused to go to Santry on 16 December as no water was available.


The report goes on to detail the minutia of brigade life. Three firemen had retired: Thomas Murphy after 25 years service, Robert O`Hara after 25 years and Henry Byrne after 24 years. If these seem like relatively short lengths of service remember that men were working long shifts on continuous duty with little or no protection from the elements. Many firemen in those years succumbed to T.B or ‘consumption’ which was endemic in the Dublin slums.

The following promotions were noted: Foremen Patrick Barry and Martin Jennings to Station Officer and Firemen Thomas Smart to Foreman. The death is noted and underlined in black of the Buckingham Street Station Officer Joseph Kiernan after 25 years service.

The plant in service included two steam fire engines (horse drawn) and two motor fire engines. Three aerial extension ladders (T.L.s), two hose tenders, one hose wagon, one motor ambulance (new that year) and two horse drawn ambulance wagons. The brigade also owned two breathing apparatus, one a ‘Bader patent’ smoke helmet and one an ‘oxygen rescue apparatus’.

In 1913 the ambulance service had responded to 2,206 calls. Some of these calls would have been caused by the street rioting which was a feature of the lockout and included the police riot and baton charge of Sunday 31 August and the DMP attack on Corporation Buildings which followed, both of which inflicted many casualties on striking workers including a number of fatalities. The brigade took delivery of it`s first motor ambulance that year as well.

The fires fought that year were a typical mix and included some which seem odd to modern eyes such as the fire on 12 January in a drying kiln on Dolphins Barn Street at P.J. Ray`s ‘Curled Hair Factory’ which was extinguished by two jets from a motor engine.A fire at 18 Capel Street on 18 July burned the premises of ‘cork manufacturer’ Kavanagh and Company.

fat cats

The tensions within the city might have also played a part in two fires at pawnbrokers and ‘incendiarism’ was listed as the cause of another fire in Dolphins Barn when, on 2 December a double span hay barn was burned in the premises of William Richardson, carrier.

I include some pages from the 1913 annual report. It is a small glimpse into life in Dublin and life within the DFB 100 years ago. (These will be posted shortly)