An Irishman's Diary

 

IT is 100 years this month since New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which 146 souls, most of them girls and young women, left this world. The March 25th, 1911 tragedy has been overshadowed in memories by more recent events, but it remains the worst industrial disaster in the history of that city.

The list of the dead tells a tale of Russian Jews and Italian Catholics, who perished as their shift making women’s blouses, or shirtwaists as they were known, came to a close. It was a Saturday afternoon and the employees in the Asch building, 23 Washington Place, in Manhattan, had just finished their sixth working day of the week. Many were unable to escape from the ninth floor because doors to stairs and exits were locked during shifts to prevent petty theft, while the collapse of a rusty fire escape compounded the disastrous outcome.

The building’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were brought to trial but acquitted after 23 days when it was found they did not know doors had been locked. They later settled 23 civil suits, paying $75 compensation for each loss of life. The list of the dead features the likes of Vincenza Billota, a 16-year-old Italian girl, who had lived in the US for three years and Sarah Brenman (17) from Russia who had arrived only six weeks previously. Only one Irish woman is mentioned on the roll-call of the dead or survivors; Anna Dorrity escaped with her life that day, and is simply described as an “Irish immigrant”. The Irish at the time had made big inroads into New York city life, most often in the police and fire service; witnesses at the trial of Harris and Blanck included firemen John Boyle, Daniel Donohue and Thomas Foley, while detective Francis Flynn and Captain William Hogan also gave evidence.

As the fire took hold and as more than 60 workers threw themselves from the 10-storey building, another Irish immigrant, a Tipperary farmer’s son, was one of those working desperately below. The attempts of Patrick J Walsh, a native of Ballydine and my distant cousin, along with his fire department colleagues were hampered by ladders that could not reach the upper floors of the building and inadequate water pressure. Many of the factory workers, just like many of the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001, were left with the choice of certain death by smoke and flames or probable death by jumping. A man was seen kissing a woman before they both jumped to their deaths.

The 1911 fire was not the first or last time Walsh would come face to face with death as part of his job. He was in attendance at the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904 and later the Wall Street Explosion of 1920, the Coney Island fire of 1932, and in 1945 when an aircraft crashed into the Empire State Building. It was all a far cry from farming life in Ballydine.

Walsh had landed in Manhattan in March 1888. According to his granddaughter, Kathleen Walsh Packard, who detailed his life in Fling Old Glory, he had only £5 to his name, which he had collected from a neighbour for cutting hay. He arrived in Manhattan’s Castle Garden, an old fortress that had been used for a time as a theatre, before it was converted to an immigration centre in the mid-19th century.

After gaining entry he got a job on a milk farm in Staten Island working 17 hours a day for a daily rate of 50 cents. He went on to serve seven years with the Union Ferry Company and then joined the fire department on December 10th, 1901. By 1913 he had been awarded the Hugh Bonner medal for rescuing a fellow officer from a stack of burning oil drums and it was clear the FDNY had bagged somebody a little extraordinary.

Walsh was 42 years of age and the recently appointed Captain of Engine Company 7, based on Duane Street, when the bells rang on the afternoon of March 25th, 1911.

On May 10th 1941, he was appointed as Fire Commissioner of New York. A front page article in the New York Timesthe following day, and republished in that paper’s digital archive, reports his appointment by Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, who remarked there was “nothing any mayor can tell you about the Fire Department. I won’t try”. His promotion had been hastened by the removal by the mayor of John J McElligott, who had been accused of condoning the taking of bribes by fire department inspector Albert Becker in connection with the inspection of oil burners.

Having reached the pinnacle of his career, and having become a living example of the American dream, Walsh retired at the end of 1945. In September the following year, and a little over 10 years after the death of his first wife, he died aged 76.

The New York Timesreport of his death describes him as “short, stocky and square-jawed, with more than a trace of an Irish brogue and gift for writing poetry”. He had a sense of humour too. Remarking that two of his sons were priests and two were lawyers (his son Michael went on to become State Supreme Court Justice for New York), he is reported to have said on many occasions: “I have two sons to keep me out of jail and two to keep me out of hell”.

But it is perhaps his words on the day of his appointment as commissioner, that stand out. He promised to do “better than my best”; a powerful guiding principle for public servants today.