Catherine O’Leary, the Irishwoman blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire

Irish Connections: The immigrant and her cow did not burn the city down - but Brian Wilson was convinced they had a fiery power over his music

The Robert J Quinn Fire Academy is one of Chicago's largest firefighter training centres, as well as one of its quirkier tourist attractions. (Would it fascinate you to learn that the fireman's pole was invented in Chicago? There are plenty more such titbits in the museum.)

In terms of the centre's location, at 558 West De Koven Street, it would be hard to think of a more pointed case of a fire department shutting the stable door after the horse – or, in this case, cow – had bolted. It was at this exact site, in 1871, that a cow belonging to Irishwoman Catherine O'Leary was blamed for starting the Great Chicago Fire.

Not much is known about 44-year-old Catherine (or Cate) and her husband, Patrick O’Leary, prior to that Sunday evening of October 8th, beyond the fact that they were Irish immigrants. Chicago was then the fastest growing city in the world, founded only 34 years earlier but already bursting with 300,000 residents.

Chicago’s densely packed streets and structures were constructed in haste, using the material that was most readily at hand. The buildings were made of wood. The sidewalks were made of wood. In some cases, even the roads were made of wood.


Pegleg’s alarm

Six weeks of drought led up to the fire, and, with winter approaching, barns and outhouses were packed with fuel. At about 9pm that night, neighbour Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan spotted flames in the O’Leary barn and raised the alarm. It took 20 minutes for local firefighters to arrive, by which time the entire block was in flames. A strong breeze blew the fire north and east, towards the centre of the city.

The only natural firebreak, the Chicago river, was so polluted with oil that it too went up in flames. Soon whirlwinds of fire were ravaging through the business district. By the time the blaze burned itself out on Tuesday morning, 300 people were dead, 100,000 left homeless and 10 square kilometres of Chicago were in ruins. Every major bank, hotel and department store had been consumed in the blaze.

No sooner had the flames died out than the search for a scapegoat began.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the fire in the O'Leary barn began when a cow being milked by Catherine kicked over a kerosene lamp. The reporter, Michael Ahern, admitted years later that he made it up. In fact, Catherine O'Leary appears to have been asleep in bed when the fire started.

There were other, likelier candidates. In 1942, a wealthy importer named Louis M Cohen claimed on his deathbed that, as an 18-year-old, he had been gambling in the barn with some of O'Leary's sons when he accidentally knocked over a lantern. Others have pointed to inconsistencies in Pegleg Sullivan's testimony and speculated that he may have been the culprit.

Drunk in bed

That O’Leary was a woman from a marginalised ethnic group made her easily vilified. Anti-Irish sentiment was strong at the time. Some newspapers even reported, baselessly, that the reason she was in bed at 9pm was because she was passed out drunk. By the time Catherine died in 1895, the story had become an American legend.

In 1966, when The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was recording his magnum opus, Smile, he lit a fire in the studio and dressed his musicians in firefighter costumes to perform an instrumental called Mrs O'Leary's Cow. When a building across the street burned down days later, the drug-addled singer became convinced he had unleashed dark forces – and shelved the entire album.

This was the moment Wilson’s genius tipped over into madness. He spent the next three decades a heavily medicated recluse.

In 1997, following a campaign by lawyer Richard Bales, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance exonerating Catherine O'Leary of any blame for the Great Chicago Fire. In 2004, a rejuvenated Wilson rerecorded the Smile album and won his first-ever Grammy . . . for Mrs O'Leary's Cow.