1926 fire tragedy recalled

 

On the weekend before last a special Mass was celebrated in the Catholic church in Dromcollogher, Co Limerick, by the parish priest, Séamus Ambrose. It was in commemoration of one of the greatest tragedies to occur in Ireland since Independence: the cinema fire there on September 5th 1926 in which 48 people were burned to death, writes Vincent Browne.

It was a Sunday night and the crowd coming from evening Benediction in the church thronged with others into an upstairs loft, where the showing of a film was to take place, Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments.

The picture-showing was organised by a local hackney driver, William Forde. The reels of film had been brought from Cork by a Cork projectionist, who had taken the film from the metal containers in which they were usually stored. It seems that the showing of the picture on the Sunday night was "unofficial".

Cinemas in Cork were closed on Sunday nights, so there was an entrepreneurial opportunity for an enterprising projectionist to make some money "on the side", unknown to the cinema-owners in Cork, who would have been reassured by the presence of the steel circular film containers.

A generator was at hand to provide electricity for the projector and lighting for the hall. But for discreet lighting in the immediate vicinity of the projector, a candle was lit. Soon into the showing, a piece of the candle fell off and on to one of the exposed film reels on the table beside it. The film caught fire immediately.

Someone threw a cap at the flame to extinguish it; the effect was to spread the fire to the other reels on the table. Within a minute, the entire building was ablaze.

Many people simply jumped through the fire to get out via the entrance behind the projector - they had had to climb up a ladder to get to the loft to gain entrance; now many of them had to jump down about eight feet.

At the behest of a former IRA man, many others went to the back of the building. There was no entrance there, but there were two windows, both protected with iron bars.

During the War of Independence the loft had been used as a meeting place for the IRA, and to enable them to escape in the event of a raid the bars on the windows had been partially sawed through.

This meant that the bars could be pushed out, and people started to climb out one of the windows. But then a large woman got stuck in the window. Frantic efforts were made from the outside to pull her through. I heard recently that her arm was pulled off. But the people could not release her, and others were trapped inside.

The 48 people who died represented one-tenth of the population of Dromcollogher at the time. One entire family lost their lives - father, mother and two children. It was said that their dog remained whimpering around the village for weeks afterwards. Many who died were children. They had been ushered to the front of the hall to sit there, while the adults were at the back. Many more who died were people who went into the hall after the fire had started to rescue loved ones or neighbours. One of these was William Aherne, then aged 31, who had rescued his wife and then went back to save his mother-in-law, Mary O'Callaghan, but both died.

Jeremiah Buckley, the local schoolteacher, along with his wife Ellen, their daughter Bridget, his brother, Thomas, and their maid, Nora Kirwin, all perished.

Of the 48 who died that night in such horrific circumstances, 47 were buried together in a grave in the grounds of the church in Dromcollogher. Their names and ages are inscribed on the gravestone.

Messages of sympathy came from all over Ireland, from King George V, from the Governor of Northern Ireland, the head of the Jewish community, the Methodist Church, all the churches.

I grew up in the other village of that parish, Broadford, and was conscious, growing up, of the terrible tragedy that had occurred. My father had cycled to Dromcollogher that night when he had heard of the fire while in Newcastle West.

But very few in Dromcollogher wanted to talk about the fire. It seems that the trauma was too great for them to relive any part of it through recalling what had happened.

Last Friday, I met an old schoolmate from Dromcollogher on the street outside Trinity and he told me that his grandfather had died in the fire and his grandmother had never spoken about it for decades afterwards.

Others, who were bereaved, he recalled, had worn black for the rest of their lives, but they, too, never talked about it.

W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council, attended the funeral, but there was no inquiry. No expression of sympathy in Dáil Éireann. No urgent legislation mooted to ensure that such a thing would never happen again.

When pressed on that latter point, the then minister for home affairs, Kevin O'Higgins, said there was no action in "contemplation".