Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Workhouse Fire Athy 1858

Ten years ago I was asked by the Eastern Health Board to write a short history of St. Vincent’s Hospital which later appeared in booklet form as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the former workhouse.  The obstacles to my research into the venerable institution which we had all come to know as “the County Home” can be imagined when I discovered that the relevant records including minute books had been destroyed some years previously.  I was reminded of this when during the week I received a letter from a London correspondent enclosing press reports relating to Athy which he had culled from the London Times.  One such report dated 15th February 1858 under the headline “DREADFUL FIRE” related how just fourteen years after the Workhouse first opened five men and three children died in a fire which appears to have been confined to the male wing of the house.  The newspapers report reads -
“On Thursday morning last, at about 5 o’clock, a fire broke out in the clothes store of Athy Workhouse, and the contents being of an inflammable nature the flames quickly spread to an adjoining dormitory in which there were about 13 children sleeping.  This room also caught fire;  all the children escaped, except three, who, melancholy to relate, were burnt to ashes.  The school-master made several attempts to rescue the unfortunate children, but in vain, for the flames had spread to such an extent that it was impossible to obtain access to the room.  Subsequently the heated vapour coming from the burning building extended to a dormitory occupied by 12 men, seven of whom, on hearing of the fire, immediately got out of bed, dressed themselves, and quitted the room; but the other five, not being able to escape, such was the powerful influence the smoke had on them, remained, and were suffocated.  A circumstance connected with the suffocation of these men deserves to be related.  There were two brothers sleeping in one bed.  On the alarm reaching one awoke the other, and told him to get up as quickly as he could, that the house was on fire; but the unfortunate man was so much overpowered from the effects of the smoke that he was unable to move, and was afterwards, with the other four men, suffocated.  The fire was first discovered by the cook, who immediately informed the master, Mr. Tracey, and he at once proceeded to unlock all the dormitories, in order to allow the inmates to escape, which, when done, he despatched a messenger to the police barrack for a fire-engine;  he also ordered the alarm bell to be rung.  In a short time the fire-engine arrived, and was worked most efficiently by the police and a number of civilians, who rendered very great assistance in extinguishing the fire, which was completely done before 8 o’clock.”

The Leinster Express of 20th February carried a report of the fire, but coming as it did just ten years after the worst excesses of the Great Famine had been experienced the Workhouse fire generated little publicity.  Almost as much local press coverage was given to the death of a young girl, Margaret Brady, who the papers of 6th March 1858 reported, “died of burns received from an open fire at the Model School” in Athy.

The tragedies resulting from fires seemed to have a fascination for the reading public in the middle of the 19th century for we find another report of 23rd March 1864 dealing with a fire at Keatings Mills, Athy.  It read -

            “The extensive oat-mills of Mr. Keating, near Athy, were destroyed by fire on Saturday morning.  The buildings covered a space of 100ft. by 60ft., were four stories high, fitted with most expensive machinery, and filled with grain.  The loss is estimated at 4,000l., which falls entirely upon the proprietor, as the premises were not insured.  The Leinster Express states that:- ‘About 28 years ago, during a contested election, a house in the market square, Athy, the property of Mr. Keating’s father, largely stocked with groceries and whisky, was accidentally set on fire, and completely burnt to the ground in two hours, nothing whatever of the property having been saved.  A subscription was set on foot among his fellow-townsmen, and nearly 300l. was collected; but Mr. Keating handed the sum over to a committee for the purpose of founding a fever hospital, and from thence across the existing Athy Fever Hospital, which is now one of the very few supported independently of the Poor Law Board.’

The oat mill in question was in Clonmullin and the roofless shell of the building still stands to this day.

Another newspaper report later the same year gave an account of another fire in Athy which resulted in multiple fatalities.  Regrettably the report did not identify the persons involved or even the exact location of the thatched cottage which caught fire. 

            “A melancholy occurrence took place at Athy on Saturday night, which resulted in the death by fire of three persons, and the serious, if not fatal, injury of two others.  A cabin in the outskirts of the town, containing seven persons, took fire about midnight.  As the roof was thatched with straw, it was soon a mass of flames.  A brave fellow named Curry, rushed into the house, and, with the aid of his son, rescued five of the inmates.  The other two escaped.  Of the five saved three died before morning.  Their bodies presented a terrible spectacle.”

Just a month before the Workhouse fire the streets of the town of Athy were lit by gas for the first time.  The happy event took place on the evening of Thursday, 21st January 1858 and was witnessed by a large crowd of children whom the Leinster Express claimed “demonstrated their approbation by loud cheering”.  Athy Gas Company had been formed in April of the previous year and the Gas House was built on a site donated by the Duke of Leinster at Green Alley.  The Gas Company continued to operate up until the mid-1930’s, by which time the Electricity Supply Board had already put a street lighting system in place in the streets of the town.  The old gas works was demolished during the past week as Pat Boyd, Building Contractor, prepares the site for the building of a number of apartments. 

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