Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 May/June2013, Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 21

Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution

Las Fallon
(South Dublin Libraries, €7.50)
ISBN 9780956580481

 

78Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) has a pivotal if unsung role in the history of the Troubles, 1916–23, and as the individual responsible for destroying one of the last artefacts from that time, I feel that I am particularly well placed to write this review. The central figure on the cover of Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution is my Great-uncle Jack, or Lieutenant John Myers, as he was then known to the DFB, attending a fire in 1916; and the helmet that he is wearing there, well, I found that in the attic 40 years later and, getting my youngest brother Johnny to wear it, I threw rocks at it to see how resistant to damage it was. Not very: actually, less than Johnny’s head. Admittedly, I am a partisan, but I do believe that Great-uncle Jack is one of the great heroes of the time. He was responsible for preventing the fires on O’Connell (Sackville) Street from reaching Findlater’s whiskey warehouse, which otherwise would have produced a truly calamitous conflagration that would have destroyed the GPO and all within, not to speak of the pro-Cathedral. More controversially, armed volunteers were reported to have prevented him from reaching the fire in the Magazine in the Phoenix Park, which had earlier been the scene of the first dreadful atrocity of the Rising, the murder of the young man Playfair by Volunteer Gary Holohan (not mentioned in this account, and, indeed, mentioned in very few). Great-uncle Jack wrote a letter to the Irish Times, asserting that he had not been held up by armed men. I suspect that this was Jack being unusually prudent; my father—who had been raised by Jack, a bachelor living in Winetavern Street Fire Station, and by Jack’s maiden sister, my Great-aunt Margaret—told me that gunmen really had prevented Jack from attending the fire. Other fires awaited him. He is perhaps the only man to have been present at the infernos in O’Connell Street in 1916, in Cork City in 1920, at the Customs House in 1921 and at the Four Courts in 1922. Though he received little acknowledgement for his bravery at the time, he earned a footnote in Ireland’s literary annals with a mention in Ulysses.
It might appear from this review thus far that he was the only fireman in Dublin Fire Brigade: however, not even the most ardent Myers would ever propose such familial immodesty. So, perhaps the most striking revelation that Las Fallon makes about the DFB of the time is how Larkinite/republican it was. It officially participated in the funeral of Thomas Ashe in 1917, with Lieutenant Myers attending. Only two members of the brigade joined the British Army during the Great War, compared to twenty ‘with family connections’ from the Cork Fire Brigade. No doubt the lock-out had left a residue of bitterness, but that alone would not explain the difference. Recruitment amongst the Belfast Fire Brigade is said to have been higher because of its alleged ‘unionism’, but we are given no facts to justify the latter assertion. A comparative study of British military recruitment within other Irish local governments might have been interesting.
It would, however, have been unfair to ask this of a publication that is intentionally limited in its scope, most evidently so in the lack of an index. This is unfortunate, for it immediately restricts the enthusiasm of both the semi-interested scholar and the casual reader. Yes, an index takes time and costs money: but so do the 45 pages of photocopied reports from the nineteenth century that are carried as an appendix and have no clear purpose here. And perhaps the double inclusion of the same photograph, captioned ‘Dublin firemen grin as military stores burn’, is an oversight, or a mark of an enthusiasm for republican incendiarism. Actually, what I found most interesting about this photograph was how healthy and strong the firemen looked, rather like firemen today. No shortage of girlfriends for them, I imagine.
The author’s enthusiasm for the republican cause in both main phases of the conflict is not concealed. This apparently inclines him often to give more details of IRA operations, which are available elsewhere, than of those of the Fire Brigade. He is factually wrong when, in his prelude to the despatch of the DBF to Cork to deal with the terrorist arson attacks by Auxiliaries, he reports that eighteen Auxiliaries had earlier been killed in an ambush at Kilmichael, ‘with no survivors’. In fact, two men survived. One was captured and later shot. The other was left a quadriplegic epileptic.
The inevitable ambiguities within an organisation such as the DFB during such a local conflict make fascinating reading. I was, frankly, astounded to read that several firemen who were on fire-duty at the Four Courts helped IRA leaders to escape in their fire-tenders, and later sought pensions for their deeds from the very state whose formation they had helped to oppose while they were its uniformed servants. I have trouble explaining that to myself: I have no idea what I shall tell Great-uncle Jack, who was also at the Four Courts, when I finally make his acquaintance. (He died of pneumonia, resulting directly from injuries incurred in the line of duty, in 1927.)
This is a highly welcome book, with some remarkable tales to relate. It is one of the misfortunes of the way Irish history has been both taught and studied that an essential and indeed obvious thread such as that of the DFB, which contains so many insights into the paradoxes of these years, has been so neglected. Las Fallon richly deserves our gratitude for this work, which comes as a highly useful addition to Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead’s larger 2004 history of the brigade. He is clearly young enough and energetic enough to develop some of the themes only briefly adverted to here. As those laddered heroes of the DFB would say, ‘Onward and upward’. HI

Kevin Myers is a columnist with the Irish Independent.

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