This has got to be one of those events in history which serves as a cautionary tale. The 1875 Chamber Street Whisky Fire in Dublin is well-documented. One does not have to look far to uncover the things that went wrong or saved that day. Lives were lost and property destroyed. Yet, it all could have been so much worse. The day was salvaged, albeit partially, due to the sheer brilliance and leadership of a few good men.
What Went Down
The Liberties area of Dublin was home to a malt house and a warehouse which stocked whiskey. As the fire broke out, these two places flared up quickly fed by the inflammable liquid on their premises. The wooden whiskey casks exploded and the contents spilled onto the adjoining Adree Street and Mill Street. The streets resembled rivers of lava with the fire devouring everything it found on its way.
Given that this was a poor neighbourhood with tenement quarters, hordes of people were rendered homeless when the fire spread. A possible class comment on how much of the loss to property could have been avoided had the accommodations been better suited to living, begs to be made here. The winds blew in the direction opposite to the Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite Convent, sparing those two buildings. Hailed by some as a miracle and the will of God, it was the same act of God which devoured the tenement quarters, as historian Las Fallon wryly notes. Crowds gathered adding to the bustling chaos, as did the livestock which was housed in the tenements. Pigs and horses ran up and down the street! A tannery went up in smoke. The fumes emanating from it must have been overwhelmingly oppressive. All in all, it was a flaming disaster!
The Unfortunate Choice
How did thirteen people end up losing their lives? Were they trapped in their homes? Did they fail to negotiate their way through the street fires?
Historians tell us that nothing like that happened. The fire was devastating no doubt, but no one perished of burns or of smoke inhalation. Some of the crowds that had gathered were seen collecting the flaming river of whiskey in their pots and pans and hats and boots! Everything they could lay their hands on was converted into a drinking cup. Some even drank with their cupped hands! This could not have ended well for any of the participants. They fell ‘insensible’, collapsed on the streets and were conveyed to nearby hospitals in ‘profound’ comatose states. A few lives were lost on the streets. The Illustrated London Times reports that the deaths occured due to the ‘effects of drinking’ that poisonous fluid off the dirty Dublin street. Lord Mayor Peter Paul McSwiney regretted that the ‘unhappy’ deaths can be attributed to the ‘tendency to indulge immoderately in drinks’. Egged on by poor judgement and lack of restraint, the victims from this poor neighbourhood lost their lives to alcohol poisoning.
Douse the Fire
The Dublin Fire Brigade sprung into action. Captain James Robert Ingram was at the helm of affairs. Known for his non-traditional methods of operation, he had once asked the Navy to sink a blazing ship at the Dublin harbour to stall its progress and contain damage to property. This had, of course, protected the harbour but had also earned him the nearly-dubious distinction of being ‘unconventional’. Upon realising that the streams of whiskey blazing down the street could not be doused by water, it would only make matters worse - he ordered for sand, gravel and horse manure to be piled up on the course of the fire. Heaps of it were ferried from all across Dublin from depots in which they lay. It was shovelled back on the ignited streets to create dams and halt the progress of the liquor-lava. The fire subsided once the burning whisky met the damp manure and sand - a masterstroke which saved the day. The Great Fire of London which broke out 1666 from a baker’s oven had raged for four days, fed by ghastly winds. The unfortunate Dublin Whiskey Fire of 1875 was clearly let off easy by comparison.
A fund was set up to help those who had lost their homes. The tales of the 1875 Chamber Street Whiskey Fire in Dublin still do the rounds. It is interesting to note that though there is no plaque at the site of the fire to commemorate this tragic event, there is a new Irish whiskey to have been named after it. Tongue-in-cheek in a manner that only the Irish can master, it is called ‘The Flaming Pig’. The reference to that scourge of a night in Dublin when pigs ran the street is in no manner oblique or unintended.