It is no secret that Dubliners know how to enjoy themselves. Dublin’s own Guinness Brewery and Dublin Whiskey is rightfully known throughout the world for its quality. But what transpired in Dublin one summer night that turned a Dubliner’s love of alcohol into a terrifying thing to be feared.
In 1875, a fast-moving blazing fire ignited the streets and with it, it took the lives of 13 people. The peculiar thing was that none of the fatalities passed away from fire-related injuries. Unlucky casualties of the Dublin Whiskey Fire were lured in by the free booze, and in this instance, drowning their sorrows wasn’t just a cliché; it actually happened.
On the evening of June 18 that year, Dublin City residents in Ireland were given no warning. Local residents were first alerted by the sound of squealing pigs, and as they raced out of their homes they discovered a dark liquid set ablaze running through their communities like rivers of molten lava.
When everything was said and done, or rather when the drinks stopped flowing, damages totaling today’s equivalent of €6 million (6.2 USD) had been sustained.
Whiskey on the Streets, Whiskey on Fire
The Liberties quarter, the oldest area of the city that can trace its origins back to the Vikings, was the source of this fire. More specifically the whole thing started at Laurence Malone’s bar and storehouse were located on the corner of Ardee Street.
There was lots of whiskey in the bar, but the storehouse held a truly staggering amount. Malones had 5,000 hogsheads (315,200 US gallons, about 1.2 million liters) of whiskey in storage on the eve of the Dublin Fire, along with a small stockpile of other alcoholic beverages.
A hogshead is a conventional wooden cask with metal rims all the way around. The whisky was valued at £54,000 at the time (6.6 million US Dollars at the current exchange rate).
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The exact time of the fire’s occurrence at Malone’s warehouse is unknown. But it is believed to have occurred between 4:35 pm when the storeroom was examined, and 8:30 pm, when the screaming pigs sounded the first alarms.
The cause of the fire is still undetermined, but by 9:30 pm the whiskey casks were exploding from the heat of the flames. Whiskey and fire combined to produce a dangerous combination, and soon streams of ignited whiskey were gushing out of the burning structure and down the streets of the Liberties.
Dublin was a poor city at the time, therefore many citizens kept animals inside or just outside their houses. Pigs, dogs, and cows were now roaming around the streets in utter fright, adding to the already chaotic scenario. According to one account, a dog that had had too much whiskey and become tormented ran right into the flames, setting itself ablaze.
Whiskey for Days
As soon as it became known that whiskey was pouring down the street Dublin’s opportunists pounced. To stock up on the fire booze, people were emerging from their homes carrying pots, cups, and even boots to gather up what whiskey they could. Getting ahead of the river of alcohol, where the whiskey had not yet caught fire, was the key.
The Irish Times newspaper reported, “caps, porringers, and other vessels were in great requisition to scoop up the liquor as it flowed from the burning premises, and disgusting as it may seem, some fellows were observed to take off their boots and use them as drinking cups,”.
Eager punters were so mesmerized, so enthralled by the seemingly infinite supply of free whiskey that they forgot about the filthy, rat-infested Dublin streets which the alcohol had flown through. Many thought a free drink to start off their Saturday night festivities was a gift that could or should not be turned down.
Only once the blaze was extinguished the reality of their decisions would come to light.
How does One Quench a Whiskey Fire?
Captain James Robert of the Dublin Fire Brigade came on the scene as soon as the alarm was raised. Robert was well-known for his unconventional approach to combating fires; in another incident at the Dublin docks, he directed the Navy to sink a burning ship rather than use water hoses to extinguish the fire.
Being a shrewd man, he understood that adding water to the flammable mixture would accelerate, not stop, the fire. Simply rising above the water, the whiskey would spread out even more as it was carried through Dublin’s streets. Instead, at their captain’s command the fire crew removed the stone pavement and threw a mixture of gravel and sand on the flames to douse them.
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However, their efforts were in vain: they had miscalculated the intensity of the fire and the enormous amount of whiskey. In a last-ditch effort, the captain requested that depots outside the city send horse manure to the scene of the fire. In a foul way, it was a poetic moment because the manure had been taken from these streets and was now being put back to prevent calamity for the city.
Save the Convent!
The neighboring Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite convent on Ormond Street were also in jeopardy of being destroyed by the fire. Fortunately, a wind blew up that night, carrying the flames and the fumes away and keeping both locations intact. Nuns poured out of the monastery, proclaiming that it was a divine miracle and thanking God for protecting them.
However, not everyone had experienced a miracle, despite what the nuns thought. Soon after people began consuming the infected whiskey, comatose patients began arriving at the nearby hospitals.
There was a total of eight patients that arrived at Meath Hospital, twelve at Jervis Street Hospital, three at Steven’s Hospital, and one at Mercer’s Hospital. Tragically, alcohol poisoning claimed the lives of 13 of the rushed patients.
Peter Paul McSwiney, the Lord Mayor in 1875, delivered a speech in front of the public soon after the catastrophe. He expressed his gratitude for the emergency services’ prompt action in controlling the fire and reducing the number of victims. He maintained that the deaths of those who drank the fire whiskey would have happened in “any city where there was a tendency to indulge immoderately in drink,”.
In his final remarks on the tragic event, he said “In the present case the unfortunate victims apparently could not restrain themselves, as I understand, from the burning fluid.”
Nuns believed that a miracle had protected their convent; locals punters believed that a miracle of an “open bar” had obtained been granted; however, the truth for many locals was that this was no miracle. Countless families were left homeless as a result of what happened in the course of one single night. The Dublin whiskey fire turned whiskey, a drink used in traditions, celebrations and times of mourning into a destructive device.
Top Image: James Roberts and his men work to stem the flood of flaming Dublin whiskey and control the fire. Source: South Dublin County Libraries / Public Domain.
By Roisin Everard