Just after midnight on Friday, August 8, 1980, a call is made to the emergency services after a fire has been discovered in a small corridor to the back of the main bar, and spreading towards the main staircase used by the hotel’s guests. The fire breaks out at the height of the summer season, with sixty guests, mainly couples and families, booked in on the night, while a function is also taking place in the main dance hall of the hotel.
Initially, the town’s own fire brigade is dispatched, and is to be aided by other units from across the northwest including Ballyshannon, Donegal, Killybegs, Letterkenny and Manorhamilton. As panic spreads throughout the town, many locals and holiday makers rush to the hotel in an effort to rescue some of those who have been trapped inside, with people jumping from the upper floors of the building into blankets held by those below.
The fire spreads rapidly and burns so intensely that cars parked on the street outside burst into flames. Ambulances are sent from Ballyshannon and Sligo to bring the many injured to hospital, while the fire brigade fights the blaze throughout the night.
The fire brigade and Garda forensic experts launch an investigation into the blaze, as the remains of the hotel smoulder for several days afterwards. The fire kills five adults and five children, including the entire Brennan family from Naas, County Kildare, while the body of a Belfast baby, Nicola Lamont, is never found in the rubble.
Despite calls from the victims’ families and Dáil Éireann debates for a public enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fire, similar to that held after the Stardust fire several months later, none is ever held. Calls for an investigation are made again in 2002, when Fine Gael Senator Jim Higgins calls for the Garda handling of the fire to be investigated as part of the Morris Tribunal, an enquiry into police corruption in County Donegal. Higgins says that the fire warrants inclusion in the tribunal’s work as claims had been made by the owner of the hotel that Gardaí had tampered with the evidence. However, the terms of reference are not extended to include the fire.
The tragedy is covered as part of the RTÉ television series Disaster in the summer of 2007.
At the time of the tragedy, it is one of the worst fires in Irish history. The Bundoran fire is not commemorated physically for a long time, although in the aftermath of the RTÉ programme the town council votes in favour of a memorial plaque to the ten victims. There is reluctance to place a plaque on the site of the fire from both councillors and members of the new hotel’s board. The site of the Central Hotel lay vacant for several years, but is now occupied by the Grand Central Hotel and Apartments.
However, on Sunday, August 8, 2010, a memorial to those who died in the hotel fire is unveiled in the town, exactly 30 years after the tragedy. Families and relatives of the victims attend prayer services in two churches and an unveiling of the memorial bench with the names of the victims inscribed on it.