seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Dromcollogher Burning

drumcollogher-cinema-fireForty-eight people die when a fire breaks out in a make-shift cinema on the upper floor of the village hall in Dromcollagher, County Limerick, on September 5, 1926.

The conversion of village halls into makeshift cinemas is a common practice in many rural villages in Ireland, right up to the 1940s. Prints are often borrowed from cinemas in larger towns or in Cork city, and then bicycled over to smaller venues (sometimes surreptitiously).

During the Irish Free State period (1922-1937), the exhibition of films is still governed by legislation put in place by the British government in 1909. The Cinematograph Act 1909 stipulates that cinema owners must apply for a license to screen films, and that venues must observe strict safety standards. Such standards include encasing projectors in fireproof booths, ensuring that the highly-unstable nitrate film, then the industry standard, be properly stored and handled, and fitting out venues with several fire exits. The regulations are generally observed by established cinemas but they are often ignored by operators of ad hoc venues/makeshift conversions.

The consequences of such indifference to patron safety are tragically realized in the small town of Dromcollogher in West Limerick in 1926. Situated a few miles from the County Cork border, its population is around 500 at the time, hardly enough to sustain a full-time cinema. However, local hackney driver, William Forde, identifies a business opportunity that seems too good to pass up. Through a contact, Patrick Downey, who works as a projectionist in Cork city’s Assembly Rooms cinema, he arranges for a print of Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic The Ten Commandments to be bicycled over for an unofficial one-off screening.

Forde rents the upstairs room of a venue on Church Street, later described by the Leinster Express as a wooden two-story structure, and advertises his evening’s entertainment. He finds a readymade audience among the churchgoers that come out of the service in the adjacent Catholic Church and straight into the hall, many with their rosary beads still entwined in their hands. It is estimated that 150 people crowd into the room and ascend the ladder to the upstairs room. Though Forde has been informed by one local Garda that he cannot run a screening unless the venue is equipped with fire blankets and exits, he and Downey disregard the advice and, in a bid to reduce the weight for the cyclist bringing the reels from Cork, instruct that the fireproof metal cases be left behind in the city.

A generator hooked up to a lorry is used to power the borrowed projector, and candles to illuminate the makeshift box-office. It is one of those candles, placed in close proximity to an exposed film reel, which sparks off a series of small fires that quickly developed into an inferno. Some of those seated closest to the main exit manage to escape, but those nearer the screen find themselves trapped and iron bars that had been placed on the few windows in the hall windows seal their fate. Whole families are wiped out and the final death toll comes to 48. As newspapers of the time report, 1/10th of the town’s population is lost.

Newspapers around the world carry reports of the tragedy and a relief fund is set up for the survivors with Hollywood star Will Rogers being one of the contributors. President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State William T. Cosgrave later travels to the town to attend the mass funeral service held for the victims.

As for Forde and Downey, they are later charged with manslaughter but the State chooses not to pursue the prosecutions. Forde apparently later immigrates to Australia and possibly accidentally poisons himself, and two others, while working as a cook in the Outback.

The “Dromcollogher Burning”, as it becomes known, holds the dubious honour of Ireland’s worst cinema fire. Sadly, it is not the last time safety regulations are disregarded in an entertainment venue: 75 years later the devastating Stardust Nightclub fire in Dublin also claims the lives of 48 patrons.

(From: “The Dromcollogher Cinema Fire,” http://www.corkmoviememories.com | Image Source: National Library of Ireland)


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Abduction of IRA Captain Noel Lemass

noel-lemass-monumentNoel Lemass, Anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) officer in Dublin and brother of Seán Lemass, is abducted by Free State plainclothesmen and killed on July 3, 1923. His body is found in the Wicklow Mountains on October 13.

Lemass is a member of the 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the IRA. He along with his younger brother Seán, later Ireland’s fourth Taoiseach, take part in the Easter Rising where he fights at the General Post Office (GPO). He is employed as an engineer in Dublin Corporation. When the Irish Civil War breaks out in 1922 both he and his brother take the Anti-Treaty side and both fight together at the Four Courts.

After the fall of the Four Courts, Lemass is imprisoned but manages to escape and makes his way to England. He returns to Ireland in the summer of 1923 when the cease-fire has been declared and goes back to his former employers at the Dublin Corporation, hoping to resume his work there. He offers the town clerk, John J. Murphy, if he would forward a letter to the authorities that he plans to write, “stating that he had no intention of armed resistance to the Government.”

In July 1923, two months after the Irish Civil War ends, Lemass is kidnapped in broad daylight by Free State agents outside MacNeils Hardware shop, at the corner of Exchequer and Drury Street. Three months later, on October 13, his decomposed body is found on the Featherbed Mountain near Sally Gap, twenty yards from the Glencree Road, in an area known locally as ‘The Shoots.’

The body is clothed in a dark tweed suit, light shirt, silk socks, spats and a knitted tie. The pockets contain Rosary beads, a watch-glass, a rimless glass, a tobacco pouch and an empty cigarette case. The trousers’ pockets are turned inside out, as if they had been rifled. There is what appears to be an entrance bullet wound on the left temple and the top of the skull is broken, suggesting an exit wound. He has been shot at least three times in the head and his left arm is fractured, his teeth have been brutally forced from his jaws and his right foot is never found. It is likely that he is killed elsewhere and dumped at this spot.

Meeting two days later, Dublin Council passes a strongly worded vote of sympathy with Lemass’s family. Describing their fellow employee as an “esteemed and worthy officer of the Council who had been foully and diabolically murdered,” the Council adjourns for one week as a mark of respect.

(Pictured: Captain Noel Lemass Memorial Stone at the spot where his body was found on Featherbed Mountain)


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State Funeral for Thomas Kent

thomas-kent-funeralA state funeral for Thomas Kent takes place on September 18, 2015, 99 years after his execution following the 1916 Easter Rising. Thousands of people line the route from Collins Barracks in Cork to the Church of Saint Nicholas, Castlelyons, County Cork for the funeral mass.

Kent is executed after a gun battle with members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who come to arrest him and his brothers on May 2, 1916, during the aftermath of the Easter Rising. During the ensuing fight, head constable William Rowe is killed and Kent’s brother Richard later dies of his wounds. He is executed by firing squad on May 9, 1916 in the Military Detention Barracks, Cork and is buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds.

Apart from Roger Casement, Kent is the only one of the sixteen men executed after the Easter Rising to be executed outside Dublin. In June 2015, his remains are exhumed and DNA testing confirms their identity.

A ripple of applause breaks through the crowd when the funeral cortege arrives at the church near where Kent was born and raised. The church is unable to accommodate all the visitors so a marquee is set up on the grounds of the church.

President Michael D. Higgins is in attendance along with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. The diplomatic corps is represented by British ambassador Dominick Chilcott, U.S. ambassador Kevin O’Malley and the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown. The extended Kent family is represented mostly by the relatives of Edmund and William Kent, Thomas Kent’s brothers.

Kent’s funeral “writes the final chapter in a long ordeal for the Kent family,” the Bishop of Cloyne William Crean tells the congregation. Delivering the funeral eulogy, Cmdt. Gerry White says Thomas Kent was once known only for being the man who gave his name to Kent Station in Cork. “Today, however, all that is changed. Today, because of the recent discovery of his remains, Thomas Kent has once again become someone who is very much in the present. Today, members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Defence Forces, will render the military honours that were denied him 99 years ago. Today, he will no longer be the ‘Forgotten Volunteer.’ Today, after 99 years, Thomas Kent is finally coming home.”

Thomas Kent’s life is represented by a picture of the family home, rosary beads, a pioneer pin and a leabhair gaeilge representing his interests in life. He is buried in the graveyard at Castlelyons. Taoiseach Enda Kenny gives the funeral oration.

(From: “State funeral for executed 1916 rebel Thomas Kent” by Ronan McGreevy and Éanna Ó Caollaí, The Irish Times, September 18, 2015 | Pictured: The remains of Thomas Kent as they are carried into St. Nicholas’ Church, Castlelyons, County Cork, photograph by Alan Betson)