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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Irish Free State Suspends Executions

irish-free-state-executionsOn February 8, 1923, the Irish Free State suspends executions until February 18, offering an amnesty to anyone who surrenders before that date.

In the aftermath of the sudden death of Arthur Griffith and the killing of Michael Collins, in August 1922, William T. Cosgrave becomes chairman of the provisional government. Cosgrave and his colleagues remain wedded to a ruthless military and political strategy that ensures, by May 1923, a decisive win over the Republicans and the end of the Irish Civil War. Cosgrave’s analysis is that “the executions have had a remarkable effect. It is a sad thing to say, but it is nevertheless the case.” He could also be chilling in his resolve: “I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate 10,000 republicans, the 3 millions of our people are bigger than the ten thousand.”

The Free State suspends executions and offers an amnesty in the hope that anti-treaty fighters will surrender. However, the war drags for another two months and witnesses at least twenty more official executions.

Several Republican leaders narrowly avoid execution. Ernie O’Malley, captured on November 4, 1922, is not executed because he is too badly wounded when taken prisoner to face a court-martial and possibly because the Free State is hesitant about executing an undisputed hero of the recent struggle against the British. Liam Deasy, captured in January 1923, avoids execution by signing a surrender document calling on the anti-treaty forces to lay down their arms.

The Anti-Treaty side calls a ceasefire on April 30, 1923 and orders their men to “dump arms,” ending the war on May 24. Nevertheless, executions of Republican prisoners continue after this time. Four Irish Republican Army (IRA) men are executed in May after the ceasefire order and the final two executions take place on November 20, months after the end of hostilities. It is not until November 1924 that a general amnesty is offered for any acts committed in the civil war.

In highlighting the severity of the Free State’s execution policy, however, it is important not to exaggerate its extent. The Free State takes over 12,000 Republicans prisoner during the war, of whom roughly 80, less than 1%, are executed. How those who are executed are chosen from the others captured in arms is unclear, however many more men are sentenced to the death penalty than are actually shot. This is intended to act as a deterrent to anti-Treaty fighters in the field, who know that their imprisoned comrades are likely to be executed if they kept up their armed campaign.

Perhaps this realism is also beginning to affect the republican self-declared “men of faith.” Dan Breen, who leads an IRA column in Tipperary during the Civil war, tells his fellow republicans, “In order to win this war you’ll need to kill 3 out of every 5 people in the country and it isn’t worth it.”