In the Great Whiskey Fire of 1875, a crazy cocktail of fire, whiskey and malt liquor flowed down Dublin’s Ardee-street, Chamber-street, Cork-street, and Mill-street.
Contemporary illustrations showing the whiskey fire of 1875. Source
The fire started at Reid’s malt-house and Malone’s bonded warehouse, in the Liberties area of Dublin.
As the flames reached the liquor casks, they exploded, sending a burning river of whiskey flowing through the streets.
In 2 hours, all the houses on one side of Mill-street and several in Chamber-street were destroyed.
One bereaved family was “ forced to flee with the corpse to mourn elsewhere while their home and belongings were totally destroyed.”
A change in wind direction saved the Coombe Maternity Hospital and the Carmelite Convent. What the newspapers blessed as an act of God was not so welcomed by the row of tenement houses opposite.
Panicked pigs, coach horses, goats, and geese stampeded through the narrow streets. All overlaid by the stink of a burning leather tannery, blackening the sky.
A few years ago, a blend of craft whiskey was inspired by that very scene. It’s called “Flaming Pig”.
13 people died as a result of the Whiskey Fire. None perished from smoke inhalation, or the flames; it was alcohol poisoning.
Some improvised caps, porringers, and their own boots as drinking vessels; others simply lay in the gutter slurping at the stones.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: Some of us are lying in the gutter, some of us are licking up the whiskey.
Of the 5,000 barrels of liquor, only 61 were recovered.
According to the Dublin Evening Post, some civic minded people liberated barrels from the blaze. They wound up in other areas of the city redistributed in pots, jars, buckets, pitchers, and whatever you’re having yourself.
People and pigs weren’t the only casualty. The Irish Times reported “a case of canine suicide”. The unfortunate animal gave William Eyre of Dominick Street Upper a scare when he ran into his house “foaming at the mouth and evidently either rabid or suffering from delirium tremens”.
Maddened by whiskey, the animal dashed upstairs and jumped to its death from a top floor window.
The Dublin Fire Brigade, under the leadership of Captain James Robert Ingram, knew that water was useless. Whiskey would act like petrol and spread the fire throughout the city. The answer was: Horse manure.
Ingram ordered that heaps of the stuff be brought to the Liberties by the cartload and shoveled onto the streets to form dams. The damp manure soaked up the burning whiskey and the fire slowly began to die down.
So those who succumbed to temptation were not just drinking whiskey. It was whiskey filtered through horse poop.
In 1875, Dublin arrested more people for drunkenness than did London. London was ten times bigger.
One busy female drunkard with 264 convictions wound up in Grangegorman prison on 52 occasions in 1 year.
In 1876, a Select Committee of the House of Lords on Intemperance was appointed to inquire into the drunkenness problem. Testimony from temperance reformers, clergy, medical doctors, police, judges, and common folk revealed “a connection between intoxication and the poverty, dirt, ignorance, and lack of amusement of the lower classes”.
At the time, there were over 100,000 Dubliners living in squalid one-bedroom tenements.
As one sympathetic upper-class gentleman put it, they “live and die in places where a humane sportsman would be ashamed to whistle forth his spaniels”.
No wonder some used their boots as drinking cups the day of the Whiskey Fire!
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.