This article, by Limerick Fireman Pat Roche, first appeared in the Limerick Christmas Gazette to accompany a superb collection of glass plates that were found by John Denning and Gearoid Butler of Clare County Fire Services.
Todds Great Fire of 1959
By PAT ROCHE
Limerick Fire Brigade
This article was prompted by the finding of a collection of slides by John Denning and Gearóid Blake of Clare County Fire Service. I am also indebted to Jim Woods and Gerry Treacy for their recollections of the event..
Over the years Limerick has had its share of large outbreaks of fire, but none more spectacular and devastating than the Great Todds Fire of 959. This fire had a dramatic impact on the Limerick people who witnessed it and the workers and business people whose livelihoods were affected by it.
The premises of William Todd & Co. occupied most of the area between O’Connell Street, Thomas Street and Williams Street. This block also included Gaywear, Cromers Jewellers and the more famous names of Burtons and Liptons. A large workfrce was employed by these companies and heavily dependent on them for a living as was the case with most workers in the Ireland of the ’fifties.
The main building, as can be imagined, was of a pre-modern construction with wooden floors supporters by cast-iron columns and large uncompartmented spaces filled with combustible materials. In modern fire prevention times it would be seen as a disaster waiting to happen but at the time it was quite common place.
Limerick Fire Brigade was based a short distance away in Thomas Street, the building which now houses Limerick Civil Defence units and traffic wardens. The brigade had a first attendance crew of seven firemen, an appliance compliment of three pumps, one of which carried a wheeled escape, two trailer pumps and three ambulances. Only one of the appliances had a small built-in water tank unlike the 1,800-litre water tenders of today which meant that water had to be supplied from a hydrant before any fire could be tackled. The water supply was not as advanced as it is today and hydrants and stand-pipes were of the single outlet ball type which were insufficient and could actually restrict water output.
Few of the hose branch nozzles in use were of the shut-off type which meant that when being used at pressure they had to be manned by two or three or more men. Firemen in those days did not have reathing apparatus with the result that close-up fire fighting inside a building could not be sustained for any great length of time. All these factors combined to make dealing with such a large, rapidly developing fire, a monumental task.
On August 25, 1959, at around 11 a.m. a fire, possibly caused by an electrical fault, started to develop in the basement of Todds at the William Street entrance, Gardai in the William Street Barracks which was opposite this entrance, noticed smoke coming from Todds and immediately alerted the fire brigade. The first fire appliance arrived shortly afterwards and the crew, quickly assessing the potential of the fire, sent for further assistance. The brigade then bagan a co-ordinated attack on the fire under the direction of Acting Chief Fire Officer, Thady McInerney. All available hydrants were used to supply pumps and direct water to the fire which had begun to gather momentum through some of the highly flammable contents such Wellington boots, etc.
These materials produced volumes of thick black smoke which made it difficult for fire fighters to get close to the seat of the fire. But into it they went and fought to control the walls of the flame which were already being fed by the very structure of the interior of the building. As this work was being carried out it was buying time for staff and volunteers to salvage what could be removed from the O’Connell Street entrance. As more appliances began to arrive from areas outside, the army at Sarsfield Barracks responded and cordoned off the streets around the affected block in conjunction with the gardai. Much of the saved stock was stored in the Savoy Cinema and transported to Sarsfield Barracks.
A gas main in the William Street side ruptured and literally added more fuel to the fire which generated intense heat causing the wheels of a nearby fire tender to burn and windows to crack on the opposite side of the street. the appliance had to be moved away from the radiant heat of the fire in order to keep it servicable.
A volunteer, Mr. Paddy Casey, helping the fire fighting effort, reported later that he had been drenched by one of the hose jets and his clothes dried almost immediately in the fierce heat. Brigades from Shannon Airport, Rathkeale, Kilmallock, Charleville, Fermoy, Cork City, Tipperary and Ennis were arriving and setting up water relays from all available water sources. The Shannon Airport brigade began pumping water from the river at Arthurs Quay, the fire crews of the army and Ranks Flour Mills and members of the civil defence fought the inferno alongside the firemen, every available off-duty fireman responded to the call for assistance as in the case of the late Jim Chamberlain who heard the news while on holiday in Dublin and returned to duty immediately.
As the floors of the main building were consumed by the fire their inevitable collapse was anticipated and branch men were withdrawn from the inside. The brigade’s wheeled escape ladder was pitched to the roof of Gaywear to deal with the spread of fire which reached the roof of the main building and threatened those of surrounding premises.
It was soon after this that the floor collapsed and the levering action of their supporting beams and joists forced the front walloutwards causing a huge collapse of masonry both into the building and onto the street. This temporarily halted the frontal attack on the fire which was again renewed, this time concentrating on the blaze engulfing the adjoining shop of Liptons.
The fire now began to converge on the corner shop of Burtons Tailors. The three upper storeys of both of these premises were almost destroyed. At the rear of the premises in Little William Street, firemen fought successfully to prevent the spread of fire on to the premises of Gleesons and O’Sullivans public house in Thomas Street. An earlier collapse at the rear of Todds had sent burning material onto the laneway and ignited the structure of the adjacent buildings. This was quickly extinguished.
The Limerick Chronicle of the day provided its readers with an excellent and graphic account of the disaster and many journalists and photographers from the national and international media reported on the event. Radio Eireann’s news bulletins broadcast a detailed account as did the BBC World Service who had a live link-up with Limerick.
As the fire was eventually contained and brought under control the long task of “damping down” began. For three days firemen worked round the clock moving through the building extinguishing the many small outbreaks of fire which constantly re-emerged. The building was by now partially demolished by the fire and in a dangerous condition. The work of making it safe and clearing the rubble was in itself a large undertaking and many people gathered to witness the levelling of almost an entire block of what had been the most prestigious shopping area in the heart of Limerick.
The willingness of ordinary people to assist the fire-fighting effort. The salvage of stock and the provision of food and refreshment to the weary firemen is recalled by the retired Chief Fire Officer, Charlie Daly, a fireman at the time, recalls Patrick Nardone of the Roma Cafe in William Street offering to provide food for the fireman at the scene. He also recalls locating a large safe which had fallen through the burning floor to the basement and which when opened by a Dublin locksmith was found to have all its contents money, papers, records, etc., fully intact.
The effect of the devastation to the staff of Todds, Burtons, Liptons and the other adjoining shops was one of shock and disbelief. Many people can still rememer what they were doing that day. It had that type of dramatic and extraordinary impact. When the building was re-constructed there emerged a new and modern Todds. The first modern style large building in the city was the new focal point with its bright new exterior, the extensive canopy of which became the popular rendezvous for many young couples.
The fire brigade has moved with the times too, having learned much from fires like Todds, new equipment, improved water supplies, fire prevention in the planning stages of buildings have meant that fires like this are less likely but of course far from impossible. A good deal of work still remains to be done before anyone could say “this couldn’t happen today.”