Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Worst Fire Ever in Ballyshannon in 1849

The fire of 1849 in Market Street was probably the worst fire ever seen in Ballyshannon and is a reminder that much of the housing stock in the town has been altered by fire and clearances. When we look at a streetscape in Ballyshannon today it is important to remember that, at one time, many of the houses were thatched and an outbreak of fire could cause widespread devastation. In 1849 Ballyshannon hadn’t got a fire brigade although there was a barrack engine at the military barracks beside the bridge which was used to stop the spread of fire. (This barracks built in 1700 still stands opposite the tourist office today)

People were just after leaving places of worship on Sunday 5th August 1849 when the fire started. It must have been a shocking scene for those leaving mass in St. Patrick’s Church which was very close to the outbreak of the fire. In those days people met up with friends and neighbours and stood around after mass talking about the week’s news. The military had just passed through the town on their way back from church and as they reached the barrack gates at the bridge, they saw a vast body of smoke further up the hill, above Castle Street. They put away their guns, got on their fatigue clothes and quickly got the barrack engine into working order.

Fire Spreads Rapidly in Market Street

The fire started around 2 o’clock in the afternoon at the premises of William Boner of Market Street who had a tannery at the back of his house. Local people rushed to help and carried water to dampen the fires; horses and carts were also used to bring water to the scene. Several adjoining houses which were thatched caught fire and in a matter of minutes were enveloped in flames. When the military arrived at the scene the fire was spreading like wildfire and 3 dwelling houses were in flames. Worse still sparks lit houses on the opposite side of the street and in less than half an hour three more houses were in flames.

The barrack engine under the command of Captain Stanley and Lieutenant Hogan of the 57th Regiment arrived promptly on the scene. Local police under Sub-Inspector Charles Haydon and Head Constable McCartney and the Revenue police under Captain Scott and Sub-Lieutenant Mc Fadden did their utmost to stop the fire spreading. They were assisted by artillery men, sappers and miners stationed in the town.

Local Heroes

As well as the military and local people mentioned above who put their lives at risk to stop the spread of the fire, one man gets special mention for his role. P. Hoffman was a guest in Cockburn’s Hotel which was on the Main Street opposite the present Dorrian’s Imperial Hotel. He climbed onto the burning roofs and pulled off thatch and bravely went from house to house until all houses in danger were stripped of thatch.

 Fr. Coyle of St. Patrick’s Church (a relative of Francie Coyle, a well known County Council official in Ballyshannon in recent times) and Rev. Tredennick of St. Anne’s Church were to the fore in carrying water to the fire engine. Rev. Tredennick was a member of the family who owned Camlin Castle. Fr. McMenamin, a curate in St. Patrick’s Church, was also courageously involved in stripping the burning roofs of the houses. Every person present young and old helped in a great community effort to save the town.

Properties Destroyed

It was feared that the entire town on the northern side of the Erne would be destroyed. However the fire was contained but the result was that at least nine houses were unroofed in the Market Street area and the rear sheds and office houses of ten or twelve more were destroyed. The smoke of the fire was visible from miles away and was even visible from the sand banks at Bundoran, a distance of three miles.

The people who occupied the houses which were destroyed in the Market Street area included: Mr. Michael Gavigan, grocer, Mr. William Boner, tanner, Mr. Michael McGowan, auctioneer, Mr. William McVity, publican, Mr. Martin McGowan, baker, Mr. Thomas McGowan, baker, Mr. Hugh McManus, butcher, Mrs. Fitzsimon, lodgings house keeper and  Mr. P. McGrath, butcher. It is interesting to note that all of the premises destroyed on Market Street were commercial premises.

The premises of William Stephens, woollen drapers, in Market Street had a fortunate escape as the house next door was burned to the ground. Luckily the police and military fire engines had just got the fire under control by this stage. Today Sean Óg’s bar occupies the premises where William Stephen’s had his Cloth Hall in 1849. None of the destroyed houses were insured. The fire of 1849 had serious consequences for the property of the families involved but as it took place in daylight there were no fatalities. (Our Postmaster today Cecil Stephens is a descendant of William Stephens above).
A meeting of the Town Commissioners on the following Monday proposed a vote of thanks to the military and constabulary for their efforts in extinguishing the fire of 1849. There have been occasional fires in recent years but thanks to better fire prevention and the presence of Ballyshannon Fire Brigade these fires have not caused devastation like the fire of 1849.

Next Blog will be posted on Monday 25th February 2013 and is calledEarly Drama Groups and Ballyshannon Playwrights” showing how drama has been an important part of the community for well over a century.

The Gathering in Ballyshannon: Google “The Gathering in Ballyshannon” for more details of special events you might like to attend later in the year.

Lots happening in Ballyshannon in the summertime including festivals; Ballyshannon 400 celebrating the granting of a town charter in 1613 and the commemoration of the Kildoney Fishermen’s victory in1933.

Ballyshannon Musings:  Please let people with an interest in Ballyshannon and surrounding areas know about this site, particularly people who are not living locally and those who are abroad. The site is called Ballyshannon Musings and there are a number of back issues available. Click on

The site can be located on the internet (or by connecting to my Facebook page). New items will be posted every week or two on Ballyshannon Musings during 2013; the year of “The Gathering”.

New Local History Book: “Ballyshannon Genealogy and History” by Anthony Begley has newly researched history on the Ballyshannon area in the 19th and 20th centuries including fishing, sport, tourism, social history, flora and fauna, The Independence struggle, The Emergency, buildings, townland history and lots of reminiscences. None of the material used in the blogs is taken from this book.

The book covers an area roughly from Ballyshannon: To Rossnowlagh, to Belleek, to Finner/ Bundoran to the Loughside and towards Ballintra. Includes all the parish of Kilbarron and the local parts of Mágh Ene parish. The book includes many rare images and modern colour aerial photographs of the area.

Contains 500 pages with much material on how to trace your roots. All the gravestone inscriptions in the 3 local cemeteries are recorded and indexed, with aerial photographs for ease of location.
Available from The Novel Idea Ballyshannon/The Four Masters Bookshop Donegal Town or can be ordered on line from Price €25 softback plus postage if required. A limited number of hardbacks also available. Enquiries welcome.

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