Fire at Maynooth

The Freeman's Journal of 2nd November 1878 reported that "a disastrous fire at Maynooth College destroyed a considerable part of the new (Pugin designed) was not many seconds after half-past eight o'clock had struck when the first indications of the fire were observed".

On that cold and frosty morning a dense volume of smoke coming from a tall chimney in St. Mary's Square did not at first cause any alarm, but when a huge flame sprung up the danger was seen, and very rapidly it was apparent that the wing housing the Senior Oratory and the Reading-room was on fire, and also endangered was the College Library and its important collection of books.

The immediate re-action of the staff was to summon the fire-brigade from Dublin, but when the town telegraph office was contacted it was found to be out of order, and a messenger had to go to Celbridge to sent the message.

As the Freeman's Journal reported on the following day: “meanwhile the College lines of hose were pulled out, and the hand-engine of His Grace the Duke of Leinster was brought upon the scene. Of buckets there were scores, and volunteers turned up in hundreds. The students themselves shirked no work, no matter how laborious, whilst the workmen of the College strained every nerve to subdue the conflagration”.

Another report said that “the students, 500 in number, laboured arduously to save the books, the majority of which could never be replaced, and were successful. Many of the valuable pictures were also removed”.

Being early in the day many of the students were in their rooms when the fire broke out, and several of them, some in their night-dresses, “faint and weak, half suffocated and greatly frightened”, had to be rescued, their books and bedding thrown from the windows into the square.

Considerable danger was experienced from the molten lead which pored off the roof, a quantity of which fell on the shoulder of one student, but luckily ran off without injury. When it was realised that the engulfed portion of the building could not be saved, all effort was transferred to ensuring that the fire did not reach the new library.

Several telegrams were sent to the fire brigade station in Dublin, begging assistance.
The Lord Mayor authorised the head of the fire brigade to comply and at half past ten the city fire-engine was dispatched by train to Maynooth with experienced men to man it. Several horses were also sent down, and a relay of men by a second train.

When the fire brigade arrived the worst was over, and the firemen joined the local volunteers and the college staff and students in removing every single volume from the building.

It was fortunate that the two wings partially destroyed were each insured for £5,000, and in time the compensation paid enabled the buildings to be restored “so effectively”, as Bishop John Healy wrote in 1895, “that no eye can now discern what parts of the building were destroyed by fire”.

The Annual Register for 1878 also carried the story, concluding with the cost of the damage “being estimated at £10,000. The student's property was all destroyed”.

Mons. P.J. Corish in his history of the seminary Maynooth College 1795-1995 suggests that there can be little doubt but that the staff member Dr. Patrick Murray wrote the detailed account of the conflagration published in The Freeman's Journal of 2nd November.

He also quoted a description of Dr. Murray's spartan quarters: “Dr. Murray's room was quite bare of all but books, which were stored all round, in plain deal cases, well glazed. There was no carpet: nor pictures, that I remember, except for one of Suarez [Spanish philosopher and theologian] such as may be found in the frontispiece of some old folio edition of his works. There was a rather long, narrow, deal table in the middle of the room; with the plain board-seated arm-chair at the head,towards the fire,where he sat at study. Plain unbacked forms ran at each side of the table; I do not remember any other chair”.

Indeed, as early as 1802 the austere character of the college was commented on by the poet W.M.Letts:

The men of Maynooth are like o' the rooks,
With their solemn black coats an' their serious looks.

Courtesy of the Leinster Leader
October 2002