The Tullamore Balloon Fire - First Air Disaster in History
The famous balloon fire occurred at Barrack Street (now Patrick Street) Tullamore on Tuesday the 10th of May 1785. Now, a little over 200 years later the event is recalled with the object of examining what could be described as the first air disaster in history while at the same time clearing up misconceptions that have grown up about the fire and its impact on Tullamore.
The fire of 1785 marks a turning point in the history of Tullamore for a variety of reasons. First, it led to the destruction of Patrick Street and possibly also Kilbride Street (at the time known as Upper Barrack Street) and it facilitated the reconstruction of Patrick Street as an important trading street, along improved lines. Secondly, it was the year that Charles William Bury, the town's landlord, came of age. He had inherited the Tullamore property while still a mere infant in 1764 on the accidental death of his father. Thirdly, the period 1785 to 1815 (the years of the long drawn out war with France) ushered in an age of prosperity for Ireland, characterised by the rapid expansion of many Irish towns.
Tullamore in 1785 consisted of at least five streets - Patrick Street, Bridge Street, High Street, O'Connor Square, Church Street (or Church Lane) and perhaps part of the present William or Colmcille Street. This does not include the lanes off the main streets and these would include Ruddock's or Swaddlin Lane behind the former Bolger's Hotel, Kilbride Street where the Mallet Tavern is located - and lanes off High Street and Bridge Street. The news reports of the fire suggest that only one street, Patrick Street, and perhaps all or portion of Kilbride Street were destroyed.
Only two contemporary reports of the fire have been recovered. One in"Faulkner's Dublin Journal" for May 14 and one in the Kilkenny based "Finn's Leinster Journal". Other accounts such as that in the "Dublin Evening Post" and "Hibernian Magazine" are the same as that in "Faulkner's Journal". Unfortunately, there were no local papers circulating in Tullamore area until the 1830's (Leinster Express) and 1840's (The King's County Chronicle). The "Faulkner's Dublin Journal" report states that nearly 100 houses were destroyed while a report in "Finn's Leinster Journal" puts it at 130 houses.
The fire was caused when an air balloon collided with the barrack chimney, and taking fire, it in turn set fire to the house of a Christopher Beck in Patrick Street. The location of this house was possibly where Talbot's shop and the Record & Tape Centre are located as one William Beck had a lease of this house in 1786. The balloon was launched from a Dr. Bleakly's yard. The location is not known, but I believe it may have been to the rere of the old military barracks (i.e. behind the present Garda Station) and possibly in the vicinity of Hugh Lynch's or the Lantern public house. Dr. Blakely's house was used as the county infirmary until 1788 and was probably away from the town centre for reasons of public health. The use of the word Montgolfier as an alias for air balloon had been invented by two Frenchmen, the Montgolfier brothers, in 1783. The first ascent of a manned air balloon in Ireland took place at Navan in 1784 and at the time of the fire in Tullamore further adventures were in progress in Dublin with attempts being made to cross the Irish Sea. The reading public in Ireland and the Dublin crowds had only just become familiar with air balloons in May 1785, but for the country people of the Tullamore area assembled for one of the three great annual fairs in the town it was an entirely novel spectacle. Despite the efforts of the Tullamore townspeople and the scorching and burning of a few, the fire could not be put out until it had done enormous damage.
However, the extent of the damage has been exaggerated. We have no reason to doubt the contemporary report which states that every house front and rere in Barrack Street with the exception of four slated houses and one thatched house were destroyed.
We cannot say if the thatched survival is the Mallet Tavern. With regard to the slated houses, the architectural style an other sources would suggest that Williams head office, Brady's and R. Smyth all survived the fire. There is no evidence to suggest that houses in any other street in Tullamore were damaged in the fire. Nevertheless just two years later, John Wesley , the founder of Methodism, on one of twenty visits to Tullamore over the period of 1748 to 1789, noted in his diary 'I once visited my old friends at Tullamore. Have all the balloons in Europe done so much good as can counterbalance the harm which one of them did here a year or two ago? It took fire in its flight and dropped it down on one and another of the thatched houses so fast that it was not possible to quench it, till most of the town was burnt down'.
Wesley certainly exaggerates the extent of the fire, perhaps because Patrick Street was the town's main trading area and most populated street and therefore its loss would be severely felt.
CHARLES WILLIAM BURY
Charles William Bury the owner of Tullamore came of age in 1785 and lost no opportunity in taking control of his estate. It was reported in the "Dublin Evening Post" of 24 May 1785 that shortly after the fire he made his way to Tullamore to enquire into the damage done and that he distributed upwards of £550 among the unfortunate sufferers. The report goes on "this noble act of charity and manufacture has endeared him to a numerous tenantry, and must procure him the public admiration and esteem."
The following year Bury set about re-organising his estate and had an atlas and schedule of the tenantry drawn up. In all 25 leases of properties, many of them in Patrick Street were given to tenants that year. These new leases appear to have been in lieu of older leases and allowed Bury to reorganise and possibly plan Patrick Street so as to have a street with slated houses throughout. Certainly the number of leases granted in that year exceeded all other years down to 1837. The true average was no more than 2 or 3 a year with the exception of 1790 (13), 1805 (11) and 1807 (13).
PHOENIX - LIKE
The new leases at 1s. a foot in front of perpetuity encouraged building and were important factors in the transformation of Tullamore over the period 1785 to 1805 and onwards to 1835.
Tullamore did indeed rise phoenix-like from the ashes but it was a bigger and finer bird than that which perished in 1785. At the same time we cannot agree with Coote who in his survey of Offaly in 1801, described Tullamore as a very neat town which owed "its newly acquired consequence to the present Lord Charleville with scarcely any better than thatched cabins, which were almost all destroyed by accidental fire ....." Coote's statement exaggerates the influence of Charles William Bury (later Lord Charleville) as a considerable amount of building pre-dated the fire of 1785. However, many of the gazetteer writers of the 19th century copied from Coote and helped to perpetuate the myth of wholesale destruction.
By the way of concluding it should be said that the experience of fire did not stampede the town's people into availing of any kind of fire fighting equipment and that it was not until the destruction of the Goodbody tobacco factory in 1886 that the first trained fire brigade was established by the town commissioners. The present fire brigade has its origins in this service.