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06-09-2006, 01:57   #1
billy the squid
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Ireland's first disaster - Dromcollogher Cinema Fire 80th Anniversary

I wrote this for my own site and thought those interested in history would like to read it.

Tuesday was the 80th anniversary of the Dromcollogher, Co. Limerick Cinema disaster, where 48 men women and children lost their lives

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It was your typical rural Irish village of the 1920s, everyone knew each other, and the big city media would not have paid much attention to the daily events there. They wouldn't have been considered important enough.

But all that changed on Sunday, September 5, 1926 in the west Limerick village of Dromcologher.

The day started like every other Sunday in the town with it's residents readying themselves for Sunday Mass at the local church.

A hundred or so yards away from the church, at a local hardware store, Patrick Downing, a movie projector operator, had travelled up from Cork to meet local hackney driver, William "Baby" Forde, to partake in a little scheme to make a few pound between them.

Forde had hired the upstairs loft of the hardware store from Patrick Brennan, where they had planned to set up a temporary cinema. Two trial runs at the location were a success, and this was going to be the first time that they would charge an admission fee to see the showing.

Forde had realised that there were no movie showings in Cork on a Sunday, so he and Downing hatched a plan to bring films from the Assembly Rooms Theatre on Sunday morning, and have them back in Cork again by Monday morning. That way the theatre owners in Cork would be none-the-wiser about the fact that their film reels had been missing on the Sunday.

To show films privately was against the law, so to hide the fact that he was doing this, Downing took the movie reels out of their protective metal cases and placed them in a Gladstone bag for transport to Dromcollogher. The metal cases would still be in Cork, giving the impression that the films were where they were supposed to be.

The projector was set up on a table infront of the only exit to the loft and the reels were placed beside it. There were also two candles placed on the table to give light to them while they checked both the money people were going to be paying and to read the reels as they were being loaded into the projector to be shown. The candles were not placed in holders, but they were held in place by hardened candle wax. The showing was scheduled to begin at 2100 hrs so as to allow people to attend Benediction at the church.

Locals then made their way from the church to the hardware store and climbed the rickety outside stairs to the loft and take their places in time for the screening. It was not long before there were two hundred people packed into the tiny room.

The first of the two films, a short movie called, "The Decoy," was shown without incident. By this time, one of the two candles on the table had burnt out. One candle remained alight.

Things turned for the worst after the second film "The False Alarm" began.

There are many different suggestions as to how the remaining candle was knocked over. Some say that young boys in the room were throwing their caps at it in an effort to extinguish it, in the hopes that they could make off with the takings without being seen, however this story has not been confirmed. What is known is that the candle did fall over onto a reel of naked film which exploded into flames. A former Brittish Army officer and local Garda, Sergent Long was reported to have noticed this and got up to kick the film off the table, but another man got to it first and started using his cap to beat the flames, fanning them and causing the table and the film to be engulfed in fire. A panic ensued and Sergent Long was carried out of the room by the fleeing crowd.

Another Garda, Gda Davis, who was also present, tried to demonstrate to the others that if they jumped through the flames, they would be able to escape. Many people followed his advice and escaped through the entrance. However, many people felt safer going to the opposite end of the loft to the fire.

At this end of the loft, there were two windows, which were barred. But because the loft had previously been used for clandestine IRA meetings during the War of Independence, one of the windows had the bars partially cut to facilitate a speedy escape in the event of an RIC raid.

One former IRA member, John Gleeson knew this and broke the bars allowing more people to escape. But with the heat, the remaining bars began to expand and one woman was jammed between them, cutting off this escape route.

Not long after this, the loft floor collapsed onto the hardware store room, which contained things like wood, glass and five gallon tanks of petrol.

August 1926 had been a dry month in the region. The two wells in the town were dry and the level of water in the nearby river was insufficient to help those trying to put the fire out. The nearest fire brigade was in Limerick.

The building was completely englulfed within a half an hour of the fire starting, and it was all over within an hour. By this time 46 people had died. Two more were to die later in hospital from their injuries. Only 21 of those who died were identifiable, and the only way to know the identies of the other 27 was to find out who did not come home that night. Of the 20 children present, 15 lost their lives. Half of the people who had perished were below the age of 25.

Gardai came from Newcastle West and sealed off the area. The army were also called in to help coffin the dead. So many were dead that they hadn't enough coffins. Special permission was sought, and granted to bury the dead in a mass grave on the grounds of the Church. All but one of the victims are buried there

"The Burning" as it became to be known, was rarely spoken of in the area by the people of Dromcolloghar.

The three men at the centre of the whole affair, those being Brennan, Downing and Forde, were all charged with manslaughter at the Central Criminal Court, but were acquitted. Forde later emigrated to Austrailia where he was reported to have died after he replaced flour with stricnine when baking bread during a rabbit hunting trip.

The tradgedy made international news, however some articles were not as kind to the people of Dromcolloghar as they should have been, notably this one from the September 20 1926 edition of US magazine, TIME:

Quote:
One William Ford, storekeeper in the village of Drumcollogher, County Limerick, welcomed to the musty loft of his barn last week a crowd of eager Irish peasants who climbed up the single rickety ladder, sat down in rapt expectance of Drumcollogher's first cinema show, a drama called The Decoy.
Today, a large celtic cross on the grounds of the Church and at the head of the mass grace contains the names and ages of those who lost their lives in "The Burning."

Last edited by billy the squid; 06-09-2006 at 02:10.
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07-09-2006, 23:11   #2
 
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I think i saw a documentary on this made by RTE a year or two ago. I think the burning had to do with the liquid the films was kept in which was flamable when in contact with the air (as far as i remember). Maby this puts a different spin on things.
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07-09-2006, 23:47   #3
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I doubt that they would have been stored in a liquid. the nitrate material the film was made of was highly flamable though. Historian Liam Enwright from the University of Limerick was speaking about the burning on radio over the weekend and said that during the inquest, Gardai gave evidence that Forde was warned about the dangers of fire in showing a film in this location.

Still though there were two gardai present at the time the fire broke out. The fiance of one, Garda Davis, was there watching the movie and later died in the fire.

Last edited by billy the squid; 07-09-2006 at 23:49.
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18-08-2018, 00:30   #4
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Nitrate film came in contact with a naked flame.

There's very little on this, considering 48 died - which was the worst fire up until the 'Stardust' fire. Can anyone point me in the way of any YouTube/audio documentaries?

Apparently the volatile nature of nitrate stock, meant that early projection rooms had to be sealed and their walls lined with thick asbestos. If a fire broke out in such a room, containment was the only option; an early instructional film 'This Film is Dangerous', showed reels of nitrate film continuing to burn even when fully immersed in water, with no need of air to continue the fire.

In 1929 in Scotland 69 died in a similar cinema fire.
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27-08-2018, 21:45   #5
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48 men, women and children killed, that's terrible.

Was that more than those killed at the Stardust fire in 1980?

There was a lot of disasters in the Republic that was deadly to normal people like 1916, Mass fires, and bombings. Pity nobody was ever brought to justice for the hundred of deaths of people in the 26 counties.
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28-08-2018, 02:39   #6
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I'm not sure why you single out "the 26 counties" here? As already noted, there was an even more catastrophic cinema fire in Scotland in 1929; no convictions resulted. And we don't have to go that far back; 169 people died in the Piper Alpha disaster in 1989; no convictions; indeed, no prosecutions. In Northern Ireland; 133 people died in the Princess Victoria sinking in 1953; the ship left port in heavy weather, and significant safety equipment was not used because it was too much trouble. A Court of Enquiry ensued, but there were no prosecutions.
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28-08-2018, 10:40   #7
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Another fire disaster was the Betelgeuse/Whiddy Island fire of 1979 in which 50 people died. There was a tribunal of inquiry which found numerous failings on the part of the owners/operators, including - "Gulf personnel and the Bantry telephone operator entered into a conspiracy. False entries were made in logs, false accounts were given of the disaster, and efforts were made to avoid giving statements to the police.
— The Times, 26 July 1980. "Gulf and Total accused."
But no convictions.
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiddy_Island_disaster
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28-08-2018, 11:37   #8
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At the time of the Stardust (the fire was was '81, not '80) inquiry a barrister friend who had also worked on the Whiddy tribunal commented to me that the lies told by some witnesses were on par with Whiddy. He was totally shocked by the disregard for the truth and the perjury.
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28-08-2018, 23:35   #9
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Originally Posted by pedroeibar1 View Post
At the time of the Stardust (the fire was was '81, not '80) inquiry a barrister friend who had also worked on the Whiddy tribunal commented to me that the lies told by some witnesses were on par with Whiddy. He was totally shocked by the disregard for the truth and the perjury.
The Stardust inquiry seemed to be only interested in whether the fire was started deliberately.

Whether it was or not, the fact remained that the fire exits were chained and locked to prevent patrons opening them to let in their friends without paying. Because of the locked fire exits, 48 people died.

Either the management or the staff on duty, or both, should have been charged with manslaughter.

The mere fact that the Butterly family (owners) were well in with Fianna Fail, should not have prevented a prosecution.

The Stardust lives were lost by over-ruling basic safety features, Dromcolligher and Whiddy may have been careless,even reckless, but hardly deliberate.
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29-08-2018, 00:41   #10
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The Stardust inquiry seemed to be only interested in whether the fire was started deliberately.

Whether it was or not, the fact remained that the fire exits were chained and locked to prevent patrons opening them to let in their friends without paying. Because of the locked fire exits, 48 people died.

Either the management or the staff on duty, or both, should have been charged with manslaughter.

The mere fact that the Butterly family (owners) were well in with Fianna Fail, should not have prevented a prosecution.

The Stardust lives were lost by over-ruling basic safety features, Dromcolligher and Whiddy may have been careless,even reckless, but hardly deliberate.
Putting it bluntly Tabbey that is nonsense.

I’m no longer an expert on either Whiddy or Stardust but it seems you miss the role of tribunals by a wide margin. All Tribunals operate by ‘terms of reference’ set down by the Oireachtas and are headed - usually - by a Judge. Those terms are strict, limited and reported on with -usually- some recommendations in the findings of the tribunal. The same rules apply to all tribunals, not just Stardust and Whiddy, but also the Beef, Blood Transfusion, Payments to Politicians (Dunnes), Flood/Mahon, Moriarty, Morris, etc.

With regard to Stardust, I agree that the fire exits were tied with chains. However, you seem to ignore that piece of information was a finding of the Tribunal and it was also stated in evidence (if my memory serves) that the reason was one of security, because the fire exits were known entry points for those who tried to gain free entry and led to both overcrowding and security concerns.

My point was on the perjury of witnesses (not just in Stardust, but also Whiddy as alluded to by Peregrinus). In Stardust for example several people gave sworn evidence to the effect that they had tried to gain access through the roof ‘to rescue people’ when – as a result of later questioning – it was found that they actually had been trying, in the parlance of the day, to ‘bunk in’ (i.e. get in for free). FWIW the roofing they had removed allowed the flames to be fanned and aided the combustion of polystyrene tiling which was flammable and produced highly toxic fumes. Fire Regulations were not as strict then as now – look at Grenfell, look at the King’s Cross Tube fire in ’87 just to name a few examples. Very easy to be wise after the event.

Had there been a clear case of negligence there would have been a prosecution – all Tribunals of Inquiry allow for that and there have been several governments of many hues since them - FF, FG, Labour, PD, Greens, etc.. People need to get over the conspiracy theories and look at the evidence.
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29-08-2018, 09:15   #11
kildarejohn
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pedroeibar1 View Post
Had there been a clear case of negligence there would have been a prosecution – all Tribunals of Inquiry allow for that and there have been several governments of many hues since them - FF, FG, Labour, PD, Greens, etc.. People need to get over the conspiracy theories and look at the evidence.
I am not convinced that the reason for no prosecutions in the case of Whiddy, Stardust etc was lack of evidence of negligence.
I have in the past read through several reports of both tragedies, but cannot claim to be an expert. My impression is that the main reason for lack of prosecution in these cases was the weakness of legislation prior to 1981. Was this not the reason for introducing the Fire Services Act in 1981 - before that there was no clear cut law making it an offence to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent fire?
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29-08-2018, 14:04   #12
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I am not convinced that the reason for no prosecutions in the case of Whiddy, Stardust etc was lack of evidence of negligence.
I have in the past read through several reports of both tragedies, but cannot claim to be an expert. My impression is that the main reason for lack of prosecution in these cases was the weakness of legislation prior to 1981. Was this not the reason for introducing the Fire Services Act in 1981 - before that there was no clear cut law making it an offence to fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent fire?
The roots of the Fire Services Act go straight back to the orphanage fire in Cavan in the mid 1940’s, where the nuns locked girls into dorms because they did not want the firefighters to see them in night attire. There were several successive reports and recommendations since then. The final content and impetus for that Act were as you say heavily influenced by the events of both Whiddy and Stardust – it encompassed some of the building regulations, took account of ‘modern Ireland’, granted more powers and ‘tidied up’ bits of legislation into one Act.

The delay was not unusual - it is the norm in Ireland for a government to wait for a calamity and then rush in legislation. A Supreme Court decision on extradition in the 1970’s caught them with their trousers down even though the result had been flagged. In the 1980’s the background work for the company law procedure of ‘Administration’ was sitting on a shelf for years and was dusted off and rushed through the Dail when Insurance Corporation collapsed in ‘85.
In the 1990’s the ‘McDowell Group on Compliance & Enforcement’ was set up in 1998 and was succeeded by the Company Law Review Group in 2000 but it took the impetus of the ‘Crash’ to get the legislation through. Had the present Companies Act been in force in 2007many senior bankers and a few insurance company executives would be in jail now, not just a couple of scapegoats. (The Act codifies the common law duties of directors and offences, so a prosecution is made easier and there are no conflicts with other Acts / SI’s)

With regard to prosecutions, statements by a witness at a tribunal cannot be used for criminal proceedings, but a separate investigative process by the Gardai following those statements can lead to prosecution. That event would depend on the strength of the underlying legislation, the likelihood of success and the political will (by government and opposition) to effect a prosecution. And of course that depends on the complacency of the masses who sit idly by and vote in many of the same cretins time after time.
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29-08-2018, 21:50   #13
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Originally Posted by pedroeibar1 View Post
Putting it bluntly, that is nonsense.
48 people died - is that nonsense?

The fire exits were locked out of use - is that nonsense?

Fire exits are fitted in order that people can rapidly be evacuated in an emergency. Had the exits been used as designed, most if not all, of the 48 lives would have been saved, not to mention the survivors who endured decades of suffering from burns - is that nonsense?

Patrons who pay their admission fees to places of entertainment have a right to expect their safety is paramount. The fact that other persons may abuse the fire exits is no excuse for locking them. the doors could be alarmed, or security staff placed on them.

People have been convicted of manslaughter for much less over the decades.
It is the prerogative of a criminal court to hear the evidence and reach a verdict, not for relatives, friends, legal advisors or associates to dismiss the evidence, depriving the public of seeing justice done.

As for your assertion that I do not understand the function and practices of a tribunal, this is nonsense.
The Keane tribunal had wide terms of reference, not merely to establish the cause of the fire, but the circumstances leading to the loss of life, as well as the adequacy of the fire measures taken. In spite of this, the report seemed to lay greater emphasis on the question of whether the fire was arson or not.

While it was not up to Keane to interfere with the role of the DPP, his report surprised me, because I otherwise held him in high regard.

That the proprietors and staff got away with manifestly dangerous practices is both bizarre and unforgiveable.
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30-08-2018, 00:00   #14
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Sorry if I've touched a raw nerve but where is all that vituperation coming from? Why are you ascribing assertions/comments to me that I never made?
My comment (I even underlined it) referred to perjury. You then jumped on the bandwagon, made several unsubstantiated claims that clearly show you have an agenda on the matter. To suggest (as you did in #9) that Stardust was deliberate and “ Dromcolligher and Whiddy may have been careless, even reckless, but hardly deliberate” is, I repeat, nonsense.

A subsequent inquiry also examined the claims of the ‘Stardust Victims Committee’s case to have the Tribunal reopened
That inquiry found (page 72) that :
5.9 I am further satisfied on a prima facie basis:
(1) that neither the Tribunal nor the Committee have identified any evidence which can establish the cause of the fire;
(2) that the new and other evidence relied upon by the Committee at its highest merely establishes that the fire began in the roof space but does not establish its point of origin or cause.

5.10 The Committee seeks a new inquiry for the limited purpose of establishing the cause of the fire. In the absence of any identified evidence which can establish the cause of the fire whether it arose in the West Alcove or the roof space, the issue arises as to whether a new inquiry would serve any useful purpose.
5.11 It could be argued that a further inquiry would at least establish whether the fire began in the West Alcove or in the roof space. However, it seems to me that at a remove of nearly three decades from the date of the fire and in the absence of any identified evidence which can establish the cause of the fire wheresoever it arose, the public interest would not be served in establishing a further inquiry solely for that purpose. It could also be argued that there should be a further enquiry to establish the probable cause of the fire. However, it seems to me that in the absence of any identified evidence capable of establishing the cause of the fire, such an inquiry can only at best produce a hypothetical finding neither capable of proof or disproof and therefore of no obvious or any forensic value.

Clearly, based on the foregoing, any criminal proceedings have zero hope of success.

If you want a Stardust thread go start one, but I’m not going to feed your agenda.
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30-08-2018, 10:55   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tabbey View Post
The Stardust lives were lost by over-ruling basic safety features, Dromcolligher and Whiddy may have been careless,even reckless, but hardly deliberate.
In my view Stardust, Dromcolligher and Whiddy are essentially similar in terms of the issues of causation and responsibility.
In each of the 3 cases what caused the first ignition is unknown or uncertain due to the destruction caused by the fire eliminating most evidence and the death of many witnesses.
In each of the 3 cases the first ignition was probably due to an unexceptional factor and what made the fires exceptional was that they spread so quickly and could not be controlled.
Whatever about legal issues, my view is that from the point of view of moral responsibility, the heaviest burden of blame in all 3 incidents is not on the person or persons who caused ignition, but rather on the people who failed to put in place or deliberately disabled the fire safety measures.
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