The Great Dublin Whiskey Fire: Zero Deaths from Fire, Several from Booze
Stereotypes aren’t nice. They’re hurtful, offensive, and reductive, and do nobody any good at all. But occasionally something happens that feels almost designed to validate a stereotype — a genuine occurrence that feels like lazy writing, the kind of thing that would never make it to the second draft of a movie script because it would be edited out for being a bit much.
One such event? The Great Dublin Whiskey Fire. On June 18, 1875, the Irish capital was flooded with whiskey, which led to a huge fire as the highly alcoholic liquid set alight. Thirteen people died, but none of the deaths were from burning or smoke inhalation — they were all from alcohol poisoning, as booze-thirsty Dubliners lapped up whiskey from the dusty ground, and due to its industrial concentration, drank themselves to death. Nobody comes out of that story well, really. It seems to confirm every negative stereotype about Irish people, and a tragedy sounds like a punchline.
The fire first broke out at Malone’s, a malthouse and storeroom on Chambers Street in the area known as The Liberties. While once reasonably prosperous, the area had fallen on hard times and was fairly downtrodden, with pleasant townhouses home to multiple crammed-in families. The storeroom contained upwards of 5,000 barrels of whiskey. (Not whisky, that would be in Scotland; Irish whiskey, with an “e.”)
This wasn’t finished, drinkable whiskey, like a boss from the 1960s would offer you in a meeting. This was incredibly strong industrial booze, yet to be diluted into a palatable form. Among other things, this meant it was flammable.
That wasn’t great news. Picture a wooden barrel filled with a flammable substance and surrounded by fire — it’s not going to go well. Cask after cask burst, the incredibly strong liquor involved immediately igniting and setting off the next one.
Flaming booze spilled everywhere, setting fire to everything it touched. The liquid flooded out of the warehouse doors, spilling down the street like peaty lava. The streets of 1875 Dublin included more animals than a modern city, so suddenly there wasn’t just a flaming river, but donkeys, goats and cows running around on fire. One of the first buildings to set on fire was a pigsty, and people speculated afterwards that there may have been a lot more deaths if not for the loud, agonized squeals of flaming pigs running through the streets waking people up.
As the Irish Examiner described it, “A most harrowing sight was the spectacle of the people rushing from their burning or threatened houses, some of them only half-dressed, mothers with little babies at their breast, invalids tottering on some helping arm.”
It was absolute chaos. And within the chaos, there were a few people who thought, “Hmm, free whiskey. Don’t mind if I do.”
Even as the fire department set to work raising paving stones (so that the whiskey could soak into the dirt below), and gathering piles of sand and horse manure to stop the fiery flow, enterprising boozehounds were braving the flames to get hold of as much hooch as they could — if you could get past the inferno on the surface, there were gallons of strong-ass drink to be had.
Understandably, controlling the fire was the priority for those in charge. Warning local lushes that this stuff was too potent to handle wasn’t at the top of anyone’s to-do list as the flowing flames neared a convent and the Coombe Maternity Hospital. People ran toward the flames with pots in hand, or removed their hats and boots to use as makeshift buckets. The Irish Examiner again: “It should be mentioned that in some of the narrow by-streets through which much of the liquor from the stores ran many of the crowd indulged to excess, drinking in some instances out of their shoes and hats, in which they had collected the whiskey.”
Boots seemed to be the go-to vessel for wannabe hooch-hoarders, with the Illustrated London Times noting, “Two corn-porters, named Healy and M’Nulty, were found in a lane off Cork Street, lying insensible, with their boots off, which they had evidently used to collect the liquor.” One witness, John McGrane, later described watching his friend William Smith “scooping it up with his cupped hands. He drank a great deal. What I drank was out of a jug. Nearly everyone was drinking it.”
Smith “suddenly fell down, and became insensible. Two men, strangers, helped me to bring him part of the way home as far as Meath Street. We then met some other men, neighbours, who helped to bring him the rest of the way.” The next day, Smith was hospitalized in a state of “profound coma.” He died, a result of alcohol poisoning.
In all, 13 people perished, all from alcohol poisoning. There were also dozens of houses and livelihoods destroyed, and countless animal deaths including one horrifying tale, recounted in the Irish Times, of a “canine suicide.” As the flames died down, a dog ran into the house of William Eyre, “foaming at the mouth and evidently either rabid or suffering from delirium tremens,” due to drinking whiskey in the street. It knocked over furniture and attacked Eyre, who defended himself with an iron bar. The dog then ran upstairs, launched itself out of a top-floor window and “terminated its existence in the road below.”
It was all pretty bleak — although it could have been a lot more so, if not for the alert the pigs provided and a fortuitous gust of wind stopping the flames from reaching the maternity hospital. While it involves over a dozen preventable deaths, the legacy of the event was to be seen almost as a joke by some, reinforcing negative stereotypes about both the Irish and the working class (see the sneering mention of “the narrow by-streets”).
But modern Dublin is a very different place. Someone who knows that very well is Philly Byrne, Dublin-based lead singer of excellent thrash band Gama Bomb, whose cover of The Pogues’ “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (featuring Spider Stacy of The Pogues themselves) is out now and just about the most Irish thing ever recorded. “Needless to say, the area has somewhat changed,” he says. “You’re more likely to get a mouthful of oatmilk than of burning uisce beatha these days. The Liberties is now home to trendy cafes, vintage guitar shops and artisan off-licenses.”
“In the past few years Dublin — and Ireland — has changed its relationship with booze dramatically,” he continues. “Due to the cost-of-living crisis and focus on self-care, a lot of people don’t drink at all now; the pub and the gargle have much less of a grip on society than it once did. Were there to be a flood of whiskey in The Liberties now, beyond a few unfortunate people who might try to get a handful, more likely you'd see groups of locals taking selfies beside the flow with a latte.”