Monday morning, August 16, 1971 (50 years ago next Monday ), started off in a normal way in Galway but that quickly changed very dramatically. A fire was discovered shortly before 11.30am in McDonough’s Yard on Merchants Road. It was spotted by a lady standing across the street at the Tourist Office and she alerted the fire brigade. At the time, there were only about four full-time firefighters in the station but they responded very quickly.
From a firefighter’s point of view, conditions could hardly have been worse, so much flammable material in the area, some tar roofs, about 3,000 tonnes of timber, 5,000 tons of coal, a paint store, a series of buildings with roofs made up of wooden struts and covered in felt, indeed when the fire started, there were men working on putting new layers of felt on part of the complex. All of the ingredients were there for the rapid spread of the fire and it did not disappoint.
The first unit of the fire brigade went to the corner of Merchants Road and Eyre Square and they realised immediately that they would have to try to contain the fire, to stop it from jumping across the street. They put a pump at the docks and pumped water up Merchants Road, but the inferno was travelling quickly and all of the houses and businesses around had to be evacuated. The fire spread to Corbett’s Yard and shop, and to the Blackrock shop next door. By now every fire engine and every part-time fireman in the west of Ireland was at the scene, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air, the smoke could be seen from Ennis and the Aran Islands. Indeed, one of the few good things about the day was the weather, because there was no wind, the smoke went straight up and did not cause the firefighters any trouble.
The Army sent soldiers to cordon off the city centre, the Civil Defence and the FCA were on duty as were all gardaí in Galway. Many civilians helped evacuate buildings, the furniture from the Skeff and the Great Southern was stacked in the Square, all of the money and most of the furniture was removed from the National Bank, files removed from solicitors' offices, etc.
The firefighters now concentrated on stopping the fire jumping across Abbeygate Street and Williamsgate Street. The flames burst through the front of Corbett’s and the intensity of the heat was such that it peeled the paint off Faller’s façade across the street, but that was the extent of it crossing the street and much of the rest of the city was saved by the heroics of the firemen. They got it under control in about a day and a half, and spent the following days making sure it did not flare up again.
It was without doubt the most spectacular fire ever seen in Galway. There were theories that it may have been started by an electrical fault or by a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, but the cause of the fire was never discovered. It caused millions of pounds worth of damage and left a major part of the city in ruins.
There was a story which may be apocryphal but worth telling nevertheless about a group of Americans who were staying in the Great Southern Hotel. One of them was a part-time fireman from Boston. He decided to see if he could help. He went to Merchants Road and picked up a power hose. Now you would need to be trained to know how to handle a power hose, but this man was obviously an expert. One of the local firemen turned to him and said in admiration “Jeez, where did you come from”? “Boston, Massachusetts,” was the reply. “Well fair play t'ya, the lads from Athenry aren't here yet.”
Our photograph shows the early stages of the fire on Merchants Road, it gives no clue as to the conflagration that followed.