The fire at Menlo Castle

Menlo Castle was the ancestral home of the Blakes. The family lived there from around 1600 to 1910. The castle was strategically positioned and was occupied for some time by the Cromwellians. The villagers of Menlo were tenants of the Blakes. ‘Maying in Menlo’ was a great Galway tradition where the Blake family opened their grounds to the public as a venue for all kinds of sports and athletics, yachting, tennis, rowing, music, and dancing. Boats from Woodquay and Long Walk brought patrons up the river; sweet vendors were working day and night preparing sugar sticks and sweet-pipes which were sold in colours of red and white at a halfpenny each; the cries of different vendors of eatables and drinks rent the air, “Cider a penny a glass, Guinness 3d a pint.” Puritans and temperance fanatics were unknown, hawkers and showmen were a plenty. The various tents extended from the river to the schoolhouse in the village. The women in the enclosure with their sunshades and mid-Victorian costumes looked beautiful, while villagers and colleens with shoulder shawls and neat pinafores were the picture of comeliness.

The tradition may have been dying at the end of the last century, but it certainly came to an end with the terrible fire that occurred in the castle on July 26, 1910. It was said to be the worst fire in the west in half a century, only the walls were left standing. It is not known how the fire started but it was probably in the apartment of Miss Ellen Blake.

Those who were resident at the time were Miss Ellen who was an invalid, two servants Anne Browne and Delia Earley, and James Kirwan who was the coachman. Kirwan was sleeping in a room on the first floor over the hall door when he heard the two girls screaming at 5.40am. He jumped up and opened the door of his room, but he was almost blinded by the rush of flames and smoke. He saw that the staircase was impassable, so he burst the sashes on his window and managed to get out and climb down the ivy.

He rushed around to the frontage facing the river and found this portion of the castle enveloped in flames. He then ran around to the south side and was horrified to see the two servant girls on the roof screaming at the top of their voices. The flames were burning fiercely around them and there was a 40 foot drop in front of them. Kirwan managed to get a ladder with the assistance of two locals named Ward and Faherty, but the ladder was about 15 feet short. A rope was thrown to them but they could not reach it. The girls were now in agony, their clothes were beginning to burn. The men placed bundles of hay on the ground and shouted at the girls to jump one at a time. The girls, still screaming in terror, did so. Delia fell on her face and died instantly. She was 25 years old, from Parkaveara and had been in the Blake’s employ for a matter of weeks. Anne landed on her feet but was rendered unconscious for a time. She regained consciousness later and was eventually taken, in some agony, to hospital.

In the meantime, Kirwan got on a horse and galloped to the police barracks in Galway. District Inspector Mercer and a number of his men immediately set off for Menlo on bicycles. The town brigade arrived shortly afterwards, as did another from Renmore barracks with about 50 men. The entire building was now in flames, and the fury of the fire was such that by 7 o’clock, it was gutted. The roof had fallen in. A few of the soldiers made an attempt to rush in looking for Miss Ellen but the heat drove them back. She was apparently cremated in the flames. It was surmised that, as an invalid, she could not save herself and was completely overcome. No trace of her body was ever found. There had been an important and valuable collection of paintings, tapestries, plate, and heirlooms in the castle, but nothing was saved.

Our photographs were taken in the immediate aftermath of the fire with the building still smouldering. The first was taken on the river side of the castle and shows some military firemen resting after their efforts. There are hoses across the lawn which carried water from the river, and you can see a collection of buckets in the bottom left hand corner. The second was taken near the front door, and again you can see exhausted firemen and soldiers, as well as some curious civilian onlookers. It is strange that the interior was gutted and yet the ivy and shrubbery on the outside wall remained intact.

These images are from old glass plate negatives that were discovered in an attic recently by Jonathan Margetts of Dillons Jewellers in Quay Street. They are important historical documents and proof that you need to check your attics before you decide to throw anything out. There may be treasures in there. Old photographs, scrapbooks that your mother compiled, minute books of the club your grandfather was secretary of, etc, so, think before you dump.


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