400 years ago a catastrophe struck the city of Cork which, in terms of fatalities, put the Great Fire of London of 1666, which recorded eight deaths, in the shade. Wiping out perhaps a quarter of the city’s population, superimposed on today’s ‘metropolitian Cork’, it would amount ot a staggering 52,500 deaths.
Cork in 1622, when viewed from a distance, would have appeared encased in a red and white hue, which, it is suggested, gave rise to the famous ‘Cork colours’. This phenomenon was due to the use of sandstone and limestone in its great walls, first erected by the Anglo-Normans.
The Main Street lay on a north-south axis, culminating at the northern end at North Gate Bridge, and at South Gate Bridge at the other end. Both bridges were complete with drawbridges and protected fortifications spanning the entrances.
The distance between both was (is) some 630 metres, while to walk the width of Cork took only a matter of minutes. In all, the entire ‘city’ covered an area of about thirty-six acres.
Just before noon on that fateful morning of 31 May long ago, the clear blue skies suddenly became pitch black. People lit lamps and candles in their shops and homes just to be able to see. The low-hanging clouds that had turned day into night began to roll like the contents of some fantastic witch’s cauldron, and with an ear-shattering clap of thunder, the very sky appeared to drip fire and fall upon the city on the eastern side, a spot which approximates to the Daunt’s Square (junction of Grand Parade and St Patrick’s Street) area today. Thatched roofs burst into flames.
Hundreds of men, women and children spilled out of their homes and workplaces onto the streets, frightened out of their wits, and began to run, inexplicably, towards the fire. Even as they did so, a second, almighty thunderclap was heard, and the thatched roofs on the western side burst into flames too.
Prisoners in the gaols spanning the bridges screamed to be released. The entire population was now trapped between two rapidly-growing major conflagrations. The deadly cocktail of ingredients necessary for a firestorm was fast falling into place. The immolation of Cork was nigh.
The city’s fire alarm bell hung on the watchtower known as ‘Peter’s Tower’ situated behind St Peter’s Church on the Main Street, but if any warning was sounded, few must have heard it. In any case, the fires were now spreading so rapidly that any warning was futile.
No worthwhile attempt, it seems, was made to organise a firefighting effort even though the city was surrounded by water. Indeed, any such attempt to use the primitive firefighting equipment of the period – leather buckets, long poles with hooks known as ‘preventers,’ and brass ‘squirts’ – would have been futile.
Fanned by the prevailing westerly wind, the process raced eastwards and soon joined up with the fires spreading westwards until the whole of the city within the walls was a roaring furnace. Roaring out of control with ever-greater strength, we may surmise that the artificial wind had developed into a storm with the violence and ferocity of a hurricane. Finally, the fires joined as one, and what previously had been individual fires now became one sea of flame.