On 5 September 1926, a timber barn being used as a temporary cinema in Dromcollogher caught fire when a candle ignited a reel of Nitrate film stock. Forty-eight people died in this tragedy, always known locally as the Dromcollogher Burning; forty-six of them are buried in a large grave in the grounds of the local church. It remained the worst known fire disaster in Irish history until the Betelgeuse incident in 1979 and the Stardust disaster in 1981, which claimed fifty and forty-eight lives respectively, writes Ray Cleere.
Dromcollogher is a picturesque little village in County Limerick, not far from the border of North County Cork and about eight miles west of Charleville. It is part of the parish of Dromcollogher and Broadford. It has a population of approximately 600 people. In the early twentieth century Dromcollogher boasted three tailors, two barbers, two shoemakers, two harness makers, one bicycle shop, two bakeries (Fitzgerald’s and Ahern’s) and two licensed premises.
On Sunday night, September 5, 1926, 90 years ago, Dromcollogher was the scene of a tragedy which resulted in a death toll and which, at the time, was almost unparalled in the history of Irish disasters in the twentieth century. It happened when fire broke out in a hall which was used as a makeshift cinema in the centre of the village while a film show was in progress.
The tragedy claimed the lives of 48 people, innocent men, women and children. The 48 people who died represented one-tenth of the population of Dromcollogher at the time. One entire family lost their lives in the disaster.
It was a disaster of unprecedented proportions and it was the only such cinema disaster in twentieth century Irish history. It was – and will always be – known locally as the “Dromcollogher Burning” which left a profound and lasting effect on the village and on its people. It made international news and it touched the hearts of millions of people around the world.
It remained one of the worst known fire disasters in Irish history for 53 years until the “Betelgeuse” disaster off Whiddy Island, near Bantry Bay, County Cork, in 1979 and the Stardust disaster in Dublin in 1981. By tragic coincidence the Stardust disaster also claimed the lives of 48 people, 55 years later.
At the time a local man named Patrick Brennan owned a hardware store in Church Street in Dromcollogher. It contained a storage area downstairs for timber, and five gallon drums of petrol. Overhead was a spacious loft with a timber floor. The room was used for showing films on previous occasions. Access to the loft was gained by an outside set of wooden steps. The loft measured 60 feet long by 20 feet wide.
At the far gable end two small windows, which were barred on the outside, flanked a small narrow room, which was portioned off from the rest of the room. It was used as a dressing room for amateur dramatics.
William “Babe” Forde, who was a local hackney driver and a businessman in Dromcollogher, rented the upstairs room from Patrick Brennan, for a film show. He hired Patrick Downing, a projectionist, to bring reels of film and a mobile projector from Cork.
Downing had taken the reels of film from metal containers in which they were usually stored. At the time cinemas were closed in Cork on Sunday nights, so there was an entrepreneurial opportunity for an enterprising projectionist to make some money “on the side”, and unknown to the cinema-owners in Cork, who would have been reassured by the presence of the steel circular film containers.
The showing was timed to start at 9.15pm after Benediction had concluded in the nearby Church of St. Bartholomew.