• IN MAY 1862, THE WEST WING AT CORK UNIVERSITY WAS BADLY DAMAGED BY FIRE. EARLIER, IT HAD BEEN REPORTED IN THE PRESS THAT FORENSIC EVIDENCE CONNECTED WITH A SENSATIONAL MURDER TRIAL WAS BEING HELD THERE FOR ANALYSIS.
• SIXTY MILES AWAY IN CLONMEL, COUNTY TIPPERARY, A MAN’S LIFE HUNG IN THE BALANCE ON THE RESULT OF THE DOCTOR’S REPORT.
• IF THE EVIDENCE COULD SOMEHOW BE DESTROYED, HE MIGHT STAND A FIGHTING CHANCE OF ESCAPING THE GALLOWS…
Pat Poland recalls The Unsolved Mystery of the Fire at Cork College and A Tipperary Murder
Queen’s College, Cork (now, University College, Cork) first opened its doors to fee-paying students in 1849. Enjoying a handsome setting at the western edge of the city, it is dominated by a wooded limestone precipice overlooking the River Lee’s meandering south channel.
Almost from day one, however, the college was embroiled in controversy. President Sir Robert Kane was continuously in dispute with his fellow academicians. Within a number of years, half of the original staff had been dismissed or left of their own volition.
To compound its problems, the Roman Catholic Church was antagonistic towards the colleges, established in Cork, Galway and Belfast. Their form of organisation and character were felt to be out of accord with Church educational principles.
Sometime before six o’clock on the morning of Thursday, 15 May, 1862, just over the wall in Cork County Gaol, some warders noticed ‘a great smoke’ arising out of the West Wing of the college. The alarm was immediately raised, and some college staff, including Kane, warily made their way inside the burning building, which housed the Materia Medica, Chemistry, and Pathology rooms.
As the fire took hold, they beat a hasty retreat, but not before noticing half-consumed matches under each of the doors leading to the laboratories. The incipient fires had burned themselves out under three doors, but at the fourth, which led to the Materia Medica room (wherein were stored pathological specimens preserved in flammable methylated spirits), a substantial fire was in progress.
There was no question – the fire in the West Wing was a work of arson.
In those pre-telephone days, runners were dispatched into the city to summon the fire engines. In the absence of a public fire service, these came from a variety of sources – the waterworks, factories, and the Royal Exchange Assurance Company’s private fire brigade.
By the time they were in place, however, it was too late to make a difference. With a resounding crash, the roof finally fell in, destroying all that remained beneath it.
Before the last dying embers had been extinguished, the theories on who the arsonist might have been began to circulate: a disgruntled college porter… a steward … even two Roman Catholic priests who, some time before, had preached a sermon criticising the colleges.