Today marks 50 years since the very fabric of Galway city centre went up in flames, the ‘Big Fire’ which ripped through 26 buildings. Here we look back at the inferno which caused an estimated €100 million worth of damage by today’s values.
The blaze began some time before noon on Monday, August 16, 1971 in the warehouse of McDonogh’s at Merchant’s Road – part of what is now the Eyre Square Shopping Centre. Over the space of six hours, a total of 26 buildings were damaged to varying degrees – some were completely gutted, including McDonogh’s warehouse and yard and Corbetts (now Corbettcourt).
Sixteen fire brigades with 100 men from Galway, Mayo and Athlone fought the blaze and despite its strength at the ferocious speed at which is spread, saw no casualties.
The entire city centre had to be cordoned off and there were reports the flames were visible as far away as County Clare.
As our sister newspaper, the Connacht Sentinel, reported at the time: “The flames raced through the [McDonogh] building which contained large stocks of timber, coal and briquettes.
The flames jumped across the road to the top of the United Dominion Trust building and three times, firemen had to tackle this outbreak.
“Gallons of water were poured on the National Bank premises as staff and volunteers being removing files and documents. The Civic Sword and the Great Mace were among the first valuables removed to safety.
“The Fire Chief said that while water pressure was low at the start of the operation, nothing could have prevented the flames from spreading because of the highly flammable materials involved at the outset.
“Water was taken from the Docks and the River Corrib and thousands of gallons were poured into the area for hours. The army sent in 50 men from Dún Uí Mhaoilíosa to help cordon off the city centre and 26 members of the FCA and Civil Defence were also on duty. All Gardaí in the city area were called in, and traffic of every kind was banned from the main centre.
“Immediately the danger became evident, all the premises along Eyre Square to Williamsgate Street were evacuated and staff and volunteers began removing equipment and files.
“At this stage, the fire had a firm hold on the area between McDonogh’s, Whitehall and Corbetts and despite the best efforts of the brigades, it finally burst out through the shop premises of Corbetts, destroying the entire building.
“The flames then threatened the buildings across the road – Fallers, the Corrib Restaurant, Moons – and water was played on these premises at the peak of the danger.
“All of the other buildings within the fire area were damaged, some very badly. The Blackrock Tailoring Company (more recently ‘Monsoon’, which was almost burned out), Whelan’s Medical Hall, Glynn’s (Treasure Chest), McDonogh’s shoe shop (Logue’s), etc.
Historian and Galway City Tribune columnist Peadar O’ Dowd from Bohermore, was also on the scene and years later recalled: “It was a huge fire which destroyed the south/east block of the square. It was the timber yards and stores of Thomas McDonogh and Sons that bore the brunt of the fire – what’s there now is the Eyre Square shopping centre. The fire raged the whole day long and as far as I know it was smouldering for up to 48 hours after that,” he said.
“We don’t know what time it started but we think it might have been around midday. By two o’clock, however, things were really bad. I don’t know whether the initial blaze began in Corbetts or McDonoghs. The roofs were made of tar and there was coal, timber and many other flammable materials stored in the building.
“We don’t know what caused it – nobody ever found out. But we do know it was an accident – with so much flammable material around obviously something like that might happen. I know people in Ennis, Co Clare could see the smoke, so that gives some indication as to the magnitude of the fire. We were very lucky – much of the city centre could have gone up in flames.”
Despite the terror and devastation, it turned out to be a galvanising force for the many people who poured into the Square to try and help in any way they could.
“So many people who were not directly involved with the fire all joined in to help. I can still see in my mind’s eye people stacking personal belongings up in piles in Eyre Square, all of which had been taken out of buildings,” Peadar remembered.
“The fire brigade stopped it from spreading. There are still photos around of people gathering their belongings and carrying stuff out of buildings,” added Peadar. “There were bank workers hoisting valuables and files out of the Bank of Ireland which was at the bottom of Eyre Square at the time. It was located where the entrance to the shopping centre is now. That was long before computers or the internet, so everything was stored manually.”
In total, the value of the damage was put at £2 million, estimated to be more than €100m in ‘today’s money’.
Galway ‘masterplan’ needed to tackle housing and transport crises
From the Galway City Tribune – An impassioned plea for a ‘masterplan’ that would guide Galway City into the future has been made in the Dáil. Galway West TD Catherine Connolly stated this week that there needed to be an all-inclusive approach with “vision and leadership” in order to build a sustainable city.
Deputy Connolly spoke at length at the crisis surrounding traffic and housing in Galway city and said that not all of the blame could be laid at the door of the local authority.
She said that her preference would be the provision of light rail as the main form of public transport, but that this would have to be driven by the government.
“I sat on the local council for 17 years and despaired at all of the solutions going down one road, metaphorically and literally. In 2005 we put Park & Ride into the development plan, but that has not been rolled out. A 2016 transport strategy was outdated at the time and still has not been updated.
“Due to the housing crisis in the city, a task force was set up in 2019. Not a single report or analysis has been published on the cause of the crisis,” added Deputy Connolly.
She then referred to a report from the Land Development Agency (LDA) that identified lands suitable for the provision of housing. But she said that two-thirds of these had significant problems and a large portion was in Merlin Park University Hospital which, she said, would never have housing built on it.
In response, Minister Simon Harris spoke of the continuing job investment in the city and also in higher education, which is his portfolio.
But turning his attention to traffic congestion, he accepted that there were “real issues” when it came to transport, mobility and accessibility around Galway.
“We share the view that we need a Park & Ride facility and I understand there are also Bus Connects plans.
“I also suggest that the City Council reflect on her comments. I am proud to be in a Government that is providing unparalleled levels of investment to local authorities and unparalleled opportunities for local authorities to draw down,” he said.
Then Minister Harris referred to the controversial Galway City Outer Ring Road which he said was “struck down by An Bord Pleanála”, despite a lot of energy having been put into that project.
However, Deputy Connolly picked up on this and pointed out that An Bord Pleanála did not say ‘No’ to the ring road.
“The High Court said ‘No’ to the ring road because An Bord Pleanála acknowledged it failed utterly to consider climate change and our climate change obligations.
“That tells us something about An Bord Pleanála and the management that submitted such a plan.”
In the end, Minister Harris agreed that there needed to be a masterplan for Galway City.
“I suggest it is for the local authority to come up with a vision and then work with the Government to try to fund and implement that.”
Official opening of Galway’s new pedestrian and cycle bridge
The new Salmon Weir pedestrian and cycle bridge will be officially opened to the public next Friday, May 26.
Work on the €10 million bridge got underway in April 2022, before the main structure was hoisted into place in early December.
A lunchtime tape-cutting ceremony will take place on Friday, as the first pedestrians and cyclists traverse the as-yet-unnamed bridge.
The Chief Executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, previously said the bridge, once opened, would remove existing conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists and traffic “as well as facilitating the Cross-City Link public transport corridor over the existing 200-year-old bridge”.
The naming of the new bridge has been under discussion by the Council’s Civic Commemorations Committee since late last year.
One name that has been in the mix for some time is that of the first woman in Europe to graduate with an engineering degree – Alice Perry.
Ms Perry, who was from Wellpark, graduated from Queen’s College Galway (now University of Galway) in 1906. The university’s engineering building is named in her honour.
The bridge was built by Jons Civil Engineering firm in County Meath and was assembled off-site before being transported to Galway. Funding for the project was provided in full by the National Transport Authority and the European Regional Development Fund.
(Photo: Sheila Gallagher captured the city’s new pedestrian footbridge being raised on the south side of the Salmon Weir Bridge in December. It will officially open next Friday, May 26).
Minister branded ‘a disgrace’ for reversing land rezoning in Galway City
From the Galway City Tribune – Minister of State for Local Government and Planning, Kieran O’Donnell was labelled a “disgrace” for overturning councillors’ decisions to rezone land in the new City Development Plan.
Minister O’Donnell (pictured) confirmed in a letter to Council Chief Executive Brendan McGrath last week that he was reversing 25 material alternations made by councillors to the CDP 2023-29. He made the decision on the advice of Office of Planning Regulator (OPR).
Minister O’Donnell directed that 14 land parcels that were subject to land-use zoning changes by councillors as part of the Material Alterations to the Draft CDP should be reversed.
He directed that a further 11 land parcels in the city should become “unzoned”.
The Minister found that the CDP had not been made in a manner consistent with recommendations of the OPR, which required specific changes to the plan to ensure consistency with the national planning laws and guidelines.
At last week’s Council meeting Cllr Eddie Hoare (FG) asked for clarity on the process by which councillors could rezone the lands that had been changed by the Minister’s direction.
Cllr Declan McDonnell said, “What he [Minister O’Donnell] has done is an absolute disgrace”.
And he asked: “Do we have to have another development plan meeting to deal with it?”
Both Cllrs Hoare and McDonnell wondered what would become of the lands that were rezoned or unzoned by the ministerial direction.
Mr McGrath said the Council had put forward an argument in favour of retaining the material alterations in the plan, but ultimately the Minister sided with OPR.
He said if councillors want to make alterations to the new plan, they could go through the process of making a material alteration but this was lengthy.
The Save Roscam Peninsula campaign welcomed the Minister’s decision.
In a statement to the Galway City Tribune, it said the direction would mean the Roscam village area on the Roscam Peninsula will be unzoned and a number of land parcels would revert back to agriculture/high amenity.
A spokesperson for the campaign said: “the material alterations made by city councillors following lobbying by developers continued the long-standing practice of councillors facilitating a developer-led plan rather than an evidence- and policy-based plan that meets the needs of the city.
“The Minister’s direction is an important step in restoring confidence in the planning system. It is clear from the City Council’s own evidence on future housing projections that there was no requirement to zone these lands for residential purposes in order to meet the needs of the targeted population increase up to 2029,” the spokesperson added.