This is a monumental year for the Dublin Fire Brigade, with it marking 150 years in the service of the people of the capital. Yet many will be surprised to hear that the first Chief Officer of the Dublin Fire Brigade, Captain James Robert Ingram, is today buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Recent research has brought to light the fact that Ingram, who modelled the first Dublin Fire Brigade on that of New York City, died not fighting the flames of Dublin but rather due to tuberculosis.
Dublin has had provisions for fighting fires since the late sixteenth century, indeed Parish churches were required to keep buckets and ladders in an ordinance of 1592, but the city itself purchased its first fire engines in 1711. In 2011, the 300th anniversary of this event passed the city by without being marked in any way. Saint Werburgh’s Church on Werburgh Street boasts the oldest surviving fire appliances in the city. Such appliances are said to be origins of the term ‘parish pump’, a term more often heard in Irish political life than fire fighting today.
In 1862, Dublin got a municipal fire service, established following a series of serious fires in the city, including one at the Kildare Street Club in November of 1860, which cost three lives and destroyed the home from home of the Anglo Irish ascendency. The contemporary fire service of the city dates back to 1862, established by an Act of Parliameant. In its search for a man to lead this new service, the Dublin Corporation turned to James Robert Ingram, a Dubliner who had learned the trade on the streets of New York, despite having been born in the Irish capital in 1830. Ingram had emigrated to New York in 1851, first earning a living as a bank note engraver, before joining the Niagra Hose Company in Lower Manhattan, one of the many colourful volunteer fire companies which made up the New York Fire Department. Ingram was an active member of the Freemasons during his time in the United States. His firefighting experience in the United States made him the perfect candidate in the eyes of the Dublin Corporation to head up their new planned ‘Department’ at home.
With Ingram’s appointment, the ‘Dublin Fire Department’ as it was initially known was born. Ingram recruited 40 men, many of them previously sailors, and perhaps in tribute to his former colleagues in the New York Fire Department, Dublin’s earliest firefighters wore a uniform of red flannel shirts. The officers of this new service wore a uniform which was a copy of the frock coat and kepi of a United States Army officer.
Ingram’s headquarters was established at South William Street, in the premises which in later years would become the Civic Museum. This incredibly important historic site, Dublin’s first firestation, is unmarked today with no plaque upon it informing Dublin of what once stood opposite the location of the Pygmalion bar and club today. There was also a substation at Winetavern Street, on the site of what is today the Civic Offices.
Ingram’s small band of firefighters found themselves up against many different threats in Victorian Dublin. The tenements, mills and factories of Dubin all presented their own dangers. The Corporation decorated many of these early firefighters for their efforts. At times, Ingram would find himself having to resort to most unusual methods. On one occasion Ingram stemmed the flow of burning spirits from a distillery in the Liberties by loading horse manure onto the streets, and on another occasion he dealt with a ship drifting into Dublin Port ablaze by ordering the Royal Navy to open fire on it and sink it into the bay.
This heroic public servant, a remarkabe character, died in May of 1882, twenty years after his return to his home city to found what we now know as Dublin Fire Brigade. He died at the young age of 52. For a man who had fought the flames of New York and then Dublin, it was tragic that tuberculosis would claim his life. This shocking fact has now become clear through a recently discovered report from Captain Thomas Purcell, a later head of the Dublin Fire Brigade who, in 1892, would compile a list detailing the cause of death for members of the brigade in the decade prior. The nature of Ingram’s job brought him into the tenements of Dublin, where tubercuosis was rife among the working class and impoverished of the city.
With such focus on the 150th anniversary of the Dublin Fire Brigade, will the final resting place of the founder of Dublin’s public fire service be marked? It is believed the Dublin City Council wish to mark the anniversary through the erection of a city centre statue and a number of social events, but perhaps a marker, a simple stone, could be spared for the man who started it all?
The history of the Dublin Fire Brigade is documented in Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whitehead’s study ‘The Dublin Fire Brigade’, issued by Dublin City Council. Las Fallon’s upcoming study on trade unionism and republicanism within the Brigade will be published later this year by South Dublin County Council.