Recently, I spent painful hours online attempting to track down information on the Guinness Fire Brigade, but it was a hard task! Bass, Powers and Guinness all operated functional (and branded) fire services in their respective workplaces due to the nature of production and the risk posed. My interest in the men of what was branded the ‘Arthur Guinness and Sons’ Fire Brigade, centres around the events of Easter week 1916, but is by no means limited to that week alone.
Guinness, along with Powers Distillery , were both called out by Captain Purcell of the Dublin Fire Brigade during the 1916 insurrection to assist the city Brigade, who, along with Pembroke and Rathmines firefighters, found themselves working against the odds.
The Irish Times Focus on 1916 gives some extent of the damage caused to the city during the uprising
Fire had raged from the GPO towards the Liffey, reaching back along Henry Street to Henry Place and Moore Street, advancing towards Liffey Street, almost as far as the Irish Independent’s printing works on Middle Abbey Street. On the Sackville Street frontage, the Metropole Hotel, standing between Eason and the GPO, was gone, and with it adjoining buildings including the Oval bar. Thom’s printing works was destroyed.
On the Saturday night, well into the uprising that had, in the words of Captain Purcell, done at least £2.5 Million worth of damage to the streets of Dublin, it became apparent that there was a very real threat Jervis Hospital was going to burn to the ground. Purcell called on the fire brigades of Guinness Brewery and Powers to assist his Brigade. Occasionally under fire, they worked heroically and ensured the safety of the hospital.
Little is known about the Guinness Fire Brigade in so far as a date of formation. Their exploits during Easter Week are documented in so far as possible in Tom Geraghty and Trevor Whiteheads ‘The Dublin Fire Brigade’ published by Dublin City Council in 2004 and an essential read for all interested in the history of the city. Yet they were a different Brigade, seperate from the Dublin Fire Brigade entirely. Thus, they have remained somewhat of a mystery.
Some interesting insight can be gained into life for the Brewery fire and rescue squads from Edward J. Burkes recent The Guinness Story: The Family, The Business, The Black Stuff (O’ Brien Press, 2009) The book also provides information on the companies support for the repression of the Easter Rising, which makes for interesting reading in itself (for example a company of Dublin Fusilers were allowed set up in the Robert Street grainstore, and Guinness Daimler trucks topped with railway engine smoke boxes were a popular mode of transport and defensive/offensive tool for British forces)
From Burkes book, we can gather information of a fire at the Guinness Brewery in 1820, as reported in the Freemans Journal. All breweries and distillers in the area operated a fire-service (No surprise due to the highly flamable nature of the work) and all, along with the insurance companies of the area, helped to ensure no extensive damage occured.
One can only be reminded of recent events and the fire in the Guinness complex when they read the company press-statement which boasted…
“….the damage done is not very extensive, nor of such a nature as to stop the business of the brewery even for a day”
To many people,the Guinness fire-helmets are the most exciting part of the story. Below, I’ve included some snaps of Guinness helmets over the years, from the time of the Rising up until the mid 1900s. AGS, of course, stands for Arthur Guinness and Sons.
Guinness has long been a powerhouse of Dublin life, employing thousands of working class people in this city through boom and bust alike, but this is certainly an overlooked aspect of the story. The men of the Brewery Brigade, perhaps more than anyone else, show there was,and indeed remains, much more than stout at the heart of Saint James’ Gate.
My thanks to the lads at the contemporary Guinness Fire and Rescue Service for getting in touch. This image shows the modern service Guinness operate on site.