The balloon fire of 10 May 1785 (235 years ago tomorrow) is perhaps the best known event in the history of Tullamore. Today we are reminded of it every time we see the town crest and in the past with the annual celebration – the Tullamore Phoenix Festival. The first premium whiskey from the new Tullamore DEW (Phoenix, 2013) was in honour of that tradition. It is hardly surprising that it should be so. The event caught the imagination at the time and was widely reported in the national newspapers and by visitors in their publications thereafter. Unfortunately, many turned to the Wikipedia of those days – the previous fellow’s account – and did not seek to get all the facts and record them. What we are left with then are the few contemporary accounts from national newspapers, the comments of a succession of visitors who seemed to rely on the diary entry of John Wesley in 1787, and the notes of Charles Coote in his published survey of King’s County (Offaly) in 1801. Wesley, the great preacher and founder of Methodism, unlike Coote, would have known the town well as he visited the place some twenty times from the late 1740s to the 1780s. Why are there so few accounts?
First there were no local newspapers. Neither have diaries or letters survived of any of the townspeople of that period save that one letter of 12 May 1785 published by way of reportage in the Hibernian Magazine of the fire that occurred on Tuesday 10 May 1785. The letter from the Tullamore correspondent is clearly the most useful and more informed than similar reports in Finn’s Leinster Journal and Faulkner’s Dublin Journal. Some of these reports put the loss at 130 houses and not 100 as advised to us by the letter writer.
The Tullamore letter is as follows:
A most dreadful fire took place on the fair day, by which near an hundred houses and offices were totally consumed. The melancholy accident was occasioned by the liberation of a fire-balloon, or Montgolfier, which two gentlemen of that quarter encouraged an English adventurer to prepare for the amusement of their friends. Having being launched from Doctor Bleakley’s yard, it took its direction with a smart wind towards the barrack, where its progress was interrupted by the chimney; and having, on the shock, taken fire it communicated to Christopher Beck’s house, and raged with ungovernable fury, notwithstanding the efforts and the assistance of a number of people collected by the circumstance of the fair, till every house front and rear in Barrack Street (except one thatched and four slated houses) was entirely destroyed. The utmost distress has been experienced by the miserable inhabitants, whom the remaining houses are scarcely sufficient to afford shelter; and several of the wealthier residents have suffered losses nearly to their total ruin, particularly Mr. Norris whose dwelling house, office and malthouse containing a considerable quantity of grain were destroyed. This dreadful calamity rendered more poignant, perhaps from the absurd and dangerous practice from which it proceeded, has overwhelmed this ill-fated town with inconceivable distress and inconvenience.
What is clear from the account is that the disaster was brought about an Englishman, described as ‘an English adventurer’ experimenting with the new-fangled air balloon at the behest of two Tullamore men. We know that Dr Bleakley was the surgeon attached to the county infirmary established in Tullamore in 1767 and for which a new building was provided in Church Street in 1788, but where was the old infirmary? Did the balloon take off from the yard of the infirmary or a private house? It seems to have been a hot air balloon rather than the hydrogen type. The hot air balloon was made of an envelope of paper and was heated by burning straw in the centre of the large basket. The basket was tied to the ground until enough heat was generated to lift the balloon. When that happened the ropes were cut and the balloon flew until it cooled once more. There is no suggestion that the Tullamore balloon was manned and most probably was not or Tullamore could claim the first air crash victim. This came about in France just a month later when two aeronauts were killed. Hitting a chimney was an expected hazard. In McGuire’s ascent in Dublin on 12 May 1785 he almost hit a chimney of the barrack. John Hampton’s balloon of 14 October 1844 while travelling across the city from Portobello, Dublin and hitting a chimney was ignited by sparks from it and exploded. The day of the balloon experiment in Tullamore was one when lots of people were about because it was the day of the first of the annual fairs for that year.
The balloon experiment was not associated with the coming of age of the town’s young landlord, Charles William Bury who did not come of age until 30 June 1785. There is no suggestion of Bury being in the town at the time and in fact did not visit the town until 22 May some twelve days later when he distributed £550 to relieve distress. Our letter writer was busy again and wrote to the Dublin Evening Post of ‘this noble act of charity and munificence’ on 22 May and had the letter published on 24 May.
Town Planning made easier by unified ownership
Notwithstanding Bury’s active role in the year after the fire it would be wrong to see the development of the town from the mid-1780s as a consequence of the fire by way of a great re-building programme thereafter. The impression has been given that the town was destroyed in a great conflagration and thereafter rebuilt in a planned manner. But this is not the case and there were many other factors at work in the development of the town from 1786. The fire in the same year as the landlord came of age would also have boosted demand from those who wished to rebuild better houses or move to a new location. The local economy mostly prospered in the years from 1785 to 1815 with the canal coming Tullamore in 1798 the big factor.
It seems that Patrick Street, which had been damaged in the fire, was widened on the southern side and rebuilt. It should be noted that the hotel (now the site of Boots Pharmacy) was built in 1786 and was a key building. The fire caused no damage in Bridge Street, High Street or O’Connor Square. And as to the four houses surviving in Patrick Street one can be sure that one of them was the old Williams’ head office now the Academy of Music. Another was probably De Brun’s public house. This house dated to the early 1750s, but was rebuilt perhaps 100 years later. Nevertheless, in 1787 John Wesley felt obliged to remark:
‘I once more visited my old friends at Tullamore. Have all the balloons in Europe done so much good as can counterbalance the harm which one of them did here a year or two ago? It took fire in its flight and dropped it down on one and another of the thatched houses so fast that it was not possible to quench it, till most of the town was burnt down….’
Charles Coote, writing in 1800, looked on Tullamore as a prosperous new town having risen phoenix-like from the ashes. This story fully suited the landlord who could then bask in the reflected glory of the town being entirely his creation.
Tullamore is a very neat town situate on the river Clodagh, and owes its newly acquired consequence to the present Lord Charleville, from whence his Lordship takes the title of Baron, this town and about 2000 acres adjoining being his estate: about fourteen years ago it was but a very mean village, with scarce any better than thatched cabins, which were almost all destroyed by accidental fire, occasioned by the launching a balloon, and since has risen, Phoenix like, from its ashes, to its present pre-eminence : it is certainly the best town in the county, and bids fair to be little inferior to any town in Ireland
The Ballooning Craze of the 1780s. How many attended the Tullamore event?
It would be interesting to know more of the background to the fire and the experiment with an air balloon leading to ‘the first air disaster in history’. Air balloons were in the news at the time and not just in Tullamore. The air balloon craze began in France two years earlier on 5 June 1783 with the experiments of the paper bag manufactures, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. As Richard Holmes in his brilliant survey of ballooning in its early years has noted: ‘Montgolfier had discovered a scientific principle quite as interesting as that of aerial buoyancy. With ballooning, science had found a powerful new formula: chemistry plus showmanship equalled crowds plus wonder plus money.’ The first manned flight in the world took place near where the Eiffel Tower now stands in November 1783 and that in England by Lunardi on 15 September 1784. That flight was in England and the best known, but James Tytler was the first Briton to make a successful ascent and that in August 1784 in Edinburgh, albeit a flight of short duration. By early 1785 several hundred unmanned balloon flights had taken place in England and France. Linde Lunney, anticipating the work of Richard Holmes, noted that the enthusiasm for ballooning was a remarkable phenomenon. ‘Such large assemblies of people had never before occurred, and were novelties in themselves. They were completely beyond the control of the authorities, and popular enthusiasm for science may never reach such heights again.’ This is the point that Richard Holmes makes so elegantly and forcefully linking the quest for scientific knowledge with the romantic tendencies of the age. It could be said that it had a later flowering in Ireland at Birr with the development of the great telescope from the late 1830s. One wonders how many attended the Tullamore balloon event. We know that the departure of McGuire at Ranelagh, Dublin two days after the ascent and fire in Tullamore, on 12 May 1785, was a huge affair with many thousands present notwithstanding the disappointment of Crosbie not being able to ascend on 10 May as billed.
Richard Crosbie was the first Irish aeronaut to ascend in an air balloon and that was of the hydrogen type, at Ranelagh Gardens, Dublin on 19 January 1785 when he got as far as Clontarf. It was said that more than 35,000 people witnessed the event. Crosbie was always interested in things mechanical and started experimenting with balloons shortly after the Scotsman, Riddick, released a balloon in Dublin in February 1784. Crosbie had intended to cross the Irish Sea and tried again in mid-May 1785 just as the experiment in Tullamore was taking place. In fact on the same day Crosbie made two attempts, but the balloon did not take off until 12 May and this time with the young Trinity College student, Richard McGuire (or McGwire) and not Crosbie who was too heavy. McGuire landed in the sea some ten miles from the town of Howth. Cold and wet, but rescued, McGuire was later paraded through the streets of Dublin and knighted by the lord lieutenant for his bravery. Crosbie made another attempt in July 1785, ascending from Leinster Lawn, Dublin, but like McGuire was forced into the sea, probably about mid-channel. Crosbie had an Offaly connection in that he married in 1780 Margaret Armstrong of King’s County. A descendant of Richard Crosbie was the late Mrs Helen Lamb of Woodfield, Clara.
It was not until 1817 that the Channel was successfully crossed and then by Windham Sadler, son of the first English aeronaut, James Sadler. Windham Sadler was himself killed in 1824 when only twenty-seven, falling to his death from an air balloon basket. His was not the first such death as the Frenchman, Pilatre de Rozier and his companion, were killed attempting to cross the English Channel on 15 June 1785. These were the first recorded deaths of balloonists and was followed by that of an English onlooker of Lunardi’s experiments on 23 August 1786. He had been caught by one of the restraining ropes, then hauled some hundreds of feet into the air, only to fall to his death. Holmes refers to the opening scene of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997) for an account of a similar death. These tragedies, at least in chronological terms, leave the door open for Tullamore to claim the first ‘aerial disaster’. It should be mentioned that like the exploits of Lunardi in England Crosbie was not in fact the first aeronaut in Ireland. This honour is to be accorded to one Mr Rosseau who took off on a short trip from Navan on 27 April 1784. The first unmanned flight in Ireland had been on 4 February 1784. Holmes in his essay makes no mention of Tytler or of Rosseau. Then as now what is important is getting your story out and in this regard Lunardi was masterful although eventually the press turned against him. He left England in 1787 and died ‘of a decline’ at Lisbon in 1806.
Perhaps the council should invest in a balloon to promote Tullamore and to be available for festivals. When the foundation stone of the Tullamore gaol was laid in 1826 Lord Tullamoore was enthusiastic about the celebrations held to mark the occasion and was to tell his step-brother: ‘The town, every single house, was illuminated, many most tastefully… A beautiful fire-balloon with my arms etc. was sent up, so constructed as to discharge fireworks and have the appearance of a fiery meteor.’
The Tullamore coat of arms or crest recalling the origins of the fire and dating to 1953.
1. A mount vert, i.e. – a green hill representing An Tulach Mhór.
2. A Phoenix rising from the flames, the Phoenix was the mythological bird believed to be reborn from its own ashes.
3. A cross of St Brigid – to represent the parish of Kilbride of which Tullamore is a part.
4. The St Brigid’s Cross to appear between two cross crosslets or taken from the coat of arms of the Burys of Charleville, the earldom now being extinct since 1875.