Forgotten Fires at Maynooth

by Sarah Larkin, Archivist, St Patrick’s College Maynooth

Dublin fire brigade attending the fire at New House, 29 March 1940.

This year St Patrick’s College, Maynooth celebrates 225 years since its foundation in 1795. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting some of the interesting and lesser known events and facts of the College’s history. This post looks at two occasions when fire broke out in the College, and how tragedy was avoided. 

On 1 November 1878, at 8am in the morning, fire broke out in St Mary’s in Maynooth College. The College fire engine proved to be inadequate. An attempt to summon help from the Dublin fire brigade failed, as the local telegraph failed to work and a message had to be sent from Celbridge. A special train was immediately laid on in Dublin to bring the fire engine to Maynooth. It was then drawn to the College, and by 11am, had got up steam and was put in action. Even after such a long delay, the fire was contained, with no loss of life. 

Illustration from ‘The Graphic’ 16 November 1878. ‘The recent fire at Maynooth College – view of the building on the day after the catastrophe.’

One week later, Dr Patrick Murray recorded the event in his diary: 

I saw the tongues of flame playing on the roof of St Mary’s in the southern corner near to the tall chimney. 

I then ran to my room, opened my press, took out the money lying there (under £20), put on my great coat over my soutane, took my breviary under my arm – the Raccolta I had already had in my hand coming from the chapel – glanced over my bookshelves. So stunned and paralysed was I that all around seemed like so much dust and ashes. I had not the slightest wish or impulse to take anything with me but the three above named articles. I thus left under the conviction that within a couple of hours everything in my rooms, books, manuscripts etc, would be consumed. 

Meantime, a number of students, all seniors, I believe had been most zealously engaged in removing the books from the great library. One of them came to me and asked me to let my books also be removed. ‘No’ said I, ‘let them burn, I care for nothing now in this world.’ In this state of mind I wandered about from group to group of students and externs watching the exertions of the fire brigade and others engaged in stemming the progress of the fire 

Four or five students narrowly, and as if miraculously, escaped with their lives. Nearly forty lost all their property, books, furniture etc. 

Fire in New House, 29 March 1940.

Fire broke out again on 29 March 1940, this time in New House. From about 4pm, fire began to spread the whole length of the 130 year old timber roof of New House, and spread down the wooden staircase. The cause is thought to be defective wiring. The Dublin fire brigade was summoned, and they arrived at about 5pm. They brought the fire under control. However, the interior of New House had been destroyed and student records going back to 1795 were lost. 

Dublin fire brigade putting out the fire in New House, 29 March 1940. 
Dublin fire brigade putting out the fire in New House, 29 March 1940. 
The aftermath of the fire in New House, 1940.

One thought on “Forgotten Fires at Maynooth

  1. telescoper August 17, 2020 / 9:28 am

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    I’m taking the liberty of reblogging this fascinating bit of local Maynooth history. I did know about the 1878 fire, having read about it here, but for some reason I had imagined it happened elsewhere in the College. St Mary’s Square is actually behind St Patrick’s House as you look at it from the larger St Joseph’s Square. The college chapel was not completed until 1891 so can’t be seen on the picture of the aftermath of the fire; the spire wasn’t built until 1895.


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