The Unforgettable Fire
A weird type of comparison exists between Parícutin, the volcano that began life outside a small Mexican village in 1943, and the story of our local St. Joseph’s Church going up in flames one April afternoon in 1977. Each of them started as a harmless-looking curl of smoke rising almost from nowhere into the heavens. The home event caught the attention of our Church’s nearest neighbour Mrs. Tess Flaherty, proprietor of the Abbey Garage. Tess, as her many friends knew her by, became immediately suspicious. T’was an early afternoon of a Tuesday, a time when things would normally be quiet in the grounds around the Church and the nearby Convent of Mercy School. Recalling an event that ushered in such a radical change to many a lifestyle, I have decided to use the names of those few people who were prominent from the beginning and witnessed St. Joseph’s Church becoming a towering inferno. Most have since departed this world and gone to their eternal reward.
For me, that Tuesday morning was no different from any other in a newsagent’s shop selling newspapers, cigarettes, sweets, and miscellaneous items. Teresa, my wife, was helping out and taking part in the little outbursts of conversation common to any family shop in the morning, and, of course, never forgetting the weather prospects. The morning was bright with a fresh wind blowing that had potential in it. Periodic bursts of sunshine gave one the feeling that winter was nearing an end and spring was about to burst forth.
That great conversationalist and customer Michael (Mickey) Morris from Abbeytown, my local barber, had just dropped in to pick up his morning Irish Press and for some unknown reason began talking about a heavy shower of snow he remembered on a fair day morning in Boyle in early May. I thought the remark was a little bit out of place, not being related to any topic already being discussed, but that could be Mickey at his most interesting. In hindsight, I often wondered might it just have been a harbinger of something strange to follow!
Mrs. Flaherty (Tess) came in a rush for her paper and enquired if Paddy Leonard, our Sacristan, had been in for his Irish Independent? Paddy was in and gone, I told her. She had noticed a large curl of smoke rising at the rear of the Church as she passed, and thought it rather strange - it looked more than a mound of twigs or a few cardboard boxes alight in some isolated corner. John Gallagher, the quiet and seasoned warrior from The Warren, said he too saw what looked like a “wisp” of smoke in the distance and had him wondering!
My wife Teresa drove to Paddy’s home at Tidy Terrace (our wonderful next-door neighbours at the time) to tell him the news. Paddy’s wife May brought her into the kitchen where he was sitting down to a bowl of soup. When she gave him the news all heaven broke loose. The soup was left untouched and she drove him immediately back to the Church to see what was unfolding.
Canon Mahon and his two curates, Fr. Jones and Fr. Breslin, were hurrying in and out the sacristy door to the high altar and side altars trying to save whatever they could. Foremost was the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle to the safety of The Presbytery. The fire, still in its very early stages, appeared to have its beginnings at the top end of the church near the high altar. The great timber beams underpinning the church roof were catching fire at high speed due to the strong wind, and a number of slates exploded reminding one (incongruously) of bangers going off on a Halloween night. The beautiful Rose Window above the high altar, depicting scenes from Christ’s life, was among the first to be badly hit. The Rose Window is quite often the centrepiece of any great Gothic Cathedral, so its demise would be almost as a disaster. Next was the organ on the gallery overlooking the high altar; a new organ installed in 1960 that had enriched many a Sunday Mass, wedding, funeral, and other Church celebrations. It was now in the frontline of the fire. If the late E.C. McGee, Boyle’s renowned organist for upwards on half a century, was there to see its demise it would have broken his heart. Like Paddy the Sacristan, he was a limb of the church.
Next in the line of fire was the beautiful ornate pulpit made of pure marble, donated by a Major General Luke O’Connor (a one-time native of Boyle) sometime in the 1930s. It was circular in shape, a masterpiece adorned all around with religious emblems of saints, each one inset in his own niche. Thinking back to the number of preachers that mounted those steps to preach a sermon, I thought for a moment that if the same pulpit had had the technology of today to record the fiery sermons delivered by Jesuits, Redemptorists, and other Missionary Orders during an annual church mission, they might have been kept for future study or analysis. To forget the masterpieces of rhetoric from our own Dr. Seamus McLoughlin on a Men’s Sodality night would be a serious oversight. His were classics in their own right; loud perhaps, full of wit, subtle humour, a sprinkle of sarcasm, and his summing upended as “the ultimate analysis”. In those times there was little room for the free thinker or the personal opinion. It was a clear-cut message; listen and obey! The Second Vatican Council (1962) opened windows that had been closed and shuttered for 350 years, to give a new meaning to old church rules and change many of them.
The next jewel to bite the dust was the beautiful marble baptismal font at the bottom of the Church, also donated by the same military gentleman. As I looked long and hard at it blackened and broken, I couldn’t but ponder back to the morning my own fragile little cranium would have felt the chill of its icy water at Baptism. My Dad, on reliable authority, enjoys the record (or distinction if you like) of being the first child to be christened in the new St. Joseph’s opened in late-1883 (obviously not the same font). That same little nugget of history added an extra dimension for me, as I pondered on the myriad of events that had taken place in the same sacred surrounding over the previous hundred years.
Straight across from the pulpit, the huge figure of Christ crucified on the cross hung pinned on one of the huge concrete pillars. The massive life-sized sculpture was also in several pieces; Christ had fallen a fourth time. Next to meet their fate were the Stations of the Cross. All of the 14 pictures on canvas, set in their huge frames and depicting Christ’s journey to Calvary, were buried in rubble. Not a single one was saved. Memories again flowed back of the Celebrant and altar boy (with lighted candle) walking The Way of the Cross each Friday evening during the seven weeks of Lent. All gone. Today in their place, there are 14 small elegant hand-carved figures in wood, each telling its story of The Passion. Being of the old school myself, I still have a preference for The Way of the Cross as portrayed on the great old giant canvasses. They certainly conveyed the story of The Passion in sharper detail and a degree more blood-spattered. They carried much more food for thought!
The residents from Abbeytown gathered in little groups looking on in silence as a vital aspect of their life went up in smoke. The local fire brigade was among the first on the spot, with several more arriving at intervals. Nuns from the Convent of Mercy School, along with members of staff, stood looking on - shocked and helpless. Imelda Hunt, the gentle soft-spoken teacher whom I knew personally from calling to our shop, stood on her own quietly shedding tears.
Reminiscing on all this, I would have missed much of what I saw but for Teresa rushing back home to tell me to go and see it all at first hand. Like the rest, I stood for a while frozen in time feeling helpless. Dr. Conway, our late bishop, had just arrived from Sligo and he too was standing transfixed and watching this grand old piece of Gothic Architecture going down in flames. A stubborn man, at the outset he went onto the high altar to see for himself and came out a few minutes later with a number of religious artifacts covered with a white cloth. He then went back a second time and preceded to do the same. His third effort failed when he was strongly persuaded to desist. People ebbed and flowed all afternoon like the tide; watching, praying, pondering on the tomorrow, and wondering perhaps where Mass might take place the next Sunday?
I knew the layout of the old Sacristy like the back of my hand. The interior consisted of a large double-decker press (containing Church records going back probably decades and much further), a wardrobe with the rail of vestments worn by the Celebrant when saying Mass, a writing desk with the day-to-day records of Church business and events, a wall safe with silver cruets and the tray and wine used when saying Mass plus a number of other items. All of these would be a priority for Paddy Leonard, particularly the history of St. Joseph’s Church going back a century. Two priceless Chalices were also saved from the inferno. As an altar boy, I was always fascinated by those two chalices, knowing they were used only on very special occasions. The Sharkey Chalice, unique in design, looked to be of pure silver. The McCormack chalice looked pure gold and was donated by a Miss McCormack, a native of Boyle who had emigrated to America in the early years of the 20th century.
Another noisy outsized feature of Church life was saved due to its location. The bell tower, being higher than the main roof and having little timber content, escaped the inferno. Miko Finneran, a local builder, ensured its safe removal from its old home high up in the old bell tower to a much lower and smaller tower close to the earth and on its own grounds.
Other accounts may yet be written of this unforgettable fire, its aftermath, and the superhuman effort made to ensure Mass and everyday church worship would continue as near to normal as possible. The local Church of Ireland and the Federal Church community generously offered help in every way possible. The gesture was deeply appreciated and showed a wonderful ecumenical spirit. Accommodation was also offered for Catholic ceremonies that might be imminent at the time. The new St. Joseph’s Church would rise from the ashes within three years of the burning. A new era dawned in 1980 with a church of ultramodern design, circular and dome-shaped. The pre-Second Vatican Council worshipper would find it difficult to find that quiet nook or dark corner, (invisible to the human eye, where one might have a confidential chat with The Creator Himself. Life, as we know, is forever changing and we simply have to change with it. There’s no going back!
One memory invokes another
I have witnessed five major fires in Boyle town during my considerably long lifetime. The first, and by far the most tragic, occurred in a low two-storey house in lower Green Street in June 1950. I could see its back roof in flames from my bedroom window. Three lives were lost in that terrible fire - a mother, her little boy of four and the woman’s sister. It left an indelible memory on the community for several years afterwards.
The next fire took place on a September day in 1956. The great mansion that once was Rockingham House went up in flames and smouldered for a further three days. It was the end of the Rockingham dynasty that had been an integral part of the history of Boyle for 300 years.
The next was the old historic Roscommon Herald building on St. Patrick Street that went up in flames in April 1965. Mainly constructed of timber it died quickly and painlessly, giving up the ghost within a matter of hours. The fire began around 9am when printers and office staff were settling into a normal day’s work. The number of staff would be in the region of 30 or 40 people. It was nothing short of miraculous that no life was lost, but the grand old landmark building steeped in the political history of Boyle was completely destroyed.
The last one in my memory was Burke’s Supermarket on Main Street, which took place in 1982. The vast ground floor with its massive array of goods was consumed in flames within hours, extending to a large part of the upstairs area. Two retired sisters who lived in an apartment overhead had a near-death encounter. Manually carried to safety by members of the very alert staff below, they thankfully survived to live another day.