Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 5 September 2019
Tales from 1919: A Fire at Donnybrook Mill
This week, one hundred years ago on 5 September 1919, the mill of Messrs Morrogh Brothers and Company – woollen and worsted manufacturers in Donnybrook in Douglas – suffered a devastating fire with much damage and loss. The Cork Examiner detailed that the fire raged with intensity and except for the warehouse, offices and stables, nothing remained of the magnificent set of buildings except the skeleton walls. The mill employed circa 300 people, covered an area of three acres and were fitted with all the most modern machinery. The products of the Douglas Mills had gained a world-wide reputation. Among the orders in hand were those from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, as well from various parts of the United Kingdom.
The fire broke out about one o’clock in the afternoon, when the mill hands had gone to their dinner. The moment the alarm of fire was raised several employees hurried back to the scene to try to save some of the stock. Mr John O’Brien, junior, and Mr Dermot O’Brien, whose mills were distant about a quarter of a mile at the other end of Douglas Village suspended work, and together with all their employees co-operated with those of Messrs Morrogh’s hands in salvaging a large quantity of tweeds. The goods, which were in the unfinished stage, were piled up on the ground and policemen placed in charge of them.
The origin of the fire lay in the bottom floor of the five-storey high main building – the cause being the overheating of one of the bearings of the machinery. This set timber alight and the flames worked their way through the shaft of the hoist, setting the roof ablaze. Fanned by a strong wind from the south-west, the conflagration spread with rapidity, and aided by the machinery oil, which was stored on the premises, the engine room and other departments of the mills were quickly enveloped.
The Cork Fire Brigade with steam engine and other appliances, and military with hose reel, immediately set about the work of fighting the fire. Lines of hose were laid on from the local mill stream. Such were the seething mass of flames that the fireman spent much of their work trying to stop the fire from spreading at its edges. The concentration was mainly in the direction of the offices, wareroom and stables, and to their untiring efforts may be attributed the saving of those portions of the premises. The firemen worked in the face of much personal risk, as it was feared the boiler located in the engine-room might explode at any moment. However, precautions were taken to ensure a sufficient supply of water to avert an explosion.
Thick volumes of smoke shot out from the building, while the flames could be seen a considerable distance away. A large local crowd congregated at the fire and a detachment of soldiers from the military, assisted by the local police, rendered assistance in forcing back the people from the danger zone. The noises occasioned by collapse of the floors in the main building with all the machinery was terrifying as highlighted by passing observers. The destruction could be clearly viewed the following day as the Morrogh family walked the smouldering ruins. Committing to rebuilding the mills, they were up and running within two years and played a key role in the area for over another 50 years till their closure.
Industrial archaeological studies by scholars such as Dr Colin Rynne and the National Archaeological Inventory record that the mill building was designed and built in 1866 by the Cork architect and antiquarian, Richard Bolt Brash, for Hugh and James Wheeler Pollock (flax-spinning merchants of Belfast). The mill’s design was modelled closely on contemporary Belfast mills. Walking around the remaining mill site today one can view that the main enclosing walls were built with Youghal brick and were externally faced with Ballinhassig (Ballinphellic) Brick. Engine beds and most of the cut stone was supplied by a quarry in Foynes, County Limerick, some quarried at Carrigacrump quarries near Cloyne.
The Wallis and Pollock’s Douglas Patent Hemp Spinning Company was the largest ropeworks in the south of Ireland. However, in 1883 the mill building was bought by John and Patrick Morrogh and R A Atkins, the High Sheriff of Cork. John Morrogh had made his fortune in South Africa in his early life after becoming one of the directors of the De Beers Mining (Diamond) Company. After his return to Ireland he invested his wealth to any attempt at industrial revival in and around the city. He was also elected to Parliament for the South-East Cork-Division on two occasions.
The Morrogh Brothers converted the mill to serve woollen manufacture. They engaged the Cork architect William Henry Hill to make the necessary modifications to the existing structures for their own customised mill – the creation of a 170 feet long weaving shed from an existing annexe to the main five-storey building. The mill engine was built by Hick, Hargreaves and Company of Bolton, was an Inglis Corliss engine with 40 nominal horse power and a Spencer-Corliss valve gear (up-to date textile mill technology). The preparing and spinning machinery were supplied by Belfast foundries.
1013a. Advertisement for Morrogh Brothers & Company Mill, Donnybrook, from Cork: Its Chamber and Commerce, 1919 (source: Cork City Library)
1013b. Former site of Morrogh Brother & Company Mill, Donnybrook with retail units, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)