With St. Patrick’s Day soon upon us, although not specifically training, this week’s tip will focus on fire service history, particularly the history of the Irish in the American fire service.
The first volunteer fire company organized in the American colonies was the Union Hose Company in Philadelphia, 1736. As the roles of the company swelled, potential members had to be denied, causing the creation of additional fire companies throughout the city. Companies of every political, religious and ethnical background became common. One of the most prestigious and colorful of the volunteer companies of colonial times was the Hibernia Fire Company No.1, which had supplied many patriots to fight in the Revolutionary War. Founded in Philadelphia, 1752 and made up largely of affluent men of Irish birth or heritage, over the course of its existence, it prided itself on having among its members “signers of the Declaration of independence, ministers, members of Congress, State and national officers, revolutionary chieftains, financiers, merchants, physicians, mechanics, philosophers, and…a clergyman.”1
Early constitution, rules and by-laws for the company were strict, and breaking them was punishable by fines. For example, the following constitution articles taken from an 1859 publication, Hibernia Fire Engine Company No. 1 Have Caused This Volume to Be Issued In Remembrance of Their Visit to the Cities Of New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlestown and Newark, in November, 1859 recorded some of the fines imposed for not having company equipment at the ready.
“First – That we will each of us with all possible expedition at each of our own proper charge provide two Leathern Buckets, two Baggs and one large Wicker Basket with two handles, the Baggs to be made of Good Oznaburgs or wider linen, whereof each bagg shall contain four yards at least and shall have a String fixed near the mouth; which said Buckets, Baggs and Basket shall be marked with our own respective names & Company, kept Ready at hand & apply’d to no other use, than for preserving our own and our fellow Citizens’ houses, Goods & Effects in case of Fire as aforcs.”2
The second article further stated,
“That if any of us shall neglect to provide his Buckets, bags & Basket as afores or when so provided shall neglect to keep them ready at hand and in good order, in a Convenient place near the street door or shall apply them to any other use, but for the Use herein mentioned, he shall forfeit to the use of the Company & pay unto the Clk. for time being the sum of two shillings, except any of them shall be lost or damaged at a fire.”3
The constitution also provided for rules in regards to fire response:
“Fourth – That we will immediately upon hearing of a fire break out repair to the same with our buckets, bags & Baskets & there employ our utmost endeavors to preserve the Goods & Effects of such of us as shall be in danger; and if – more than one of our Goods, Houses and Effects be in danger at the same time, we will divide ourselves as near as may be, to be equally helpful, and such of us as may be spared may assist others in like danger; and to prevent as much as in us lies suspicious persons from coming into or carrying any of the Goods out of such of our houses as may be in danger, two of our Number shall constantly attend at the doors, until all the Goods & Effects that can be saved, are pack’d up and convey ‘d into some place, where one or more of us shall attend until they are delivered to or secur’d for the owner. – And upon our first hearing of Fire, we will immediately cause two or more Lights to be placed in our windows, and such of our Company whose Houses may be in Danger shall place Candles in every Room to prevent Confusion & that their Friends may be able to give the more speedy & effectual assistance. – And further as this Association is intended for General benefit, we do mutually agree, that in case a fire should hereafter break out in any other of the Inhabitants’ Houses and when none of our own Houses, Goods and Effects are in Danger, we will immediately Repair thither with our Buckets, Bags & Baskets, and give our utmost assistance to such of our Fellow Citizens as shall stand in need thereof. And if it shall appear that any of our members neglected to attend with their Buckets, Bags & Baskets, or to set up Lights in their windows as afores every such neglecting Member shall forfeit and pay to the use of the Company Two Shillings, unless he shall assign some Reasonable Cause to the satisfaction of the Company.”4
Early minutes, sometimes recorded on slips of paper and never added into the minute book, provide some instances that show that the company invariably had its two or three habitual offenders who had to pay up at every meeting.
“Blair M’CIenachan was, by far, the most frequent sufferer; and paid innumerable two shilling fines, principally for the offence of having merchandise of one kind or other deposited in his baskets.”5 Also, “Mr. Jo M’Michal is find for having his baskett with glasses in it 2s (shillings).”6
Minutes from the next meeting recorded that:
“Mr. John M’Michael is to show cause for having Merchandize in his Baskett & but one Bag, find 2s.” And at the same meeting, “James Wharton wanted a string in one of his bags,” and was punished therefore according to the constitution. Members were fined for having holes in their bags, and for not keeping their bags clear of oats, and getting them burned occasionally. John M’Michael and James Wharton, who came in after the original organization, seem to have been the depositor of a sort of reserved fund, upon which the company could draw at pleasure. Continually engaged in the same offense, connected with their ” Buckets, Basketts and Bagges,” they were fined at almost every meeting.7
Fines were also collected for meeting absence. The meetings were generally held on a weekly basis and were deemed necessary so that the men could keep their engine and other equipment in good repair as well as practice using it. When this work was done, the men generally got down to serious socializing. Oftentimes the fines were used to help in this last pursuit. Meals and other refreshments were frequently charged against the company’s fund.
Fines, as well as assessments on the members were also used to buy new equipment. In 1790, the Hibernia Company decided that its English-made engine was no longer fit for use, so they contracted with Richard Mason, a maker and seller of fire engines in Philadelphia, to build them a replacement at a cost of ₤160.8
The Great Potato Famine
While many of the early volunteers were well to do members of society, the second wave of emigration from Ireland brought those who were less fortunate. When the great potato famine struck Ireland in 1845 and continued until 1851, it caused much death and forced many to seek solace in America. They left in droves on tightly packed ships often called “Coffin Ships” because of the deplorable conditions usually causing many deaths aboard. Unfortunately, as the Irish arrived at various east coast ports they found things not much better coupled with massive discrimination. Most had little or no money to make a meaningful choice about their future nor did they possess the funds to start a business. Many had little choice but to remain in the port cities living in cellars, ghettos or “shanty towns” where they clung together.
Finding work was also extremely difficult for the new arrivals as most ads for employment at shops and factories posted signs reading “NINA” – No Irish Need Apply or “INNA” – Irish Need Not Apply. Generally the only jobs available were dirty, dangerous or both. Many worked building bridges, canals and railroads. The other dirty and dangerous jobs held that no one else wanted – police and firemen, were filled by eager Irishmen. It was because of this that the Irish began to affix shamrocks to the fire apparatus as a sign to all that while no one else would have them the fire service welcomed them without prejudice. To this day, the shamrocks can still be seen on our fire apparatus and worn on the helmets and PPE of firefighters across the country as a reminder of their history and Irish heritage.
Another tradition brought to America by the Irish was the playing of the bagpipes at a firefighter’s funeral. We are all familiar with the Emerald Societies named after Ireland – the Emerald Isle, associated with the fire and police services but it was traditional for the Irish to play the bagpipe at Celtic weddings, dances and funerals. Since firefighting was so dangerous, it was sometimes tragic to have several firefighters die while combating a fire and as normal tradition, the bagpipes were played at these funerals. The most famous song aired by the bagpipes at a funeral is Amazing Grace and while played it is somehow all right for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of bagpipes when dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade. Because of this Irish tradition, it was not too long before families and friends of non-Irish firefighters and police officers began to request bagpipes for their fallen heroes.
Men and women of Irish heritage continue to serve in the ranks of the fire service today carrying on these traditions to future generations.
There you have it. A brief history of how the Irish contributed to the American fire service. Therefore, as you raise your pint of Guinness this St. Patrick’s Day you can thank the Irish for some of the traditions we have today. Sláinte!
1 Dennis Smith, History of Firefighting in America 300 Years of Tradition (New York: Doubleday, 1980), page 28
2 The Hibernia Fire Company, Hibernia Fire Engine Company No. 1 Have Caused This Volume to Be Issued In Remembrance of Their Visit to the Cities Of New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlestown and Newark, in November, 1859 (Philadelphia: J.B. Chandler, 1859), pg. 5
4 Ibid, pg. 6
5 Ibid, pg. 7
8 Ibid, pg. 10