Former firefighters Michael McNamara, Jimmy Connors and Anthony Brennan fought the Newsoms Fire in 1974 | PICTURE: Adrian Butler
SATURDAY December 7, 1974 is a day which will remain etched on the mind of many people, a date which changed the face of Limerick city centre.
In the early hours of what was shaping up to be a busy day – the traditional day farmers come in from rural lands to start their Christmas shopping in the city – an inferno destroyed Newsom’s in William Street, as well as two neighbouring premises.
The fire caused £1m worth of damage, as well as seriously disrupting the livelihoods of many people in the run up to the traditionally busy festive shopping period.
This week, more than 44 years after the blaze, three men who had a unique experience of the incident were reunited – appropriately in the restaurant which is now located in the Old Fire Station in Upper Thomas Street.
Tony Brennan, Caherconlish, Jimmy Connors of Clareview and Michael McNamara of Corbally have almost 100 years worked for Limerick’s fire service between them.
Despite dealing with thousands of call-outs in that time, the Newsom’s hardware store fire sticks out.
“We still don’t know how it started. Anything could have happened. But the building was full of furniture – Newsom’s sold everything,” Michael, who was working as a station officer, said.
When the call came in to the station in the early hours of Saturday morning, he was dispatched to the scene immediately. Recalling the day as if it were yesterday, Michael revealed there were initially no signs of a blaze from the front of the shop in William Street.
“I remember a boy and a girl were outside, and we asked them if they saw the fire. They said no, but said there might be signs down the laneway. We went down the laneway and saw two double wooden doors closed. You could look through the join in the centre, and by God, was there a fire going on in there,” he exclaimed.
Although the trio worked together for 30 years in the fire service, Jimmy and Tony were on ‘stand-down’ that day.
But as was the norm at the time, they were fetched from their homes to tackle the blaze which was still smouldering almost a week after it first broke out.
“A firefighter would go around to everyone’s house and get you back in,” Jimmy explains, “If it was a big fire, you know you’d be called in for a few days. Michael was the only one of us on duty when the call came in. So was Tony, we were both on stand-down time. But we were called back up into back up the team on duty,” he said.
Tony interjected: “If we weren’t called, we’d come back of our own accord: we just knew.”
Unlike today, where firefighters wear up to the minute safety gear, back in 1974, they wore plastic macs – which obviously given the heat could stick to you.
”You’d never see the likes of it today,” Tony laughed.
But the trio loved the job, with Jimmy saying he felt like he’d “won the lotto” when he joined the service.
The trio were reunited this week after Sean McNamara, proprietor of the Old Fire Station vegan restaurant, found an old picture of the trio, taken on top of the neighbouring Eugene McGovern’s mens outfitters building.
Michael said: “We had been out in the front in William Street and had a good idea what was going on there. We wanted to make sure the fire was being contained, that it wasn’t going to spread, so we went up to the roof.”
“The photograph you’re looking at, we were on a roof, looking at where we could hit the fire from, and maybe set up a monitor or something like this. Then it would just be a matter of damping it down,” Jimmy adds.
But while up there, they were witness to the whole front of the building collapsing before their very eyes, bringing the fire into full view of the street for the first time.
Sean, who runs the Old Fire Station with wife Marcie, was delighted to reunite the three firemen.
“Since we’re in the Old Fire Station, we wanted to get some paraphernalia. Luckily, we had a connection up near the new fire station in Mulgrave Street. He gave me a tour, and on the tour, I spotted this wonderful photograph. I immediately loved it: I remember being 24 in 1974 and seeing the fire. So I wanted to know if these lads were still alive and kicking,” Sean adds.
“We are – just about,” Michael interrupts.
The trio all have fond memories of serving the people of Limerick.
“When there are a group of men with different personalities, you’re going to have clashes. But at the end of the day, when you come in, all that is put to one side. There are jobs to do, you must defend people. And that’s the way we did things,” he added.
Looking at the picture brings back a flood of memories for Tony.
“You realise you did a good job. The building is back again. No buildings to the site of it are damaged. I don’t think I did a bad job for an auld fella!”