Shoe Factory Fire

Sligo Champion Report March 25, 1939

A Special General Meeting of Sligo Chamber was held on the 27th of March 1939, D.M. Hanley, President, in the Chair.   The purpose of the meeting was to meet representatives of the employees of the Sligo Shoe Factory with reference to the reconstruction of the Factory in Sligo.  In attendance were representatives of the employees, Mr. Joseph Burns, as spokesman, Mr. Dunleavy, Miss S. Barnes and Mr. B. Hamilton.  The four-storey Shoe Factory building on Customs House Quay had been completely destroyed by fire early in the morning of St. Patrick’s Day.

Mr. Burns stressed the importance of having the Shoe Factory reconstructed in Sligo with as little delay as possible.  He added that some additional capital will be required for the Factory and requested that this Chamber would use its influence with the parties concerned with a view to having the Factory rebuilt.

The President expressed regret at the great blow inflicted on the Workers and the Town in general by the destruction of the Shoe Factory.  He assured the Deputation that the Chamber would do everything possible to have the Factory rebuilt in Sligo, and when the Directors were in a position to say what additional capital they required, the Chamber would assist them in raising the capital.

The following Resolution was

Proposed by:-    D.M. Hanley

Seconded by:-   W.J. Mc Mullan and Resolved:-

Firefighting of Factory Fire

That we the members of The Sligo Chamber of Commerce in Special Meeting assembled, having heard the views of a deputation on behalf of the Workers of the Sligo Shoe Factory which was completely destroyed by fire on St. Patrick’s Day, as expressed by the spokesman, Mr. Joseph Burns, who informed us that endeavours are being made to secure the re-establishment of this Factory outside of Sligo, we would respectfully point out to you as Minister, the grave blow already inflicted upon our Township by the calamity which has befallen this concern and the still grave hardship that would assuredly be imposed on the Workers and Commercial interests of our Town if this industry, the only one established under your Government giving extensive employment in our midst, were permitted to be transferred to an outside centre.  This Chamber is prepared in the interests of the Workers and the trade and commerce of the Town to pledge its fullest assistance to the Directors of the Sligo Shoe Factory in any effort they may make towards the re-establishment of the business in Sligo, and with this end in view we would respectfully request that you, as the authoritative Minister concerned, will exercise your powers in preventing any attempt to deprive Sligo of the benefits of this industry.

                             Passed unanimously”.

Sligo Town Hall Bell Tower

The Secretary, J.A. McLoghry, was instructed to send copies of the foregoing Resolution to the Minister of Industry and Commerce and to the local T.Ds.

The Shoe Factory was a large building situated at the Quays beside the Custom House.   It was previously a sugar store, owned by the Newsome Company.  It was completely gutted within only two hours. The Sligo Champion of the day provides extensive coverage of the fire and its aftermath.  It was also reported in the Londonderry Sentinel.  Reading from the Champion, we learn that the first warning of the fire was given by Mr. Michael Noone, a Fruiterer of Lower Quay Street who, assisted by his brother Jack, sounded the fire alarm bell located in the tower of the Town Hall.

1930s Fire Brigade Crew

On hearing the alarm, people rushed to the scene, including members of the Gardai, Mr. Martin Moffat, V.C., the Sligo Harbour Commissioners night watchman, and a local boy named Hession who lived nearby and was awakened by the smell of smoke in his room.  It was immediately evident that nothing could be done to save the building.  The fire appeared to have started on the second or third floor and quickly spread in all directions.  “The flames ate their way from one place to another and soon the entire building was a mass of flame.  On the different floors the woodwork together with the various materials and stocks, was such that it offered no resistance, so that the speed with which the fire spread was terrific”.

Given the emphasis on having an effective fire fighting service in Sligo today in 2023, it is hard to believe that there was no fire brigade or fire fighters in Sligo at that time.  The nearest fire brigade was in Athlone.  Those people present at the scene got the Corporation fire hose and attached it to the hydrants “The streams of water, not much better than small trickles, were so absurdly useless in subduing the flames or reaching the necessary heights, that after some time attention was centred on keeping the fire from spreading to the adjacent buildings”.

The Gardai, Messrs Cryan, Farren, Fleming, Flynn, Sergeant Hughes and Inspector Horan together with the locals did everything they could.  When Mr. H. Pickup, the Shoe Factor Manager arrived, he asked the Gardai about getting the assistance of the Athlone fire brigade “which made such a thrilling sixty-mile dash three years ago, when the Palace was destroyed”.  The fire was already to such an extent that it was decided there was no point whereupon,  “There were outspoken remarks made by the manager (Mr. Pickup),  in regard to the lack of proper fire fighting facilities in Sligo.  He maintained that if there was a proper brigade in the town the fire could have been got under control in time to save the building to a large extent”.

The fire continued to rage. “Crash followed crash as the glass gave way and the huge machines hurtled down nearer the ground.  At last, they reached the bottom and lay in a tangled mass of twisted metal”.   The roof caved in just before 7am, and one hour later, at 8am, the fire which had started at about 5am was finished and the Shoe Factory building left as a smouldering ruin.

The Shoe Factory had only been in operation for three and a half years having opened in late 1935.  It was a large and significant employer in Sligo with about 200 employees, mostly young people.  Wages were £2 a week. leaving a loss of some £400 in overall wages, money which would have been spent in Sligo.  So, the loss was felt, not only by the workers but also by many businesses and traders in the town.

Sligo Champion April 1, 1939

The Chamber continued in their endeavour to support the reconstruction of the Shoe Factory.  A meeting was held by the Chamber with the Directors of the Shoe Factory Company in the Town Hall on Tuesday the 29th of May.  Very Rev. J. Feeley, Adm., also attended.  It was established at the meeting that additional capital of £10,000 was necessary for the re-build.  The existing shareholders were able to realise a sum of £3,500.  It was agreed that a deputation should visit prominent businessmen in the town with the objective of securing the remaining capital of £6,500.  The appointed members of the deputation were Messrs. H.C. Lyons, G. Johnston, F. Armstrong, Solicitor; Dr. M. Brennan T.D., W.J. Feeney, Coyle and Co., and Cllr. M. Rooney T.C.  A note of caution was provided by Mr. Maguire T.D., who advised that if the provision of £6,500 capital was not supported in Sligo, he knew of a town which would provide the necessary capital for the factory, whereupon he named Carrick-on-Shannon “a town much smaller than Sligo where premises had been provided for a factory by the people of that town within the past couple of days”.

Sligo Shoe Factory Products Ad. Sligo Champion   Dec 12, 1936

There are conflicting reports on the reception received by the deputation from businesses in the town to the request for financial support.  It does appear however that the businesses and the people of Sligo responded so well that the additional capital necessary to re-start the industry was secured.   A meeting of the Board of Directors of the Shoe Factory took place in Dublin in August to discuss the reconstruction.  New Directors were appointed to strengthen the Board including Mr. Frank O’Beirne, Cregg House, Ballincar and Mr. Alfred McHugh of Ballyglass House, Sligo.  They joined the existing Directors who included Mr. A.B. Woods of Messrs W.A. and A.F. Woods in Sligo and Mr. Ben Maguire T.D.

The Directors announced that a new one-storey factory would be built on its former site at Customs House Quay.  It would cost £6,000 to build and “the best and most modern equipment will be installed at a cost of thousands of pounds”.  Messrs Kilcawley, Maloney and Taylor, (some well-known names in construction to this day), “who having carried out many major building works, were accepted as contractors”.  Mr. H. Pickup was retained as manager, and it was expected that the entire staff “who were thrown out of employment by the disastrous fire will be re-engaged” It was expected that the factory would be back in production within three months.

The meeting of the Board of the Sligo Shoe Company, at which the reconstruction of the factory was announced, took place in Dublin on Tuesday, the 1st of August, on this week in 1939.

Researched and written by Conor McCarthy

Supported by the Sligo Chamber Centenary Committee:

  • Catherine Maguire – Admin & Photographic Research
  • Geraldine Courtenay – Creative Direction
  • Aidan Doyle – Review & Publication

The next Article in the series commemorating The Centenary of Sligo Chamber and entitled

Aspiring to Political Office” will be released on the 14th of August 2023.

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