Home Columnists Pat Critchley: Remembering the Portlaoise Fire Brigade from back in the day

Pat Critchley: Remembering the Portlaoise Fire Brigade from back in the day

Pat Critchley fire brigade column
Portlaoise Fire Officers in the 1970s. Back Row, Left To Right: Tom Kelly, Lar Dooley, Tommy Kehoe, Pat Lewis. Front Row, John Bowser Keenan, Paddy Critchley, Larry Dunne, Peter Lanham, Paddy Bracken, Jack "Barbender" Critchley.

The members of the Fire Brigade are unsung heroes of our community.

Dad and Uncle Jack, the Barbender, were in Portlaoise Fire Brigade back in the day. The story is that Jack got his nickname from bending pipes for plumbing with his bare hands. The Brigade were part-time, somewhat like a Reserve Unit in military terms.

Dad’s Army was a famous television comedy series which documented the escapades of the local reserves in Britain during WW2. Paddy Twomey was a member of our local LDF unit which was our reserve during these years. Our war was referred to as the Emergency.

While for the most part, events were no more chaotic than at the Emergency Departments of today’s health service, there were some major incidents. Units of the Fire Brigade in Dublin, Dundalk and Drogheda answered  the call for help when Belfast was bombed. There was also destruction and loss of life when German bombs were dropped on the North Strand in Dublin.

Fortunately, the Nazi bombers never reached the midlands, but the LDF had to be prepared nonetheless. While on Parade behind the Barracks in Portlaoise, the officer in command bombarded his sub-ordinates with questions about possible scenarios if the world conflict reached our shores.

He addressed Paddy Twomey, “Paddy, German aircraft fly over Portlaoise and tear up Coote Street with bombs. What do you do?” Paddy doesn’t hesitate with his reply, “I’d tear up Grattan Street for home!”

My earliest recollection of knowing that there was a fire, was hearing a WW2 Air Raid type Siren blaring across the sky over the town. It was heard at the Worsted Mills Factory where Dad and  many of the Brigade worked. If the Barbender was working in the workshop, he wouldn’t hear the Siren and someone would have to go down there to tell him.

On one occasion, Barbender got the call, ran out to the yard, mounted his bike and tore down to the station quicker than Paddy Twomey avoiding German bombs. He thought he’d catch up with some of the other factory lads before he reached the station opposite the Prison. But there were no lads to catch up with, as the fire was a stitch up and the Bender had been caught.

Returning to the factory thick, he abandoned the bike and stormed across the yard. A hard-of-hearing workmate, Paddy Ruschitzko, unaware of the stitch up asked him, “Where was the fire, Jack?’ ‘Ask me —-ix!” Jack muttered angrily. Christy Conroy passed and asked Rusty, “Where was the fire, Paddy?” “Dan McAuliffes.” And so it is how rumours start.

Between the siren and the personal bleepers and long before mobile phones, the Fire Alarm came to each fireman’s house on a phone line. It was a large double bell in the hall and it would wake half the block when it went off at night. This was how ours was the first house in St Brigid’s Place to have a phone. It was installed so that Dad had his fire alarm.

The phone was a pay phone like the ones in the Kiosks with the A and B buttons. Our hall became a kiosk for our neighbours as the only other phone in the estate was the kiosk at Bannon’s shop. Mrs Fennell, nicknamed Minnie Brennan after a character in the Riordan’s, would regularly make calls to her sisters, one in Offaly and one in England. We knew little of her sister in Offaly but we learned all the news of her sister in England. The reason was that England was FAR AWAY and Minnie roared into the phone as we laughed heartily around the Jubilee cooker in the front room.

There had to be a quota of firemen in town at all times. They had to co-operate for holidays, trips away but especially for match days. The Bomber Keenan was travelling to a game in Tullamore and Tommy Keogh asked, “What if there’s a fire?” Bomber winked, “Keep it going til I get back.”

The Bender would regularly drive his green Avenger to Semple Stadium for a Munster Championship game with Dad, the Bomber and the Nasser Lalor.

Returning from one of these games, they came across a Garda checkpoint at Togher just outside town. The Bender had pints taken and as he didn’t recognise the Guard, he slowed rather than stopped, let down the window and shouted, ‘FIRE!’ As he sped away a young Guard Noel Gilsenan suddenly pondered how they knew there was a fire. It was the time of the siren. He joked about the incident for years after.

The Bender would talk his way out of a checkpoint in Portlaoise, knowing all the local Guards and being known to have a high threshold. When he was stopped returning from a game just outside Thurles, however, the situation was more serious and required him to spin a yarn. ‘Where are ye coming from lads?’ The Bender knew that coming from a match implied the taking of drink so he replied with a very straight face, “We had a bit of a misfortune there Guard. A nephew of ours died outside Thurles.” “Oh, sorry to hear that. I’m from that way myself. Who’s dead?” “Ah, Timmy Ryan.” Bender pulled the deceased from the sky. “Timmy Ryan, poor ould Timmy Ryan. I didn’t hear him prayed for this morning.” “Ah, it’s just happened. We were just down at the house.” The Guard then leaned down to the window and enquired, “Do you take a drink at all?” At this stage the Bender reckoned that the game was up and replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Jaysus, Guard, I’m a master at it.” The Guard paused briefly, then gave his verdict, “Drive on so, slowly and carefully,” and with a twinkle of his own, “and give my sympathies to the Ryans.”

Eoghan Deegan was the young lad of the Brigade and he revered the Bender, Tommy Keogh and the old stock. He told me that they enjoyed the craic but that when it came to the crunch, they were brave men and did the business.

It was dangerous work. He remembered Paddy Bracken breaking down a front door with his shoulder and running into the burning house to launch a rescue. Dad told us that in the early years, they didn’t have proper breathing apparatus. He was almost overcome with fumes in a fire on Main Street. The fact that he knew the house and that there was a side window onto the adjoining alleyway saved his life. He busted out the window halfway up the stairs just before he was about to pass out. The Keenan family wondered if the fumes that were inhaled caused the early death of their father, John Bomber Keenan, who died of lung cancer.

It was physically tough work. During the summer months they could be out all night beating down bog fires while being careful not to fall into a bog hole with heavy gear. On one occasion they brought a gorse fire on The Heath under control. They were invited into Dunne’s Pub for pints and sandwiches. As they indulged, the wind took up and the fire took off again.

Word got to the Brigade and they were steeped to be back on the job when a land rover arrived with Tom Burke, the Chief Fire Officer. He dismounted, resplendent in his uniform and was approached by an old woman. “Are you with the Fire Brigade?’” “I’m the Chief Fire Officer,” Tom announced proudly. The old woman continued bemused, “Can I say something to you. The fire wasn’t too bad until the Fire Brigade arrived.”

At times it could be horrific work. They witnessed burned bodies, sometimes of children. Dad told us that the worst traffic accident scene they had to deal with was when two juggernaut lorries hit head on at Togher on a foggy night. The two cabs were collapsed like an accordion with what was left of the drivers inside.

When the work was over, they enjoyed each other’s company over a few pints. They all loved the Barbender, but on these occasions, they also loved winding him up. One of my best hurling performances was when we beat Wexford in the 1985 Leinster semi-final. The lads knew that the Bender would be very proud and proceeded to talk up the performances of every other Laois player. They were halfway through the team when the Bender exploded. “Ye know nothing about hurling!”

Another great victory was against Cork in a National League game in Borris-in-Ossory with Laois coming from 10 points down to secure a rare and famous victory against the Rebels. The Bomber Keenan was just entering the Square Bar when he saw the Bender’s green Avenger turning into the Top Square. It was agreed that they would talk about any sport bar hurling.

The Bender sat down with his pint of Guinness but before he could speak, the Bomber was off, “Mohammed Ali has to be the best boxer that I ever saw.” After a few more points about boxing Dad changed the sport, “Mile Gibson has to be the best rugby player that I ever saw. Now I didn’t see Jack Kyle in his prime, but lad’s, Mike Gibson was some player.”

The Bender was beaten to it again by Nasser Lalor and was now like a rising volcano. “Lad’s, ye don’t play the golf. I play a bit myself and I’m not too bad at it either, but Jack Nicklaus has to be the greatest golfer ever to play.” The volcano exploded, “Give him a hurl and see how good he’d be!”. The last explosion was of laughter around the table as the Bender drank deep into his pint knowing that he had been caught again.

Peter Lanham was not in great health so he would man the station when the Brigade went out on a fire. He was the Station Master. The crew were very surprised when they arrived for a fire to see Peter fully geared up and ready to go. He hadn’t been out on a fire for ages. Turned out the fire was in the Square Bar.

When Dad broke his wrist in an accident, he stayed with Peter in the station. There was a fire in the kitchen of the Killeshin Hotel. The Brigade arrived promptly with the main engine and a Land Rover. It could have been very serious but the lads got it under control relatively quickly.

The kitchen was a mess with smoke and water but the manager was very grateful. He approached the Bomber who was in charge of the crew, “Thanks very much, John, the lads did a great job. When they’re tidied up there, tell them to go to the Glendine Bar and they can drink there on the house for the evening.”

As soon as the manager left the scene Bomber shouted for Eoghan Deegan. Larry Dunne was a tee totaller. “Eoghan, Eoghan, get Larry Dunne in that Land Rover. Tell him to drive down to the station and bring up Paddy and Peter.” Within ten minutes Peter and Dad arrived in full gear and helmets into the Glendine Bar. “A double brandy,” shouted Peter.

The Brigade had practice every second Thursday night. If Peter went for a pint on other week nights, he would tell his wife Mai that he had jobs to do in the station. After all, he was the Station Master. However, if he was on a Saturday session, he would use a fire as an excuse. He couldn’t use Portlaoise as Mai and all the people of the town knew every house and who lived in it.

He used Rathdowney and Graiguecullen, the two furthest towns either end of the county. ‘Very bad fire in Rathdowney, Mai. Mountrath had to be called as well.’

In the early 80s, O’Moore Park was closed for renovations and our National League hurling games were mainly played in Rathdowney. All the Lanhams were piled into the car for the trip to the hurling game in Rathdowney. Mai sat in the front seat with young Pat on her knee. Just after the car passed the 30mph limit sign entering the town, Mai looked out the window and remarked, “Is this Rathdowney … I thought it would be burned to the ground!”

On one Thursday practice, the Bender sent word that he couldn’t make it as he had to work late. The Worsted Mills had closed and the Bender was working in Odlum’s Mills on Tower Hill. Tom Burke was away so all the lads went into his office. They huddled around the phone at his desk. Eoghan Deegan rang Odlums and asked for Jack.

In the two weeks since their last practice, the Bender had been involved in two incidents. He got into an argument with the County GAA Secretary, Billy Brennan in Murphy’s Pub in Ballylinan. It was about Wooly Parkinson’s Dad Martin who had been suspended by the Board for playing soccer. It was the time of the ban but the Bender was mad about the suspension.

At a Junior football game on the lawn in Stradbally, he antagonised All Ireland referee Jimmy Rankins about some of his decisions. “Get a Labrador, Rankins. You wouldn’t referee a cock fight!” Jimmy had stopped the game and wouldn’t resume until the Bender went up past the Beech trees. This was the equivalent of being thrown out of the stadium.

“Is that Jack?” “It is. Who have I?” “This is Billy Brennan, Jack,” carried on Eoghan with  a straight face.  “Ah, Billy. We had a few words there the last time we met but water under the bridge, Billy. Sure, we’ll have a few pints the next time you’re in town.” “Well, it’s not as simple as that Jack. I have a referee’s report here in front of me, Jack from Jimmy Rankins from a game on the lawn and it’s not pretty reading, Jack. You’re going to have to appear before the County Board next Tuesday night, Jack and between you and me, Jack, it’s not looking good for you.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. All the lads huddled closer. “Are you still there, Jack?” “Where are you Billy?” “I’m in Ballylinan here, Jack.” “Well you’re thirteen miles away, Billy and if I could get near you I’d wring your fecking neck!”

Another explosion of laughter around the table. The Barbender had been caught once more.

SEE ALSO – Pat Critchley: Priceless memories from working on the bog