The inquiry came from a voice in the back of the room, and it wasn’t phrased as a challenge of any sort. In fact, the African-American man who asked the question was smiling when he asked his question. Clearly he found the connection between the two, the Irish and the Fire Department, admirable.
Of course, people all over the country have been asking that very question since the barbaric attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Readers of this newspaper needed no reminder of the conspicuously Irish presence in the FDNY, but apparently it came as a revelation to others. The world has heard so much about the new Irish of the 21st Century — the CEOs, the artists, the writers, the surgeons and university presidents — that many apparently concluded that the Irish-American firefighter had gone the way of Irish-American heavyweight champion.
The roster of Sept. 11’s heroes showed otherwise. The Echo’s Frank Cull, who knows this subject better than anybody else, has written in these pages that 145 of the 343 firefighters lost on Sept. 11 were members of the department’s Emerald Society. And if you assume that not every Irish-American firefighter was a member of the Society, the figure begins to approach 200.
Of course, none of this answers the question directed at me in Boston: What is it about the Irish and the Fire Department?
After growing up in an Irish-American firefighting family and then marrying into another, after spending hundreds of hours researching the department’s history, I still can’t answer that question completely. The obvious answer — that the job offered economic security to a group that knew the terrible effects of insecurity — clearly is true, although the irony is equally clear: The job offered security, all right, but only if you lived to collect your well-deserved pension.
That obvious answer simply doesn’t satisfy as a complete explanation, and it isn’t. The Irish first began entering the fire service in New York, and in other cities, long before there was any talk about half-pay pensions and paid holidays. Indeed, the Irish became firefighters before it was a paid job at all. Researchers have discovered that the Irish began joining the New York Fire Department in great numbers in the 1850s — when firefighters were volunteers. Their only compensation for their service and their sacrifice was an exemption from jury duty (not a bad incentive, when you think about it). But they knew that firefighters were neighborhood heroes and often made important connections through the firehouse, connections that could lead all the way to City Hall. Or Tammany Hall.
By the time fire service became a paid profession in New York in 1865, the Irish were the department’s signature ethnic group. In the dusty basement of the Fire Museum on Spring Street — well worth a visit, by the way — there’s a roster of firefighters from the 1880s. I found it lying amid a jumble of company journals from the time. I counted the firefighters listed, about 1,000, and the number born in Ireland, about 300. Throw in the Celtic-sounding names of those born in New York, and it’s clear that the Fire Department was about 75 percent Irish by the 1880s. That figure isn’t as high anymore, but there’s no denying that, yes, there’s just something about the Irish and the Fire Department.
But what’s far more important than mere numerical dominance is how Irish Americans transformed fire service into a science, and how generations of crusading fire chiefs in New York have fearlessly done battle with builders, architects, politicians and real estate interests on behalf of fire safety. Two of the great New York chiefs in the late 19th Century were Hugh Bonner and John Bresnan, who were brought to America as children in the 1840s. Both were raised in the Five Points, New York’s most-infamous neighborhood — it will be the setting for the forthcoming Martin Scorcese film “The Gangs of New York.” They started their careers as volunteers, and went on to become among the city’s most famous firefighters, not only because they were brave, but because they insisted on high standards of professionalism in the ranks.
And they simply refused to accept the real estate industry’s contention that fire safety measures — like fire escapes and fireproof materials — were too expensive. Bresnan’s particular interest was in theater fire safety, and, thanks to him, New York never had a terrible theatre fire, like the fire in Brooklyn in the 1870s that killed nearly 300 people. Bresnan and Bonner also worked with the elite reformers in the 1890s who tried to improve the lives of poor people who lived in the city’s tenements. These were men who knew what it was like to be poor, who knew the dangers of substandard housing. The two chiefs took members of the Tenement House Committee to fires, showing the terrible dangers the poor face.
That tradition was carried on by Chief Edward Croker, whose criticisms of builders and architects led to a slander campaign against him. When he demanded that builders add sprinklers to new buildings in the first decade of the 20th Century, there were whispers that he was being paid off by the sprinkler industry. He ignored those lies, and saw his worst fears come true at the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in 1911.
The tradition of the crusading Irish-American fire chief continues to our time. John O’Hagan, one of the great firefighters of the 20th Century, fought an often vain battle for sprinklers and safer high rises in the 1980s. And today, retired Chief Vincent Dunn is the nation’s leading expert on building collapses. He testifies regularly at public hearings about the flaws he sees in modern, lightweight construction. He called the glass towers of the World Trade Center a disaster waiting to happen.
Powerful people don’t like hearing such things. But Irish firefighters will continue their crusade all the same. Their contribution to our safety is more than just a numbers game. It’s about a passion for justice.
The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.