On March 11th, 1597 an enormous explosion ripped through the heart of Dublin destroying the area around the western end of modern Templebar . The story behind the explosion is one of the rare occasions when the poor, normally forgotten by history, were brought centre stage and their story is not what you might expect. They are not kowtowing to aristocrats or rich merchants but confidently claiming what they felt was theirs.
Killing over a hundred people, the explosion would have been catastrophic in a city with a relatively low population. Dublin and Ireland in general was still recovering from the near apocalyptic 14thcentury, which witnessed the Black Death, numerous wars and a deteriorating climate.
Geographically, the explosion blew a huge hole in the heart of the city around Fishamble street, Cook Street, Bridge street and Michael Lane. Historian Colm Lennon has pointed out that when the renowned cartographer John Speed drew his map of Dublin (above), sometime before 1607 (published 1610) there were gaps in the Woodquay area (marked around no’s 8 and 37). This may be evidence of buildings that were destroyed and still not rebuilt.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what caused the explosion itself. That week a shipment of gunpowder had arrived in the city and was being off loaded onto the quays. The gunpowder was for the English army waging the Nine years war (1594-1603) against the O Neills amongst others. Normally this powder would be transported the short distance from the quays up to the castle (see map below). However that week conflict arose between the porters in the city and castle officials and a large supply of gun powder built up on the quays. At lunchtime on Friday it exploded with devastating consequences demolishing twenty houses around the Woodquay area of the city.
In the aftermath the obvious question of “who done it?” arose. An investigation was carried and quickly enough the theories around sabotage were dismissed and the real story emerged. This revealed the fascinating story of the porters of Dublin and a strike of sorts.
From the investigation into the explosion it’s clear that in the run up to March 11th (the day of the explosion) tensions had arisen between the porters and the castle officials as they were transporting the powder to the castle. The castle officials had basically press ganged the porters and forced them to work. We can gather from the investigation conducted into the explosion that their treatment was appalling. One porter Rorie Dowgan later testified that
“he this depont. and severall others of his fellowes to the nomber of viii. were forced by John Allen aforesaid aswell by threatening with his dagger and hard speeches as otherwise for the space of two whole daies” [sic]
It is clear from this and other testimonies that John Allen the Royal official in charge, had forced these porters to work by force. When it came to the issue of pay another porter Neale O Molan testified that they were paid
“under the allowance and rates appointed & usually paid in the cittie by the merchaunts and other inhabitaunts there”.[sic]
The porters’ reaction illustrates that, while the world of the 16th century was brutal and the lives of the poor were undoubtedly very harsh, they too had limits of what they viewed as acceptable treatment. When they felt John Allen had treated them unfairly they acted decisively and by Friday March 11th the porters were effectively on strike. When a merchant William Dixon asked them to cart his fish from the docks they refused citing Allen as the reason
“the bearers that he found standing idle at the Key and requested them to helpe him about the carriage of his herring; to whome they aunswered all at once that they durst not goe neare the Crane for feare of John Allen”
This runs against our view of the poor often created particularly by Hollywood. From other letters in relation to the incident it appears what the porters were doing was not terribly unusual and probably reflective of normal behavior. The Lord Deputy William Russell wrote in a letter to the privy council (the queens advisers) in London
“yt should seem he could not doe (move the powder) for lack of Carriage, in as much as the Porters were unwilling to be employed thereaboutes, being formerly yll paid, as nowe upon examination falleth out”.
Russels reporting of the events in such a matter of fact fashion would indicate Allen was acting outside what was seen as normal and fair to the porters. After this event the poor disappear again from Dublin history but these small insights give us some idea of what it may have been like for the poor of the 16th century. They had more control over their lives history often leads us to believe even the chaotic world of late 16th century Ireland.
Subscribe in itunes here
Fan the blog in facebook here
For more on the background on the explosion read Colm Lennons articles
The Great Explosion in Dublin, 1597 Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Dec., 1988), pp. 7-20
Dublin’s Great Explosion of 1597, History Ireland Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 29-34
To view the transcripts of the investigation carried out in March 1597 see http://www.chaptersofdublin.com/books/Gilbert/gilbert10.htm