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… the long beam, the enormous stone, and the man in his corporal shape, were sent whirling into the air over the town by the explosion of this powerful powder …

Annals of the Four Masters, 1597.

————

Dublin, Ireland – Friday, 11 March 1597.

Wartime. The Irish rebels, backed by the Spanish, had been in arms against Queen Elizabeth since 1594 and were taking their fight to the whole island. The crown army’s central distribution point was at Dublin, which enjoyed a great traffic in soldiers, victuals and munitions sent over the Irish sea from the port of Chester in England.

It was a fine day in spring. Anchored in one of the pools of the river Liffey was a ship bearing a cargo of gunpowder from the Tower of London. The silting of the river made it risky for ships to approach the quayside at Dublin, so the cargo was loaded onto lighters (flat-bottomed barges) and sent ashore at Woodquay at the end of Winetavern Street, below Christchurch Cathedral.

Imagined view of the late medieval quays of Dublin. The cathedral is the tallest structure; Woodquay at the far end of this perspective.

The barrels of gunpowder were lifted on to the quay by crane and stacked in the street, one hundred and forty in all. There were many people in the vicinity – children, maidens, students, merchants, porters. At noon the last four barrels “laie in the sling” of the crane, when disaster struck …

From a gaelic source, Annals of the Four Masters (M1597.4):

One hundred and forty-four [sic] barrels of powder were sent by the Queen to Dublin, to her people, in the month of March. When the powder was landed, it was drawn to Wine-street, and placed on both sides of the street, and a spark of fire got into the powder; but from whence that spark proceeded, whether from the heavens or from the earth beneath, is not known; howbeit, the barrels burst into one blazing flame and rapid conflagration … which raised into the air, from their solid foundations and supporting posts, the stone mansions and wooden houses of the street, so that the long beam, the enormous stone, and the man in his corporal shape, were sent whirling into the air over the town by the explosion of this powerful powder; and it is impossible to enumerate, reckon, or describe the number of honourable persons, of tradesmen of every class, of women and maidens, and of the sons of gentlemen, who had come from all parts of Ireland to be educated in the city, that were destroyed. The quantity of gold, silver, or worldly property, that was destroyed, was no cause of lamentation, compared to the number of people who were injured and killed by that explosion. It was not Wine-street alone that was destroyed on this occasion, but the next quarter of the town to it.

The blast ripped up a large part of the city. The customs house and its crane were blown to smithereens, and some twenty to forty houses were levelled. Across the city, even in the suburbs, buildings had their roofs torn away and their walls pierced, leaving them open to the elements. Everywhere slates and window-glass were shattered. The Tholsel, which already suffered a cleft in its wall, was made measurably worse by the blast, and many churches were shaken.

The official death toll was six score (120 – although academic studies say 126), but by my reading of the records this did not include an unspecified number of headless bodies and bodiless heads. And I imagine there were others blasted into the river and lost without trace.

One week after the explosion the mayor of Dublin held an inquiry, at the direction of the Queen’s lord deputy, William Russell. No cause for the explosion was found, and the best conjecture was that a nail or a horse-shoe had thrown up a spark to set off the powder. But the circumstances of the explosion proved interesting …

The relevant correspondence and transcripts appear in A History of the City of Dublin (1861) vol.I, pp.358-368.

A few excerpts – first, the scene just before the blast:

James Fox, a merchant from Manchester (26 years old):

that upon Fridaie last being the xith of this p’nt moneth, he this Depon’t. being at the Crane of Dublin, sawe a man rowling out of barrells of powder into the streete, and w’th him 2 young children, th’one of them in a long side coate, who so sone as the said fellowe that had first put them a rowling, the children kept them so rowling untill they came where the greater nomber of powder laie.

Richard Toben, porter of Dublin (55 years old):

that he this depon’t being at the Crane, the daie and yeare aforesaid helping to put out the powder, and leaving eche barrell at the Crane dore readie to be carried awaie by suche as the Q. officers had apointed, the children of the streete and other persons there standing idle and not hired, fell a rowling of the powder.

So children had been rolling the barrels along the street, a task that should have been done by porters appointed by the crown’s officer. That officer was John Allen, clerk of the ordnance, but he had other things on his mind, according to Patrick Dixon, merchant of Dublin (50 years old):

that p’ntly after the misfortune happened, he this depon’t being upon the Key towards Nicholas Barnes house, did meete with an Alderman of the Cittie, as he take yt Mr. Foster, and they mett w’th John Allen Clarke of the Storehouse, and asked him what that mishapp meant, or howe yt fortuned, and he aunswered that he knewe not, and that he left the Crane but a litle before at the request of Nicholas Barnes aforesaid, to drinck a pott of ale at the said Barnes house, and in that time the said mischaunce happened.

The focus of the inquiry fell on Allen, who was described as an Englishman (although that may just mean he was native Old English). He turned out to be a controversial figure. Evidence showed that many porters refused to go near the quay for fear they might be pressed into service by Allen, who had forced some at knife point to take half-wages. So a labour dispute had resulted in a failure to remove the barrels to the castle as they were unloaded.

There was more to Allen’s corruption. While the porters made their complaints against him, a search of his house discovered a secret armoury – corslets, halberds, blackbills – and a store of gunpowder, surely stolen from the crown. Further evidence uncovered his disturbing trade in these items with the merchants of the city. The only inference is that this trade ended up with the rebels: the resources of the crown perverted to its own destruction.

A major scandal, even treason, and it seems to confirm a long-standing corruption in Irish crown finances. Allen was committed to prison by Russell, but the trail turns cold after that. The lord deputy had acted swiftly, but confined his comment to a straight summary of the findings of the inquiry. An experienced member of the privy council and former master of the ordnance, George Bourchier, lamented the event but cast the blame as distantly as he could, on the officers of the Tower of London who had sent the powder in single-layered barrels, rather than double-layered. Russell’s military commander, the acclaimed soldier John Norris, leaves us with this unhelpful conclusion: “yet is the myshapp to be pytyed and accounted a just plaghe of God, for the synnes of so impyous and ungratefull a people“.

Russell left Ireland in May; Norris died in July; Bourchier carried on.

The inquiry seems quite modern: so thorough that it reveals everybody was at it, but so pointless that nobody gets to bear responsibility – except the innocent taxpayer. In my view crown government in Ireland can be summed up thus: Corruption of the State, by the State, for the State.

In fact the city did claim compensation from the crown, but the funds were not available in wartime, and civic properties had to be mortgaged at cruel rates to finance the repairs. The crane-house was rebuilt on the same site by Dutch engineers, although in another modern-sounding twist the estimated cost doubled over the course of the project.

The explosion was hard on Dublin, which had already been suffering a three-fold increase in the price of grain because of poor harvests, which itself greatly increased the expense of victualling and hospitalling the crown army. Even ten years after the explosion it seems full repairs had not been made, and by that stage the impoverished city had surrendered many of its powers to the state.

———

The best account of this event is by Colm Lennon: Dublin’s Great Explosion of 1597, History Ireland (Autumn 1995) p.29 – an earlier version at this subscription link.

To get a feel for the “powerful powder”, try this enactment of the intended result of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – it uses 36 casks, so probably much less oomph than the 140 barrels of the Dublin explosion (2:04) …

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