A Border Fire Brigade


About the late1960’s early 1970’s a decision was taken by the Government to provide some form of fire cover in the rural areas of the country. It was said that this came about due to the membership of the E.E.C. and that according to law there should be adequate fire cover within a distance of fifteen miles from an established fire fighting unit. Prior to this the only fire stations in Co. Fermanagh were in Enniskillen and Lisnaskea, these two stations were responsible for fire cover throughout the county, parts of Co. Tyrone and quite often their services were required across the border in neighbouring counties.

During the Second World War – 1939 to 1945 a rather antiquated form of fire fighting was available to the village of Belleek. I have clear memories of seeing on my way to school some lengths of old leather fire hose stretched along the Main Street. During the night a fire had broken out in the workshop where wooden toys and ornaments were produced. It is most likely that this equipment was kept in the local police station, as in many cases of fire the police were the first to arrive on the scene and assisted by local people they fought fires in the locality by bucket chains and stirrup pumps until the arrival of the unit from Enniskillen. On one occasion during those years the Enniskillen unit travelled in record time to Bundoran and saved the great Northern Hotel from destruction.

As a result of the new national regulations each police station in Fermanagh was supplied with a wooden case containing some very basic equipment consisting of three lengths of hose pipe, a stand pipe, bar and key. As the public water supply was installed in the village in the early 1930’s it can be taken that fire hydrants were included in the scheme. Several meetings were held in the village with a view to having volunteers trained in the use of the equipment. Local business people, pottery workers and several others attended the meetings and offered their services. Thomas Daly, business man and Local Councillor, Dr. Brian Finn, Frank McMorrow, Patsy Rooney, Phil Mounter, Jim O’Loughlin, Seamus Heron, David Johnston, Norman Watts and Joe O’Loughlin were amongst those attending.

Letters from Northern Ireland Fire Aurhority, Northern Command, Northland Road. Londonderry were sent to the volunteers on 4th December 1970 instructing them to assemble in the Police Station Yard, Belleek at 8 p.m. on Thursday 10/12/’70 to commence training. The first training Officer was Company Officer Noel Brown who was based in Omagh, he was in turn succeeded by Company Officer Percy Carmichael. A series of lectures were given followed by operational instructions on the use of this basic equipment. After some time this unit was called on several occasions to deal with some incidents in the locality. Communication in those years was primitive to say the least; divisional head quarters on receiving a call would phone the local police station who in turn would contact a member who had a phone. He in turn would collect the equipment from the police station, drive around and gather up a crew. Not all people had phones then. This unit did their best until the arrival of the Enniskillen unit, some times the local efforts were a success, on other occasions there was unplanned water damage to property.

Properties were saved from complete destruction and there were no injuries to personnel or to the public. In the early 1970’s civil disruption became a major issue along the border and the unit was called into service for some serious incidents. An early one was the placing of a car bomb at the local hotel on a winters evening of February 1980. Dr. Finn having been alerted came to my house and we made our way across the fields to the police station, collected the equipment and brought it to a sheltered place on the Cliff Road. On hindsight this was a rather risky exercise, nevertheless we were in position when the explosion took place and when pieces of wreckage from the car had ceased to fall from the sky we moved to the nearest hydrant. Some of our comrades had arrived on the scene by this time and with our equipment in place and a supply of water in flow we managed to contain the burning building until the arrival of the Enniskillen brigade and Company Officer Noel Brown. The Company Officer credited our efforts with saving the building from complete destruction. While we were far from being a competent fire fighting unit, we could be described in the words of the Wild West, “Don’t shoot the man at the piano, he is doing his best”.

Over the years there had been a number of house fires, mainly in thatched cottages, one in the 1940’s was as a result of a gas cylinder igniting. The house holder, a retired policeman should have known better, having changed the cylinder he decided to rest his handiwork by lighting a match, result one big bang, house destroyed, lucky no injuries. Other thatched house fires were detected in time and kept under control until the arrival of the unit from Enniskillen. There was one unfortunate incident when Cleary’s Hotel caught fire during the night, due to the antiquated alerting system of the period in the early 1970’s the local unit was not alerted and knew nothing until day break. The Enniskillen unit was in attendance to deal with the incident, but had the local members been alerted the considerable damage to building could have been reduced.

The local volunteers must have proved their worth to the Northern Ireland Fire Authority. They had shown a keen interest and some signs of ability to act responsibly in an emergency. For in 1970 the authority decided to form and train a proper brigade in the area. The first step was to acquire suitable premises to house an appliance and to train the members. At that time a large garage in Corry belonging to the Chiver’s family was un-occupied, negotiations took place between Mrs. Chivers and the authority and soon work was under way to make the premises suitable on a temporary basis to house a small appliance.

In 1974 advertisements were placed in the local press inviting applications from local men to join the retained part time fire service in Belleek and Irvinestown. Those applying had to be over 18 years of age and under 39 years, this eliminated several of the more elderly volunteer members. Interviews were carried out by Divisional Officer James Harvey and other senior officer from the Northland Road headquarters. Medicals had to be taken and passed; finally in 1974 eight members were selected for training. They were Liam Ferguson. James Flanagan. David Johnston, George Love, Sean O’Loughlin, Joe O’Loughlin and Ernest Watson. Pending the construction work on the station and the availability of a suitable appliance the eight members travelled each Monday night to Enniskillen for training and lectures under Station Officer Percy Carmichael.

In early 1975 work was completed on the premises in Corry, Belleek, a new Land Rover L4P was allocated to the Belleek station. Further courses on pump operation and breathing apparatus were taken at Divisional Headquarters by all members. Then later in the year the Belleek unit became operational as a first strike unit backed up by Enniskillen. About the same time a new fire control system was formed in the Head Quarters in Lisburn. Alerters were issued to each fireman; all 999 calls were taken in the Lisburn control room from where the operators issued instructions to the brigade concerned. Slowly but surely the new unit became quite proficient and supported by their colleagues from Enniskillen dealt with a growing number of incidents. They gained the confidence and respect of the people in their area and of their full time officers.

Civil disruption incidents became more and more common and this added a dangerous dimension to the responsibilities of the local firemen. Most of them resided in the village; this meant that they had to travel through a portion of the Irish Republic to reach the station when answering to calls, which could be any time during the night. In spite of this difficulty the men carried out their duties with out fear or favour. On numerous occasions the professionalism of this retained unit prevented serious damage to property. The most terrifying experience of all was when training was almost finished in the old station a group of armed and masked men burst into the station, made all hands lie down on the floor and tied everyone up with one exception. This fireman was taken away and made to drive his car across the border where a bomb was placed in it; he was instructed then to drive the car to the local police station. He got safely from his car into the building before the explosion took place, by good fortune there was no injury to the occupants. The firemen including Station Officer Carmichael eventually managed to free themselves; naturally they were shaken and shocked by this terrifying experience but it did not prevent them from carrying out their duties in the future.

More new equipment was added to the station, the men were trained to handle road traffic accidents and how to use the equipment to deal with this type of situation. Annual inspections were prepared for and generally the personnel impressed the inspecting officers by their efficiency. The inspections also attended by the civilian members of the Northern Ireland Fire Authority who were pleased to attend the most westerly station in Northern Ireland. When the formalities were completed the guests were treated by the local firemen to refreshments in the local hotel, something that was very much appreciated. This gave an opportunity to press the case for a permanent station to be built in the village. A site was acquired and plans prepared and eventually a new station was built at Cliff Road and officially opened on 13th April 1985.

Social life was not neglected, an annual dinner dance was organised and well supported by the local people, comrades from neighbouring stations from Fermanagh and Donegal attended the functions. A good relationship had been formed by the ladies who were control room operators and on several occasions they came to Belleek on their annual outing where they had the experience of seeing how a rural fire station operated. In return the Control Room Operators hosted visits by members of the Belleek to headquarters to get a first hand view of methods of dealing with 999 fire calls. The expertise of the young ladies in taking emergency calls, noting details of the location of the incident, calming callers who naturally were in a state of distress was remarkable to witness. This was all before the days of post codes, numbered roads and houses in rural areas. The strange sounding town land names, the variety of local accents, the number of families in rural districts with a common surname would have been some what confusing to the young ladies. Nevertheless the control room operators dealt with these problems in a most professional manner and few mistakes were made. We in Belleek who had the local knowledge would when expecting backup leave a piece of equipment such as a traffic cone at the entrance to a country lane where the incident was located. The coming of radio communications was invaluable in exchanging information as well as requesting medical assistance where required. An excellent working relationship developed between the Belleek unit and the Control Room Staff, something that was to the benefit of both groups.

Visits were organised for the pupils from the local schools much to the enjoyment of the children and their teachers. There are many letters on file from pupils and teachers thanking the firemen for their kindness to the young guests. There are also letters commending the personnel for their good attendance record. There were many unique happenings over the years, some operational, others social. One comes to mind, in our early days we would do pump drills at the Belleek Marina. A man named John Reihill who lived on an island on Upper Lough Erne near Lisnaskea decided to row a boat the full length of the Erne waterways from Belturbet in Co. Cavan to raise funds for some deserving charity. He set off in the early hours of a Monday morning from County Cavan on a fine summer’s day; his progress on this outstanding voyage was closely monitored by the media. His support team on water and land gave him every encouragement.

Belleek Fire Brigade unknown to John or his entourage arranged a very special welcome for the record breaking oarsman. As he entered the Belleek marina he was greeted by arches of water formed by jets from the pump appliance, the sound of the engine siren and the cheers of the fire crew. Every time that John and I have met over the years since he recalls how surprised and delighted he was by this unexpected welcome from a group of people that he did not know but who wanted to recognise his outstanding achievement.

The personnel of this border brigade had a steadying influence on the community during the years of trouble and strife caused by civil disruption. One incident comes to mind that occurred before the formation of the brigade, it did involve most of the young men who were to later become firemen. On a winters Sunday night a bomb almost completely destroyed the Wark Hall as well as doing considerable damage to property on the Main Street, both business and private. Naturally the situation was quite tense, nevertheless the local people including many young men who had tools and the expertise worked together to carry out temporary repairs and make secure damaged property.

Not to be out done; local ladies, mainly members of the Church of Ireland congregation whose hall had been destroyed had prepared in the home of Mrs. Vaughan a full supper for all who had helped in the clearing up. To have been present in the Vaughan home sharing food and companionship with mixed community members is a memory that has remained with me ever since. The Christian compassion of the local ladies had a soothing effect on every one after this disastrous incident.

It would be easy to write here about the numerous incidents that resulted in death either through fire or accident, I choose not to do so as I prefer not to have families who lost loved ones and who may read this recall their the tragedies, it is better to let them grieve in peace. In one serious motor accident involving a car and a lorry load of stones, as we cut the roof off the car, the local Rector and Curate worked together standing on the load of stones hauling on a rope pulling the roof clear as the firemen cut to release the trapped car driver. Other incidents were not without their sense of humour, a trapped car driver who had imbibed more well than wise had his foot jammed in the control pedals of his overturned Ford car. As George Love gently tried to remove the trapped foot the driver informed him, “You can pull like hell on that sonny as it is my artificial leg”.

On attending our first major forest fire during which several hundred acres of forest were destroyed we later learned that the rather elderly man who was on fire duty got rather bored and adjourned to a nearby local pub for a pint when some one came in and said, “Jack you better get back to your watch tower, as your forest is on fire”.

Shortly after the Belleek fire brigade was established the opportunity to have contact with fire brigades in other lands became possible. Shortly after World War 11 the Enniskillen Fusiliers were based in the West German City of Brackewede. This battalion had an excellent band, with the traditional German love of music there was soon a great relationship formed between the men from Enniskillen and the local people. An exchange partnership was founded between Brackewede and Enniskillen, this resulted in exchange visits between the elected members and officials of both city councils. In time the schools were invited to take part in the exchanges. The year 1977 was the centenary of the foundation of the Brackwede Fire Brigade and so an invitation was extended to the Enniskillen Fire Brigade to travel to Germany and partake in the celebrations. As to take away a number of Enniskillen firemen would have left the station understaffed a decision was taken by the Fermanagh District Council to broaden the partnership to include all of county Fermanagh.

Six men from the county were invited to visit Brackwede, Station Officer Percy Carmichael, Sub Officer Jimmy Drennnan – Enniskillen, Sub Officer Charlie Magee, Lisnaskea, Fireman Mannix Magee, Irvinestown, Leading Fireman Joe O’Loughlin, Belleek and Mr. George Cathcart, Bellinaleck who was vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland were selected to represent Fermanagh at the celebrations. The delegation was warmly received by their Brackwede comrades and were guests of honour at a civic reception hosted by the city council. The Fermanagh Firemen in uniform were given the honour to lead the parade through the city of Brackwede. The ceremonies were attended by high ranking officers from the German and government officials. Suitable presents were exchanged between the local and visiting firemen and invitations issued to the Brackwede firemen to pay a return visit to Fermanagh. This invitation was gratefully accepted by the city Fire Chief Willie Goldbeck. A happy if tired group of Fermanagh men returned home on the Monday in civilian attire, the official story being that a case containing their uniforms had been lost in transit by the airline.

Future visitors would relate how Brackwede firemen were seen to be proudly displaying portions of uniform that bore a striking resemblance to that issued by the Northern Ireland Fire Authority. A strong bond of friendship was formed not only between the Fermanagh fire men and those from Brackwede but also between the members of the delegation who travelled to Germany. When the late George Cathcart succeeded to the position of Chairman of the Northern Ireland Authority he used his influence to ensure that a modern new fire station was built in Belleek. It had the latest large modern fire tender, new equipment and facilities for the benefit of the firemen.

Over the years visiting fire officer from many countries paid visits to Belleek fire station, the came from Dublin, the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and England. I have an extensive file of correspondence from our guests, one I quite here.

Dated 2nd September 1985.

To Sub Officer J.O’Loughlin.

Dear Sub Officer O’Loughlin,

I have received some excellent reports from ACO Lane and DO Peberday regarding the high standards displayed by your station during their recent visit.

Comradeship and friendship are features of the Fire Service the world over and you have contributed to and enhanced those features by the warm reception extended to my officers.

It is encouraging to hear how you operate so professionally and efficiently in what can be; extremely difficult conditions.

I can now see why the retained service in the Province has such a high reputation both in your own communities and here “over the water”.

Best wishes to you all and congratulations on your efforts.

Yours sincerely,

P.H. Wilson, Chief Fire Officer, Nottinghamshire County Council.

During the long years of civil disruption in County Fermanagh it can be said that the members of the retained fire service had a calming and neutral influence on the situation prevailing at the time. Now that the situation has become more settled and peaceful the local firemen play an important part in the community. They still welcome guests from the local schools, organise fund raising for a variety of charitable causes and retain the respect of all citizens in the area.

I could contribute many more stories of my experiences over the years; I think this account gives a good idea not only of the difficulties faced by part time fire men but of good days as well. I have chosen not to list the many excellent full time officers who led by example over the years. I did feel honoured when invited by Harry Welsh and Bill Broadhurst to contribute a chapter to this journal. Let me in conclusion remember members of the Belleek Fire Brigade, the full time officers and members of the Northern Ireland Fire Authority who have departed from this life. May they rest in peace.