The alarming and destructive fire, which completely burnt out the Protestant Church of St. John's, Ballinasloe, must be considered a very great calamity. Nothing remains of the once beautiful specimen of Gothic architecture which stood in our midst, but unsightly debris. By its destruction some of the grandest works of the monuments of carvers, painters, and sculptors' arts disappear for ever.
The striking position of the Church, its elevated situation, its attractive outline, and its superb construction attracted the attention of all visitors and made it one of the most valued possessions of the town. If its striking appearance and grandeur commanded widespread admiration and pride, its destruction must excite feelings of loss and regret. Apart from the irreparable loss sustained by the Protestant community its wreck and ruin inflict a grievous blow to the beauty of the township, and its removal takes from us one of the most picturesque surroundings of the great Fair green, which is renowned everywhere.
How so serious a conflagration came about is not clearly apparent, and one of the conjunctures hazarded and probably the most credible is that a match thrown away, and not quenched, or an oversight in the turning off of the gas, caused the awful havoc we have now witnessed.
From what is correctly stated it appears there was an attendance of members of the congregation at the Church on Wednesday evening, which was the eve of Ascension Thursday [11 May], but those members must have retired from the Church ere half past nine, so that the fire must have been smouldering away from this until Constables Brennan and Deacon, who had both returned from train duty, discovered it at half past twelve (midnight). Certain it is there was not the slightest indication of anything wrong at 12 o'clock. Half an hour later a red glow was observable in the windows, under the turret, opposite Victoria Street, and from this must be inferred that the fire originated in the organ gallery. The discoverers of the lamentable catastrophe immediately communicated with the police barracks, and the town manager (Mr. F Clarke); also leading townspeople; and promptly to call there were innumerable helpers at hand.
Amongst those earliest on the spot were the Rev Dean Tibbs and Rev Mr. Daly; District Inspector Roberts, County Inspector O'Brien; Constables O'Brien, McKeown, Gaffney, McGlinskey; Head Constable Kells; Sergeants O'Rorke, Barrett, Kelleher, O'Connor, Lee; Messrs Rothwell, Langrishe, Harpur, Leamy, Smith; Rev McMunton and others. Immediately a hose pipe was plied through the ventilator of the end window, and while this was going on a second window was being smashed by stones to afford a greater opening for the for the water to pass through. At this time the fire had enshrouded the whole organ gallery, and the workers did not spare themselves in their combined efforts to check the consuming flames. The introduction of water through the second window did little, and the hose was then removed to the front entrance, and made to play upon the burning mass from that point. The flames, however, quickly spread in the interior, all the windows were aglow, and along the splendidly carved pitch-pine rafters, which offered most inflammable food for the destroying element, the flames twisted and twined, and threatened in a short space of time to completely engulph [sic] the body of the edifice. Meanwhile the hose bearers directed their energies towards saving the turret position; working unsparingly and persistently they poured a steady flow on the fiery furnace-like mass, but with little effect.
Assisted by the police, who deserved the warmest praise, Dean Tibbs, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Langrishe bravely entered the burning pile by way of the sexton's house and succeeded in rescuing the church records, and a large brass lectern, valued at £70. Outside the throng of spectators and helpers had considerably augmented, and the hissing, shooting flames playing on the roof and along the windows lit up the sky, and from the darkness of the night illuminated the country for miles around, attracting people from all parts who converged towards the brilliant, but doomed, edifice. Towards the turret the roof began to collapse in parts, and as it did from the body of the building burst flames that entered into and surrounded the turret, radiating an intense heat, which caused the spectators to recede. Fears were now entertained by the residents of the adjoining houses, but subsequent events proved their fears unfounded. Up along the heights of the turrets raced the fiery columns of flame, smoke, and shooting sparks, and amid all could be discerned the old familiar dials of the town clock whose time at the moment rang out as usual, in its accustomed tones, a quarter past one.
It might be considered the death knell of the magnificent structure underneath. Encompassed on all sides by burning fire, another quarter of an hour the clock registered , but did not chime again. While it yet chimed the scorching, withering flames had seized it in their embraces and the roof underneath vanished in an upheaval of red, hot sparks, which ascended high into the air, and floating on the wind, fell on the neighbouring yards, houses and streets. Some of the larger sparks floated away for a long distance, and created anxiety as to whether or not they would fall on something ignitable. Now only the part next to the sexton's house remained intact from destruction, but this too, notwithstanding the determined efforts and attempts to save, finally yielded to fire. The bells and clockwork in the tower seemed to resist longest; but with each burst of light through the rolling smoke, it was seen the top windows were aflame. The better view afforded by the disappearance of the framework of the windows showed the large iron girders to be red hot, and, as the falling woodwork touched them, it became ignited and fell lighting. The thinner rods of iron, probably from the inside clockwork, were visible, swaying in a semi-liquid state, so intense was the heat. All efforts to save the place were abandoned, and attention directed to Mr. Horne's property, which escaped. While the inside of the church had a furnace-like appearance, the flames enveloped the top of the turret, and after a while successive crashes of metal weights and bells were distinctly heard above the cracking noise of the fire, which raged with unabated fury while anything remained near to feed it, and until it spent itself in the advanced hours of the morning. When daylight broke the place was completely destroyed. Nothing remains but empty ruins, crushed monuments of art and labour, and smouldering debris. On the previous evening, perched on its eminence overlooking the town, it stood the perfection of skilled workmanship, but now its appearance gives rise to a feeling of consternation at what havoc can be wrought in a short space of time.
Everywhere words of keen sympathy were heard for the Rev Dean Tibbs, D.D., for whom sympathy in a time of tribulation was most marked and undisguised - general and non-sectarian. St. John's Church was erected in 1842 by Carroll of Dublin. It replaced another church which had been ruined in fire. Carroll was also the builder of many other churches in this country, but the Ballinasloe fabric was always considered his masterpiece. None but the finest Brackernagh cut limestone was employed in its erection. Throughout it was heated by the most up-to-date heating apparatus. The interior was exquisitely painted, and a magnificent and costly organ stood in the gallery, in which the disastrous fire originated. Not long since a sum of £70 was expended in adding an additional stop to the instrument. The most expensive church furniture that could be got was amongst the fittings sum, were provided. But, perhaps, the most regrettable thing in a deplorable catastrophe is the utter demolition of works of sculpture which stood in memory of past members of the congregation. Amongst those is a pulpit, a labour of years, made by Mr. John Beegan, senior, Ballinasloe. In its composition the best Caen and limestone were used, and the work was done in a manner worthy of the best traditions of Irish sculpture art. Chiselled altogether by himself, it stood as a monument to his fame as a sculptor, and in its destruction we lose one of the most perfect productions of its kind ever made in Ireland. Besides two beautiful stained glass windows, which cost £500 each, there was another piece of sculpture, which was both praised and admired. It was erected to the memory of the third Earl of Clancarty, and was produced by Messrs Septhorpe of Dublin. There was also a reading-desk by Mr. Beegan, as well as a large number of tablets of great value and artistic worth. One of the coloured glass windows was in the memory of the late rector, the Rev. James Cotton Walker, and there was another in memory of the third Earl of Clancarty. The beautiful turret clock was the best of its make or kind in Connaught, if not in all Ireland, and cost £800 in 1879 when it was erected by the third Earl of Clancarty and presented to the town. The Town Commissioners had care of it, and its loss as a reliable town clock will be greatly felt. Many other art treasures have perished, but it is satisfactory to know that the Church plate, which was locked up in fire-proof safes, is perfectly uninjured. Not so, however, the hymnals and bibles, belonging personally to members of the congregation, all of which were left in the building. None of them were recovered from the fire, and they are an incalculable loss, as many were presents from friends, and on that account greatly prized. It is stated that the church was insured for a sum of £3,200, but this can only cover a very small portion of the damage done.
[Source: The Western Star, 13 May 1899, transcribed and submitted by Damian Mac Con Uladh]