Canon Cardiff's story provides us with a great sense of the every day life of a student in these early days.
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The 3rd March 1919. For myself the day passes just as an ordinary class day in the hallowed precincts of SPC Wexford. For one of our students (Rev. Hugh Mimnagh) the morning opens with a "bang charge" from the Dean for what we would all call - and we are eminent Theologians - an act of charity. Matt McHugh is lying in a quasi-helpless state in bed. He is suffering from the effects of an attack of rheumatic fever. Hugh Mimnagh naturally goes up to see him, the Dean comes on the scene and there is a "flare up". Hugh appeals to a higher authority, the President, from whom he gets thorough satisfaction and absolute liberty and Hugh does exercise his liberty to the fullest extent in waiting on Matt. Further than this matter nothing extraordinary happens. The day glides on, twilight dies away in the west, darkness closes in round us and the hour of retiring comes. I look in to see Matt before going to "quarters". He is quite comfortable and feels himself improving gradually in the pleasing atmosphere of a room with a very comfortable fire. There is a perfect glow of heat in the room. I leave in him in peace: and so, as is the rule in St. Peter's College, the scenes and events of the day close with sleep - "that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care" - and all is silence.
"Hello! What's wrong?" I exclaim, when, in the dead of night, the deep silence is broken. Somebody is at my door. The door opens, two forms appear: one night-shirt clad, bearing a lighted match and looking much excited. Another also clad in night-wear with a blanket wound round him, his face quite pale and drawn from sickness. He is quite ghostly looking. The answer to my question comes: "Mr McHugh's room is on fire! Tis full of smoke!" Matt then gives a hurried explanation. His Scotch accent and, in addition, terrified state render his explanation somewhat unintelligible. But there's fire somewhere! I think I said "Good Lord". I jumped up, clapped on my overcoat and slippers and set out to the scene of the trouble.
A huge impenetrable cloud of smoke prevents my advance. In utter alarm I hastily retreat and run to ring up the President. He also breaks out in wild babblings when he hears of fire, and although I leave him my candle to show him light for at least a partial dressing, I find he is close to my heels as I retrace my steps; I hold open the passage door to let him pass and whee-gee - he goes flying up the passage flight, two or three steps at a time. Off we go to the scene of the fire; flames gush up here and there fanned by the open windows - opened by the boys for the purpose of letting out the smoke. The President makes use of some strong exclamations in his excitement. Several minutes pass in the "what on earth are we going to do" attitude. I advocate the fire brigade (we learned afterwards it was non-existent). "Not so bad as that," the president remarks.
Possibly the Ecclesiastical study hall underneath is on fire! Let us run and see! All doors are locked, no chance of getting into the study hall except by going all the way round through the house. Off we set out and when passing the region of the servants quarters (underground) a fierce howling cry - Matty - brings yet another strangely clad individual from the basement to join the scene of confusion.
The first really practically move is now advocated by the President - to turn off the gas. This was a really sensible action, for we learned afterwards that it saved the whole situation as one of the gas pipes was burned off. However this operation, simple though it is, entailed considerable difficulty. The President rushes along the cloister through the darkness; he has a big bundle of keys. I follow in attendance. He suddenly comes to a halt and exclaims "I don't know which is the right key". Neither do I. Away he starts again with the hope of hitting the right one. He hands me a box of matches that I may show him light by lighting a few; even in this there is confusion either I applly the wrong end of the match to the box or else I pick out a headless one and strike in vain. The gas is turned off and now attention is centered on the sick room fire. The panic of the first alarm has now subsided, somewhat. There are about twenty on the scene. In all the confusion the Dean appears in full dress - even to the extremity of the Biretta - and coolly asks the President: "What's the matter?" He receives a rather gruff reply from the President - "Ah, the whole place is on fire!" We manage to put on more clothing at intervals. During all this time poor McHugh is entirely forgotten. I find him still standing in my division, quite ghost-like and motionless as a stone statue. I almost order him to get into bed and of I go again to the scene of action.
The next really sensible move is proposed by - I think, one of the middle graders, Joe Murphy, and it is to burst up the boards near the fireplace; Joe Murphy, Jim Larkin, Frank Hearne etc., very soon give us an opportunity of looking at the region of the real trouble. The joists underneath the fireplace are simply aflame! Now we have found the very point of the outset of the fire. Not a mark or trace of fire was to be seen on the upper boards; so the real trouble must have been caused by fire falling down behind the grate. Now the Fire-brigade attitude is taken up in real earnest: the small boys who had been sleeping in the adjacent rooms - in full dress, some even to the extremity of collar and tie and carefully arranged quiff - pass to and fro in a sort of procession bearing basins of water. Water is applied wholesale and with determined vigour to the flames. Some of the ceiling goes down with a crash into the study hall below: now and again a piece of plaster cracks off, there is a rustle and then another crash beneath and pieces of the burning wood follow.
The fire is in full swing underneath the slab or hearth and this seems to be quite immovable, although a big piece was broken off and the beauty of the tiles is marred forever - such things cannot be avoided in case of fire. Fortunately the beautiful carpet was safely stored away before the breaking up of boards took place. This was perhaps the only one really good bit of work on my part. The unruly enemy has worked its way out there; 'tis done and plenty of water is applied with good effect. Now for the nether regions - the study hall. The fire is playing havoc yet underneath the hearth. I commandeer the service of the water carriers and with poor effect endeavour to hurl water up to the flames. A ladder must be got. Where? - In the library? No. Pitt's workshop? 'tis locked and Pitt has the key. Not a bucket to be had! Yes, "I have one," I said and eagerly seized the coal bucket. But - 'tis bottomless and has a plate laid in for carrying coal! The kitchen is actually sealed up as every door is so securely barred for the night. The President announces - "a ladder in the tower." He and Matty hasten to the tower and after a very considerable time reappear with a ladder. We learned afterwards that having found the ladder in the tower they were unable to get it down. At any rate we have a ladder now and the final attack is easily and effectively dealt on the ravenous and merciless tyrant - the fire. Matt ascends the ladder; the wee boys fetch basins of water and I transmit them to the fire man.
The President has climbed on to a desk to watch operations. In my movements I happen to come in contact with the desk on which the spectator stands and, as it was somewhat shaky, he became quite alarmed, screamed out something and to avoid losing balance held on to me - by a handful of the hair of my head. I was by no means comfortable but the seriousness of the circumstances called for charity even to an heroic degree and I bore with the chuck. Only once during the whole scene did I recover anything like a normal state of mind and realised there was another day to follow - I asked what time it was and was told it was twenty minutes to five. There are times and circumstances in our lives when we are simply lifted out of ourselves and we forget the ordinary, daily routine in which we live and which is waiting for us when such scenes end - such was the effect of this incident on me.
Now the danger has all passed over and the result is a big, black, yawning cave. The room which last night - but a few hours ago - was so comfortable is now completely overturned and one scene of confusion - a complete wreck. Below there is a mass of debris, desks overturned and water dripping down in various quarters, showing that there must have been confusion amongst the water carriers and various collisions of basins, resulting in floods.
The situation is saved and what might have ended in the total destruction of the wing connecting the tower and the chapel, is nothing more than a few square yards of damage. The gas is turned on again and all once more retire - except myself. The invalid is in my bed and so i propose whiling away the time until 6.40, though it is now only 5 o'clock. The President almost proposed I get in with poor Matt, though poor Matt is an invalid and lying in a bed barely sufficient in capacity to hold one normal sort of a being. I said I should be alright and that he need not mind and he departed. I had just commenced my very necessary oblation when President came up shouting my name. I answered "Yes, Father" and hastened out of my division to see what was up now. "Come down", said he, "to Mrs. Stafford's room - when you're ready; you can sit there. I have lit the gas." How this must have grated on the ears of the Dean, I trembled to think - a student to sit down in the 'Mam's room under any circumstances whatsoever!
I washed, dressed, and down I went; entered very quietly - a voice from the adjoining room: "there's a coat there on the chair, put it round you and there's a rug there, put it round you and they will keep you warm." "Thanks" says I. Again the voice comes: "Is the carpet burned?" "No, it's quite safe." I wind the "comforts" round me, sit down comfortably in a chair and think on what might have been while I take a glance at the newspaper. The voice from within subsides and all is dead silence save for the ticking of the clock.
Time passes swiftly; the bell for rising rings; I rise from the chair, cast aside the garments and go off on my usual morning's supervision. A glance at the scene of disaster reveals a little remaining spark which is yet striving for mastery and is creeping along the wood work. A basin of water quenches it and all is safe again.
There is much confusion re morning prayers. No admittance to the study hall (prayer hall). Looks of wonder prevail. Strangely enough all slept quite soundly except those who were in the vicinity of the fire. There is quite a meal of subjects for conversation during the day and most amusing incidents are related. The President is the only one who bears the trademark of a fire-fighter - a mark too which is common to fighters generally speaking - namely a black eye!
One amusing incident related was: During the excitement Tom Power was rushing along the cloister and seeing a crowd approaching, he evidently wondered and asked gruffly "Where the h*** are yez goin'?" to which an answer came - much to Tom's discomfit - from the President; "we are going to turn off the gas." Tom said no more. Luckily (for Tom) it was not the Dean who heard him using such an expression, if so there would surely have been a harangue and a bang and the fire would have been neglected for some time. Even when the operations were in full swing the Dean attacked some of the small boys and actually rebuked them for being out of bed!
Such was the exciting incident which occurred in St. Peter's College, Wexford, during the early hours of March the 4th 1919. The whole event will stand out prominently in the history of the college. The entire scene with its mixed aspects of seriousness on the one hand and positive amusement on the other must ever remain impressed on my memory. It all seems just like a dream to me now and as something without a reality. But a glance at the unsightly cave overhead - the studyhall - convinces me immediately that it was not a mere dream but an actual reality.
The incident may be said to have supplied the "missing link". We were wondering what would occur in the shape of a crisis this term as each term since the new President took up office was marked by some extraordinary event. So the sum total would be contained in four elements: consternation, excitement, amusement and supplying of the missing link.