by Joe Nankivell
On the morning of 31st May 1622, exactly four hundred years ago, a terrible fire struck Cork city. It was sparked by an early summer thunderstorm. Many of the tightly packed dwellings within the city walls were built of timber or clay and had thatched roofs, and when lightning struck they quickly went up in flames. Between 11 o’clock and noon the fire tore through all parts of the city, leaving a trail of devastation.
One of the reasons we know about this fire is because it was the subject of a news pamphlet, A relation of the most lamentable burning of the cittie of Corke, in the west of Ireland, in the province of Monster, by thunder and lightning, which was printed in London on 20th June, barely three weeks later. It is a scarce work, with only three copies recorded in the English Short Title Catalogue. But a Dutch translation was printed in The Hague by Aert Meuris in 1622, and this translation is held in the Library of Trinity College Dublin among the 5,200 pamphlets in the Fagel Collection.
The work might not have been written – and probably would not have been translated for wider readership – were it not for the bizarre events of the previous October, when two warring factions of starlings are said to have fought above the skies of Cork. The strange spectacle had been recorded in another pamphlet, The wonderfull battell of starelings fought at the citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October last past 1621. This title is also held in Trinity (although it is not part of the Fagel Collection). In it, we read that the starlings mustered in two bands, coming from the east and the west of the city. After some preliminary diplomatic formalities, when groups of twenty or thirty birds passed between the groups ‘as it should seem employed in embassages’, there were a series of deadly clashes: ‘there fell downe into the citie, and into the Rivers, multitudes of Starelings or Stares, some with wings broken, some with legs and necks broken … in so strange a manner, that it were incredible except it were confirmed by letters of credit.’
The writer of this account was in no doubt that the battle should be viewed as a portent: ‘it doth prognosticate either Gods mercy to draw us to repentance, or his justice to punish our sinnes and wickednesse’. But portents seldom reveal their meanings so swiftly. When the fire broke out seven months later, the chroniclers and balladeers who told the story picked up on the coincidence with a certain relish. The Relation of the most lamentable burning of the cittie of Corke opens by recalling the starling pamphlet, making the parallels as specific as possible by pointing out that they began their ‘fiery and furious flight’ at the spot where the fire first began. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Cork was consumed with fire from heaven (although the writer tempers the rhetoric somewhat by noting that the Cork citizens’ sins were not so grave, as they were mostly known for usury, ‘the cheerful daughter of covetousness’).
The rest of the Relation is given over to a lurid account of the fire itself. Lightning struck the east of the city ‘at the very place where the Stares beganne their Battell’, and the buildings immediately went up in flames. The fire quickly took hold in the thatched roofs, trapping the inhabitants. Many took refuge in the churches, which were built of stone and thus less vulnerable to the flames. Those who were able to flee sought shelter in nearby fields or on an island (it is not clear where this might have been: a near-contemporary map from 1602 shows two possible locations). There, they listened helplessly to the piteous cries of the people left trapped in the burning city.
The account finishes there, in the middle of the mayhem and despair, with the fire still raging. There is scant description of the casualties or the extent of the damage; instead, the writer returns to the starting point, that this must be viewed as some form of divine judgement. The pamphlet ends with the admonition that ‘all the Citties and Townes of England and Ireland, should make speedie use of so dreadfull an example’, invoking Luke 13:3: ‘But I say to you, unlesse you repent, you shall all likewise perish.’ It was not that the inhabitants of Cork were uniquely sinful, but that they failed to heed the clear warning sent by the birds, and thus they must serve as a warning to others.
Truth of the events described
What really happened in Cork in the early 1620s? It seems unlikely that a battle between warring factions of starlings took place exactly as described. More plausible is that there was an unusually large murmuration, leading to some kind of mid-air collision. Starling murmurations are one of the great spectacles of the natural world, and how they manage to avoid crashing into each other remains something of a mystery. But mishaps do occur. Last November, 150 starlings fell from the sky in El Ferrol in northern Spain, in a mass die-off that sounds very similar to the events observed in Cork 400 years previously. Later autopsies showed these birds to have died from physical injuries rather than electrocution or illness, and one theory is that they were panicked into colliding by a bird of prey. The 1621 account mentions a kite, a raven and a crow – perhaps something similar happened there.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the city endured the terrible fire in May 1622. In its wake, the council’s minute-books from September that year record the loss of nearly 1,500 houses. They make no mention of the number of casualties, but the pamphlet states that ‘many hundreds of these people were consumed by the fire.’ The council outlawed thatch as a roofing material within the city walls, and any houses that were still thatched in June 1623 were subject to a £40 fine – equivalent to around €6,000 today – and could have the roofing summarily pulled down by ‘such persons as be authorized by the Mayor’ (Caulfield 1876, 102).
The Cork fire in the Fagel Collection
In the Fagel Collection, the Dutch translation of the Relation is bound with 44 other Dutch pamphlets and broadsheets printed between 1604 and 1650. Unlike many other volumes among this main series of Fagel pamphlets, this isn’t unified by a single political theme, geographical area, or time period. Instead, it brings together an eclectic mix of news sheets about other natural disasters and portents – a volcanic eruption, a comet – alongside accounts of sensational murders and other colourful topical documents. It also contains some fascinating contemporary works printed during the tulip mania period of 1637. In this context, it is a little difficult to discern what contemporary meaning we can ascribe to it. Perhaps it was read at face value, as a cautionary tale about living a good Christian life; or perhaps it tapped into the political instability of the Netherlands in 1622. It is also quite possible that it was viewed as a curiosity, much as we see it today.
Whatever meaning may have been attributed to it in the early seventeenth century, this episode still had some resonance in the Netherlands eighty years later. The story of the fire and the starling battle shows up again in the Fagel Collection in a general historical work printed in 1698. It is illustrated by a charming plate engraved by the Amsterdam printmaker Jan Luyken, which depicts the battle of the starlings taking place above a Cork square whose architecture has acquired a distinctly Dutch character.
Caulfield, Richard, ed. (1876) The council book of the Corporation of the city of Cork, from 1609 to 1643, and from 1690 to 1800. Guildford: Billing and Sons. (TCD Gall.DD.19.10)
As well as documenting the minutes of Cork Council, this work is prefaced with the ‘Annals of Cork’, where contemporary documents from the earliest years of Cork history are transcribed. Both pamphlets in this piece are recorded there (pp.xix–xxii), and I have used this as the source of the quotations from the English text.