Smoke begins to engulf O'Neill's pub and Finlay Auctioneers in Athlone on December 22, 2010. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

Looking back at the O'Neill's pub fire in Athlone, ten years on

Ten years ago today, December 22, 2010, in frigid sub-zero temperatures, a major fire destroyed two businesses in the heart of Athlone.

The blaze which engulfed O'Neill's pub and the neighbouring Finlay Auctioneering premises threatened at one stage to wipe out a whole row of commercial buildings along Mardyke Street.

The Gardai concluded that the fire, one of the most extensive in Athlone's history, had been caused by "an unfortunate accident".

It started in the basement of O'Neill's pub at approximately 2.30pm that Wednesday afternoon, and the flames soon spread throughout the premises.

Gardai closed off streets in the centre of town during the fire. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

Buildings nearby were evacuated shortly after 3pm, and the pre-Christmas traffic in the town ground to a standstill as road closures were put in place at Mardyke Street, Gleeson Street, Seán Costello Street, Dublingate Street and Church Street.

By 6pm, the fire had completely ravaged the interior and roof of O’Neill’s, sending out thick clouds of smoke which could be seen several miles away.

A view from John Broderick Street of the fire service at work. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

The adjoining Finlay Auctioneering offices were destroyed, while other neighbouring premises suffered some smoke and water damage.

Two Athlone fire engines attended the scene, along with additional units from Ferbane and Kilbeggan. A total of 20-25 firemen were involved in the operation.

Speaking to the Westmeath Independent in 2012, Ray McLoughlin of the Westmeath Fire Service said the fire was "the hardest job" he faced during his time in Athlone.

The fire service worked through the night, when temperatures fell to a staggering minus sixteen.

"It was torture. The lads were walking around, their gear was wet, and it was freezing on them. Everything was stacking up, trying to defeat us," he said.

"I have never come across conditions like that at any incident, though I know the fire at St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford (in 2009) was something similar, where they were pumping water and it was freezing in the hoses.

"We weren't far off that on the day of the O'Neill’s fire. If the water had frozen on us, we would have probably lost that whole block of buildings."

How the O'Neill's building looked the morning after the fire. Photo: Ann Hennessy.

The shell of the pub and auctioneers was subsequently demolished, and, while planning permission was granted in 2012 for the rebuilding of the businesses, that never happened.

This year, the council moved to complete its purchase of the site, which has been something of an eyesore in Athlone since the fire.

A mixed-use development is now envisaged for it, as part of an urban regeneration project for the areas of Pump Lane, Mardyke Street and Sean Costello Street.

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