The mystery fire that gutted Killarney’s ballroom of romance


IT was, until the late 1960s, a thriving hotel that housed the original ballroom of romance – known as The Blue Room – ­where courting couples met to dance the night away to the big band sounds of the day.

Ahead of its time in terms of tourism promotion, it capitalised on a thriving market in the post war years with British holidaymakers arriving by the carriage full at the nearby railway station to stay, full board, for a week or a fortnight.

The landmark Glebe Hotel engulfed in flames in 1988

The pages of history revealed that the last ambush of the War of Independence happened just outside the building, shortly before noon on July 11, 1921, just 15 minutes before a ceasefire was called.

Now, it a mass concrete town centre car park that links College Street with pedestrian access to Plunkett Street, Main Street and High Street through a network of traditional laneways once considered the bearing heart of traditional Killarney commercial life.

In between, however, the former 80-bedroom Glebe Hotel, shielded behind an imposing seven foot wall and a grove of trees that ran the length of the substantial property, lay derelict for many years, since the early 1970s, with local opinion always sharply divided on what should or could have become of the property.

Previously owned by local entrepreneur Thomas G Cooper and purchased at a public auction by an anonymous client in 1984, it eventually reached the hands of the then Killarney Urban District Council which acquired the site for £1.125 million and turned it into a car park.

That transaction occurred not long after a mystery fire, understood to have been sparked by trespassers, destroyed what was left of the seriously dilapidated building and forced the council to send for the demolition ball for health and safety reasons.

How the late night fire was reported in January 1988

The fire broke out shortly before midnight on 24 January 1988 and locals could only watch on in horror as sparks danced in the night sky while the history-steeped building was engulfed by flames.

It was, in the less frenetic days of 1980s, one of the big news stories of the year and it sent shock waves reverberating throughout the entire county.

One side story, was that it was first call-out received by the fire service in Killarney since it moved to its new base on the bypass road and such was the extent of the inferno, assistance had to be summoned from fire brigade units in Killorglin, Castleisland and Tralee.

All’s quiet: An empty Glebe car park on College Street today

The blaze originated at the rear of the building and it spread rapidly through felt and timber partitions before all that remained was a shell of the former pristine building.

Gardai investigating the fire quickly formed the opinion that it had been started maliciously and the fact that the electricity supply to the premises have been severed some years previously gave added substance to that theory.

The Garda Superintendent at the time, Michael Burke, remarked: “That building has been a regular haunt of dossers for the past three years and trespassers have held regular parties there.”

Adopting a practical, no-nonsense approach for which he was renowned, he added: “Every dosser in town has been in there and only a fool would argue that it wasn’t started intentionally”.

The mystery fire in the Glebe has never been solved but, until now, a whole new generation of people in Killarney will never have heard of the property’s colourful and magical past and how a building in which so love stories began, eventually came crashing down in the dark of night.


FOR many years they formed what was surely Killarney’s greatest double act – a boxing legend and a champion canine who were no strangers to the headlines and were household names in the town and beyond for many years.

Legends: John ‘Killer’ O’Ca;llaghan and Dex the Wonder Dog are blessed by Fr Gerard Raftery at the Franciscan Friary in 1988

The late, great John ‘Killer’ O’Callaghan, an accomplished boxer in this youth, was one of the town’s most popular and colourful characters and he single-handedly kept the sport of boxing alive when he formed St Andrew’s Boxing Club which operated from the Conroy Hall on Park Road.

One of the most popular features of the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Killarney was when boxing club float rounded the Plunkett Street corner and headed for the reviewing stand at the Market Cross by which time the young lads on board would be beating the lard out of each other with ‘The Killer’ trying to separate them and a bemused Dex watching on from a safe distance.

Indeed, John O’Callaghan’s memory lives on still every St Patrick’s Day when the winner of the best sporting entry is presented with an award in his memory.

Those were the days: The hugely successful Counihan’s Travel – owned and run by Vincent and Betty Counihan on High Street – was offering flights from Shannon to New York or Boston for £299 in 1988. A trip to sun-kissed Miami would have set you back £349 but you could have travelled to London by boat and train for just £45

When the gloves were eventually hung up, The Killer devoted his time and energy to training his top class English Setter, Dex, who soon became known as The Wonder Dog given the string of successes he registered at professional dog shows all over Munster.

Ahead of his time, Killer became a top class agent with regular star appearances lined up for the ever-obliging Dex who, as time progressed, has been signed up for sponsorship deals with a local butcher and a canine cosmetics supplier.

Sadly, John ‘Killer’ O’Callaghan and Dex the Wonder Dog are no longer a feature on the streets of Killarney but they left very fond memories for a whole generation of locals who admired them and followed their brilliant exploits with a keen interest.

This snapshot was taken on the steps of the Franciscan Friary in October 1989 when Fr Gerry Raftery met Killer and Dex on the traditional day for the blessing of animals.

“Do you know what, Father,” Killer told the popular friar, “you’ve just blessed a true champion”.

And how right he was.

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