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SPOOKY REMINDER OF COLD WAR

 
Leinster Leader 14th Jan 2010
 

Spooky reminder of the Cold War
 
 
A spooky Kildare period house which was once at the centre of Ireland’s nuclear disaster plan has been put up for sale by the Dept. of Defence. Few now remember the place which Firmount House, south of Clane, had at the centre of the nation’s emergency planning when the Cold War posturing between the nuclear powers of NATO and the Soviet Pact was at its most threatening in the late 1960s.
Firmount House, built in an austere Victorian style in the 1870s, was converted from its early twentieth century use as a sanatorium to become the Civil Defence Regional Control Centre and the County Control headquarters for counties Kildare and Dublin. The fear among Irish government planners was that in the event of an exchange of nuclear missiles, atomic weapons might impact on Britain and trigger plumes of radioactivity borne on easterly winds across the Irish Sea. A Civil Defence network was set up and trained by the Dept. of Defence but organised at local level by the county councils. The Kildare Civil Defence comprised volunteers who formed a network of wardens. Their duty was to measure radiation in their localities and phone the readings into the control centre at Firmount where the County Manager and his team of advisers would plot the track of the radiation and, so the plan went, would activate warning and evacuation arrangements for the population.
As a warden in the Kildare Civil Defence, this writer recalls visiting Firmount during the National Fallout exercises and observing the County Control teams assimilating the information being phoned in by warden volunteers throughout Co. Kildare. Normally tranquil locations such as Carbury or Staplestown became hotspots on the map in the simulated fight against nuclear disaster. Local Civil Defence wardens phoned in messages in a coded patter indicating the intensity of radiation in their districts. However unlikely the scenario, the volunteer input was impressive as was the commitment of the County Council and Dept. of Defence staff who brought as much realism as possible to the exercise.
 Any impression that Firmount was some kind of high-tech command centre with arrays of radar screens and warning illuminations was quickly dispelled for the visitor– a few blocked-up windows, an old style-telephone exchange, and a kitchen equipped to feed a small army, were about the only concessions to its intended role at the heart of the nuclear alert system for the capital and adjoining counties.
Indeed there had been political sensitivity to media claims that Firmount amounted to a bolt-hole for the top brass in the event of a nuclear strike. The Minister for Defence, Mr. Michael Hilliard TD,  was on the defensive when he rebutted criticism in a statement to the Dáil in April 1967: ‘Considerable publicity by way of Dáil question and otherwise was given to County Control centres some months ago. I would like therefore to take this opportunity of saying that these controls represent a vital link in the Civil Defence system. Under operational conditions the county organization would be directed from them by the County Controller, usually the county or city manager, and his staff.’  Referring to Firmount he reported: ‘Work is in progress on the establishment of a Regional Control, which will be used as the Dublin City and County Control, at Firmount House, Co. Kildare. As a result of further work there during 1967-68 the centre will be operational.’ 
This Cold War role was not the first time that Firmount had a military connection. In 1917, at the height of the First World War carnage, forty beds were pressed into service at Firmount to tend military wounded – some 400 soldiers in all were treated. From 1908 until the early 1960s Firmount had served County Kildare as a fever hospital, named appropriately as St. Conleth’s sanatorium.  Perhaps the most notable name connected with Firmount, albeit to an earlier dwelling on the site, was that of Ellen Dease, from an Old Catholic family with north Leinster roots. Ellen was born there in 1820; after a young life of some privilege she felt a vocation to religious service and was professed as a Loreto sister in 1847. Within days she and four colleagues embarked ship on a hazardous voyage to Toronto where they ministered to a population ravaged by typhus and swelled by starving refugees from Ireland’s famine. She survived many hardships and presided over the foundation of fourteen Loreto convents in North America.
Tenders for Firmount House closed on 15th January marking the end of its ownership by the Dept. of Defence and the severing of a link with Ireland’s Cold War mobilisation in the 1960s. * My thanks to Mr. Pat Given, Clane History Society, for his help with this article. Series: 162.
    
 

Liam Kenny in his regular feature article 'Nothing New Under the Sun' in the Leinster Leader reminds us of a  Co. Kildare period house which was once at the centre of Ireland’s nuclear disaster plan.  The house has now been put up for sale by the Dept. of Defence. Our thanks to Liam.


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