Mahlon Irish was working hard on a project in his shop on Ward Drive in Homer Friday afternoon.
The project? Trying to get a 1950 Brockway fire engine to work again.
“It never seems to work the way you want to, but I’m hoping to get this running soon,” Irish said.
Working on his 17 classic fire engines he owns and going camping on a regular basis — with his beagle Ariel and friends — are two of the hobbies Irish enjoys to the fullest following his retirement as the Homer fire chief in April.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I’m able to do things I wanted to do before, but didn’t have the necessary amount of time. I can tell the difference now.”
Although still a member of the Homer Fire Department when needed, Irish has had an illustrious career in multiple departments.
Irish, 65, has been with Homer’s department since April of 1974, when he was a teenager attending Homer High School. He’s been in every role one can think of with the department, including two stints as fire chief from 2009-14 and 2017-21, while grabbing his first chief position in 1979.
“I enjoyed being the fire chief. It was a good run,” Irish said. “I think I left the fire department in pretty good shape.”
His career also extended to the city of Ithaca, where he held a staff position from 1992-2011 and reached the rank of lieutenant at the tail end of his time there.
Irish retired from Ithaca’s department on his 56th birthday, realizing quickly that being a firefighter is a “young man’s game.”
“I’ve worn many different hats in my career,” Irish said.
The first call Irish went on with Homer’s department was unforgettable, he said. He saw fire trucks go by while he was in school, and managed to sneak out of school to join them. The call turned out to be a house fire on Route 281 in Cortlandville, and unfortunately came with fatalities.
“Two kids in the house were playing with gasoline and matches in the house,” Irish said. “It was my first call and a lot of firefighters remember their first, but this one is completely unforgettable.”
Irish made up his mind about retiring as the fire chief back in the fall of 2020. On his 65th birthday in January he knew at that point fully well he wanted to step down from his position.
He was also recently fighting a personal battle: prostate cancer. Irish has been in remission for almost four years, but realized that “you never know how much time you’re going to have.”
“I knew I had to get out of the administrative stuff for the department,” he said. “You just don’t know how long it’s going to be.”
In high school, Irish originally had intentions to go to college and study to be an architect. But, his love for fire fighting took over.
His first job out of high school was a drafting position at (now defunct) Saulsbury Fire & Rescue Apparatus in Preble, which supplied fire equipment and built fire engines.
Irish said the staff who were with the company also worked with the Preble, Tully and Homer fire departments.
“It’s what I liked to do,” he added. “Sometimes, the staff would let me go to calls in the area.”
Now his energy is focused on making the 1950 Brockway fire engine “close to like new.”
“The truck was designed already, I just have to figure out how to fix it,” Irish said.
The fire engine Irish is working on originally came from Cortland County. He bought it back from a guy in western New York who had it sitting in a field for years on end.
Irish said almost half of the truck “was covered in mud” and it was “hard to get because it was sitting there for years.” He added the family who owned the truck considered scrapping it for parts.
“I paid a little bit more than I should have for this, but I wanted to bring it home,” Irish said. “I was very lucky to get this one back.”
Irish’s responsibilities with the Homer Fire Department these days are driving the firetrucks to a call and blowing the horn as it reaches its destination.
Steven Hayes is the new fire chief for Homer, with Jay and Joseph Reilly, and Nick Card the other chiefs in the department.
“It’s their ballgame now,” Irish said. “I think they’ll handle things well. They’re in good hands.”
Now, it’s time for Irish to relax and enjoy life.