Wood Cut of Grue Church Fire from a booklet published in 1972 on the 150th anniversary.

From Scandi-Noir Doors to Roald Dahl, William Wallace, Cromwell & the Music of Frode Haltli.

Sometimes in life, the answers we are seeking are delivered to us in a swift and magical manner.  This serendipity, when it happens, can stop us in our tracks, imbuing us with an awe for the mysterious workings of the universe. Unfortunately, in my experience, the universe tends only to respond to questions of no particular importance whatsoever.

Last night I was watching a Scandinavian thriller, one riding on the backs of  The Killing and Borgen. It was not up to that standard though so my mind began to wander about looking for something to chew on. It soon enough sank its teeth into Scandinavian doors.

Hollywood crime drama doors can be dramatically shouldered inwards, showering splinters on attractively wasted junkies with liquid eyes and etched cheekbones. Scandi-Noir doors open outwards (or ‘out the way’ as we say in these parts of Ireland), to reveal some middle-aged pillar of the community in a knitted pullover. The satisfyingly unHollywood-like detectives, wrinkled and overweight, stand politely aside as the door opens (out the way) but we know from a slight twitch of their weathered, glum faces that this particular pillar is up to no good. Cold, northern instincts will shatter the door of guilt as effectively as any gym bunny Californians.

The first thing that occurred to me is that snow is the reason for this door anomaly. But that doesn’t make much sense. Everyone would end up trapped in their houses for the winter. Then again, that could be convenient for introverted northmen. I didn’t think a second thing as I was too bored so I stopped watching and started reading a book I had picked up in a secondhand shop, a biography of Roald Dahl.

On the first page of the first chapter in the book there is an account of the Grue church fire in Norway in 1822, to this day one of Norway’s worst fires. Between 113 and 117 people, mostly women and children, were burned to death as they pressed against the double doors, doors which opened inwards. Only a few escaped following the lead of the pastor, one Hesselberg, who, piling bibles up against a window, jumped to safety. Hesselberg was Dahls’ great-great grandfather. He eventually became a member of parliament and worked to ensure that all doors in public buildings opened outwards (Sturrock, p.14). This regulation I assume spread to the private residencies, a fear of fire being greater than a fear of being snowed in for the melancholy, insular people of the north.

Incidentally, Dahl, a towering six-foot five inches, was also descended through his grandmother from Scottish hero William Wallace, who was also unusually tall. Some of Wallaces’ relatives had escaped to Denmark in the wake of his execution. One of their descendants, Ellen Wallace, Dahls’ grandmother, married the grandson of the fortunate, bible climbing pastor.


As I updated this piece, I found that, this year, 2017, musician Frode Haltli composed and performed Blissful Pentecost, music dedicated to the memory of the horrific fire in Grue church. He was in part inspired by an older fire in Drogheda, during Cromwells invasion in 1849, when the steeple of St. Peters Church was set alight, killing 100 people who had taken refuge inside.  Another 1500 civilians and 2000 troops were also killed during that incursion. Haltli was also influenced by historian Peter Wessel Zapffe who had written of Grue in a 1972 novel.

Haltli performed the Irish premiere on March 3rd this year in Dundalk.

You can listen to it here


It would be nice if the answers to all our questions would arrive as quickly as the reason for the doors in Scandinavian thrillers opening ‘out the way’. Or maybe that would make life too easy. Or just easy. Or just not simultaneously annoying, boring and irritatingly difficult. And we don’t want that. ..


Norwegian painter Andreas Bloch imagined the scene at Grue.

REFERENCES AND LINKS, Blissful Pentecost, [online], available at, %5Baccessed 07/04/2017]

Guttormsten, A, (2017), Forgotten Church Fire, in Vartland, [online]. February 21st, available at,,%5Baccessed 07/04/2017]

Grue Commune, (2017), Churches in Grue, [online], available at, [accessed 07/04/2017]

Riksscene, (2017), [online], Frode Haltli -Da Grue Church Fire, available at

Sturrock, D., (2010), Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, New York: Simon& Schuster.




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