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Cavan Orphanage Fire Of 1943

Originally Posted April 2008

Fire broke out on the night of the 23rd February 1943 resulting in the deaths of 36 people, 35 children and 1 elderly lady (lay worker). Many questions were raised about the actions of the nuns in charge on that faithful night.

The convent, which was first founded in 1861, was run by the Poor Clares Order. They were (and still are) an enclosed order which never ventured outside the confinement of the convent/monastery itself, confining themselves to a life of “Consecrated and virginal Chastity, bridal love, is embraced in Poverty and lived in Obedience, directed towards Christ”;

Today, there are currently 7 such monasteries/convents in operation, with one located only a short distance from Glangevlin, in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

A background to this would be to explain how these schools came into operation. In 1868 the industrial school system was established in Ireland. This is referred to in detail in the address by Sir John Lentaigne, to the 31st Session of the ‘The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland’ in 1878. In his speech, he outlines the background for the establishment of the schools as follows:

In May, 1868, the Industrial Schools Act for Ireland, introduced into Parliament by The O’Conor Don, and supported by the late Lord Mayo, passed the Legislature. Then, for the first time in the annals of Ireland, the State gave a home, not in a prison or a workhouse, to the young vagrant, the houseless, friendless child, and the destitute orphan, who was not a criminal. Up to that year, the young pickpocket and precocious burglar had an asylum in the reformatory, where if well disposed he could be taught a trade by which he might become self-supporting, and by industry gain a livelihood and make for himself a respectable position in life; but the destitute orphan and the friendless vagrant were expressly excluded by the provisions of the statute from the advantages of the reformatory school system because they had not yet fallen into vice.”

Prior to this act, orphan’s or homeless children would not be guaranteed an education; whereas the petty criminal could expect to be educated in a reformatory setting. This act ensured that homeless/orphaned children would be educated through the Industrial School system. The convent in Cavan became one of these industrial schools and was operating as such when the fire took hold on that faithful night in question.

The fire itself was believed to have started in the laundry area, that was located in the basement area of the convent. The fire was first noticed by one of the girls at around 2am in the morning, when she alerted one of the nuns to it.

Around the same time, townspeople living on the main street also noticed some smoke. They raised the alarm and some local people attempted to gain access though the locked front doors. These were eventually let in by one of the young girls.

In the meantime, most of the girls were moved to the dormitories at the top of the building. It may have been possible for the children to have been rescued from the dormitory. However the nuns made the faithful decision, convincing the rescuers, that an attempt should be made to put out the fire, raging in the basement. Two of the rescuers, John Kennedy and John McNally headed down to the basement in response. The fire was so intense even at this stage that they almost lost their lives. McNally was overcome by the fire and was only saved by his comrade carrying him out to safety.

By the time help arrived in the form of the fire brigade, there was no possible exit through the entrance to the convent or the fire escape (that were locked!). The fire brigade were ill equipped to deal with the blaze or the rescue attempt. Their ladders could not reach the dormitory windows, resulting in the rescuers asking the girls to jump. Some that did this did survive, but were injured in the process, but many were too afraid.

A local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, did eventually arrive with a long ladder that could reach the windows. Louis Blessing (a local business man, who son still runs their pub “Blessings” in Cavan’s Main Street) did rescue 5 of the girls, but the remainder had succumbed to the fire.

Initial reaction to the fire, was one of sympathy to the local Catholic Hierarchy with emphasis on it being a tragic accident. However, disquiet caused the setting up of an Public Inquiry. The Inquiry ultimately found that the nuns/order were not to blame, but which laid criticism at the local fire services door. They make some recommendations which were the basis of reform of local fire fighting services and fire safety standards in Industrial Schools – the locked fire exits were to have horrific echoes in the Stardust tragedy almost 40 years later; where on Saint Valentines night in 1981 a fire in a Dublin disco claimed the lives of 48 young people.

Questions still surround the way the inquiry was run and ultimately whether significant blame should have been laid at the doorstep of those responsible for the wellbeing and education of these children. Some are still convinced that the reason why so many children were burnt to death has still not being uncovered!

As even the head of the inquiry, at the time, Brian O’Nolan (pen name Flann O’Brien) once wrote:

“In Cavan there was a great fire,
Judge McCarthy was sent to inquire,
It would be a shame, if the nuns were to blame,
So it had to be caused by a wire.”

The remains of the 35 girls were so badly destroyed that they were buried in 8 coffins, in an unmarked grave until recent times. There is now a memorial in place to mark their resting place.

It should be noted that some of these children were often not orphaned but may have lost one parent and placed in residential care under pressure from those in authority, where alternative and often more beneficial options were available. One such case was that of the Susan and Mary (Elizabeth) McKiernan, who perished in the Cavan Orphanage fire.

The McKiernan family lived outside Butlersbridge, a few miles from Cavan town. They lived in a small rented house and were by all means happy. The family consisted of Hugh Snr and Elizabeth (his wife) and their children Hugh, Matt, Susan and Mary. On a Sunday morning the 1st August 1937, Mrs McKiernan died. At the time, as was commonplace, when there was no woman at home to look after the children, the local clergy (local parish priest) would intervene and place such children in care. However in their case, there was a very close friend of the deceased Mrs Kiernan, a kindly Church Of Ireland lady, who offered to take the two young girls in. She clearly indicated that she was prepared to raise the children as Catholics. However the local parish priest intervened and prevented this from happening. The two girls were moved to the convent that quickly, that they hadn’t even time to attend their mother’s funeral! The family visited the girls on a number of occasions over the following years; often allowed only 15 precious minutes with them at a time. They were never allowed to leave the convent grounds during these periods. The morning after the fire in the orphanage, Hugh heard news of the fire from a neighbour. He immediately thought of his sisters. He cycled all the way to the post office in Butlersbridge and rang the Gardai in Cavan town. Both sisters were dead. In a similar twist of faith, to that of the girls concerned, their family were unable to attend their funeral. By the time Hugh and his family had reached Cavan town, the funeral had already gone out to Cullis Grave Yard and they had missed it!

The full story by the McKiernan brothers, compiled and presented by Ciaran Cassidy (a native of Cavan town), for RTE Radio One (2006) is an excellent documentary. It can be downloaded from here:

Much of the historical information above has been referenced from the book

‘Children of the Poor Clares’ (Paperback) by Mavis Arnold & Heather Laskey – ISBN 0862819172 , Appletree Press Ltd (1985)


Victims Of The Orphanage Fire

Mary Harrison (15 yrs Dublin)
Mary Hughes (15 yrs Killeshandra)
Ellen McHugh (15 yrs Blacklion)
Kathleen & Frances Kiely (12 yrs & 9 yrs Virginia)
Mary & Margaret Lynch (15 yrs & 10 yrs Cavan)
Josephine & Mona Cassidy (15 yrs & 11 yrs Belfast)
Kathleen Reilly (14 yrs Butlersbridge)
Mary & Josphine Carroll (12yrs & 10 yrs Castlerahan)
Mary & Susan McKiernan (16 yrs & 14 yrs Dromard)
Rose Wright (11 yrs Ballyjamesduff)
Mary & Nora Barrett (12 yrs -Twins – Dublin)
Mary Kelly (10 yrs Ballinagh)
Mary Brady (7 yrs Ballinagh)
Dorothy Daly (7 yrs Cootehill)
Mary Ivers (12 yrs Kilcoole Wicklow )
Philomena Regan (9 yrs Dublin)
Harriet & Ellen Payne (11 yrs & 8yrs Dublin)
Teresa White (6 yrs Dublin)
Mary Roche (6 yrs Dublin)
Ellen Morgan (10 yrs Virginia)
Elizabeth Heaphy (4 yrs Swords)
Mary O’Hara (7 yrs Kilnaleck)
Bernadette Serridge (5 yrs Dublin)
Katherine & Margaret Chambers (9 & 7 yrs Enniskillen)
Mary Lowry (17 yrs Drumcrow, Cavan)
Bridget & Mary Galligan (17 & 18yrs Drumcassidy, Cavan)
Mary Smith (80 yrs employed as Cook)

Seanad Éireann – Volume 27 – 10 March, 1943 (From Historical Seanad Debates at
Cavan Fire Inquiry-Motion.

Mrs. Concannon: On behalf of Senator Quirke I move:-

That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into the following definite matters of urgent public importance, that is to say:-

The cause of the fire which occurred during the night of Tuesday, the 23rd February, 1943, at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Main Street, Cavan, and the circumstances in which loss of life was occasioned by the said fire, and to make such recommendations in relation thereto as the tribunal may think proper.

Mr. Baxter: If I may, I should like to second this motion to set up an inquiry into the cause of the fire which occurred in Cavan on Tuesday, the 23rd February. Naturally when a great tragedy like this strikes a small community, such as ours in Cavan, there is, as there should be, a searching of mind and soul to discover what and where are the weaknesses which make it possible for such a catastrophe to come upon us. Up to the present the public know only what was served up to them through the daily newspapers. However undesirable it may be that the daily Press should institute a sort of inquiry into such a catastrophe, without indeed being very well equipped to do so in the circumstances, we have no complaint to make of what the public were told in regard to the occurrence, with the exception of the report and a comment in the Irish Times. We welcome this inquiry. All intimately or remotely concerned are glad of the Minister’s decision to hold an inquiry. We welcome it and all possible facilities will be afforded the tribunal by the interested parties-the religious Order and the ecclesiastical authorities as well.

For various reasons, as I have said, through the Press and the Press alone have the public been told anything about this fire. It is regrettable that an organ of opinion like the Irish Times should have acted and written so unwisely as it did in the circumstances. It caused very considerable pain-it may be without knowing it. The religious community who are the sufferers to the greatest extent by this catastrophe feel that they were hardly treated fairly. The Minister’s action is welcome because there is an urgent necessity in the first place to prove or disprove some of the things that have been written and circulated from one end of Ireland to the other and, perhaps, outside our shores as well. In its editorial on the fire, the Irish Times asked the question: “Is it reasonable, in this year of grace, 1943, that more than 80 children should be housed in buildings that lack fire escapes?” That statement was not true. Other statements were made about the difficulties of gaining access to the buildings, and the facilities placed at the disposal of the people who went into them by the members of the religious community. There were some statements made about the difficulty of procuring keys, but that is really a misrepresentation of the facts. In great trouble like this, people-the public and the Press in particular-should be doubly careful about what they say and write, lest a great injustice may be done. Hence it is that the Minister’s decision to set up an inquiry is comforting and encouraging to all interested in the situation that has been created and in the trouble that has come upon the religious community, the town of Cavan and the surrounding neighbourhood.

I should say that really the truth is that the period from the time when the fire was discovered at approximately 2 o’clock until the last possible rescue of the last child at a quarter to three, was so short, the fire had got such a hold, the difficulties that confronted the few people who had discovered the fire in dividing their energies and in trying to provide more help were so great, their attempts to effect rescues from the room into which they went until it was flooded with smoke, and to get equipment to reach a building four storeys high were so unavailing, and the efforts of the number of people who congregated in that time had to be scattered over so many different activities, that it is little less than miraculous that so much was achieved.

Mr. Crosbie: On a point of order, are we holding an inquiry now in this House into the fire?

Leas-Chathaoirleach: I think it is undesirable to have any statements affecting matters that will be the subject of inquiry.

Mr. Crosbie: The matter is surely sub judice.

Leas-Chathaoirleach: The whole matter will come before the inquiry.

Mr. Baxter: I do not want to say anything that is not in order. This may not interest Senator Crosbie, but if Senator Crosbie were a member of our small community down there, about whom so much has been said and written that is not true, Senator Crosbie would feel that there were impelling reasons why we should hold this inquiry. Much has been said that is untrue. It has gone out to the public and has not yet been contradicted. I felt, therefore, that there was justification for giving in this House the reasons why we welcome this inquiry. I think I am within my rights in saying that I do know that in such a catastrophe there are lengths to which decent people will not go. The charity of silence is often much more powerful and fairer to afflicted people than any desire for work of a spectacular nature on the part of newspapers however attractive it may be from the point of view of circulation, it is undesirable that, when tragedies come upon the country, people should feel an impelling urge to describe them in the most gruesome form and in a manner that may be very unfair. When the commission starts its investigations, I think that a tale of marvellous heroism will be unfolded, and that those who misunderstand at present, because they have not been given the facts, will then see the facts in their proper light. This will have a restraining influence on people who desire to speak of these things in a manner that should not be encouraged.

Perhaps the House does not desire me to go further than that: at least some Senators obviously are not anxious that I should. I would like the Minister to give some information, of a more explanatory nature than he gave in the Dáil, when he indicated his intention to set up this commission of inquiry, with regard to the personnel of the commission. The Minister indicated that it was not a question of trying to fix blame or responsibility, and I am sure that view would be accepted. We have been thinking about this locally, to find the weaknesses in our defences. If this inquiry is to result in securing our communities against such occurrences in the future, it must fix responsibility somewhere. We must discover the causes of the weaknesses and, probably, we will have to distribute the causes over different authorities and even different persons. Even Government Departments have partial responsibility in this matter and in arranging the personnel the Minister should give consideration to that aspect. Those who are interested in the holding of the inquiry would be happier if the Minister would recognise that it will be impossible for the commission to make a report without finding faults or weaknesses somewhere. It is quite conceivable that responsibility might be fixed with a certain disregard for the actions or efforts of different parties in the past to provide against occurrences like this.

The Minister would be well advised to indicate that the chairman of the commission would be a lawyer, that someone acquainted with fire-fighting would be another member and that an inspector of his own or of some other Department would be included. That third person, I gather, would be from some Department in contact with these institutions in the past, and that would make the commission better balanced and its judgment would be more fair. It would make the people concerned at both ends feel that there would be a judicial approach to the questions which the Minister is putting to the commission. I think it will be revealed that there is nothing to be shirked, nothing which cannot be discussed and that, as the circumstances were, everything that could be done was done. If there were faults, they are faults which are to be found in a great many of our institutions. That aspect is very important in regard to the personnel of the commission, and the Minister would be well advised to take it into account, especially in view of the fact that the Irish public has been given an interpretation of the position which is not true and which has tried sorely the feelings of people who have had a great burden put upon them. It is a peculiar dispensation of Providence that that burden should be put upon those people. Wrongs must be righted and it is important that the commission should watch every aspect of the case to ensure that the examination will be regarded as perfectly impartial and that the ultimate decision will be regarded as a judicial decision.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister I know has no Departmental responsibility but as we are on this question of an inquiry will the Minister say whether an inquiry is to be held into the disaster in Waterford, although I know that is not a matter of local government?

Mr. MacEntee: Of that I have no knowledge. With regard to what Senator Baxter said I should like to say that I have reason to know that this inquiry will be welcomed by all concerned-I mean by those who have been most intimately and tragically associated with it. Perhaps it conveys a wrong impression of my point of view if it is assumed that the commission will not have to fix responsibility. I did say in the other House that I was setting up this commission not so much to find scapegoats as to try to find what were the weaknesses which led to this tragic and regrettable loss of life, and with a view to devising such safeguards as would prevent similar occurrences in the future. I am not able to announce the personnel of the commission to-day. There are certain formalities which have to be gone through between the Minister responsible for the setting up of this tribunal and the Department of Finance which have not yet been completed, and I am not yet at liberty to give precise details. The chairman will be an experienced lawyer. We have secured the consent of a person experienced in fire fighting and in fire prevention to act on the commission and I hope to secure a lady as third member of the commission. She will not be an inspector of the Department of Education but she may be a lady who is attached to another Department. The third member will in any event be a lady. I should say we have had to ask for this tribunal because there is no Department which has special powers of holding what is in the nature of a sworn inquiry at which people can be compelled to produce evidence and papers. I have taken the responsibility of setting up this tribunal because not merely the internal regulations which were supposed to be applicable to these buildings come into the question but also the sufficiency of the fire-fighting appliances in the town, and the measures which were taken to deal with the fire.

I would like to ask the general public and the Seanad to withhold judgment upon these issues until the committee has made its report. I think that when the personnel of the committee is published it will command confidence. Certainly it is my desire that the matter will be fully investigated and that whatever issues from the commission should receive general acceptance. It is particularly my desire that the people in Cavan and those people elsewhere associated with institutions of this kind will realise that it has been a fair and just attempt, not indeed so much to find culprits, nor as I said to make scape goats of people, but to see how these things can occur and, having regard to the fact that there are numerous institutions of this kind throughout the country, to consider whether it is necessary for us considerably to revise the powers which we have for dealing with them, and for ensuring that the precautions which this disaster has shown to be necessary will always be taken. I do not know that there is anything else I can add. I have considered the question of putting a lay person on this commission, that is one who is not associated with any Government service, but my difficulty is that I do not want to everweight it. The industrial inspector, on the one hand, with a knowledge of what is required in industrial undertakings in relation to fire prevention, and the experienced technician on the other hand, will be more or less assessors to guide and direct the chairman of the tribunal in relation to the investigation, and in consultation with him to make the necessary recommendations. It might be very difficult to find a third person who would be as competent to do that as a person who is already familiar with factory and workshop regulations and the manner in which they are generally applied. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that it would be best to put there a person of the type I have mentioned. However, my mind is not closed, and if suggestions are made to me between now and, say, Friday or Saturday, I will consider them. I do not want to overload the tribunal. The custom has been to keep the size of these tribunals as small as possible, down to three persons, indeed sometimes only one person has constituted the tribunal. As a rule when there are technical questions involved there have been two or three. If I can I do not want to exceed that number.

Question put and agreed to.

Orphanage Grave

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