In the early hours of 24 February in 1943 fire broke out in the basement laundry of St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School run by the enclosed order of Poor Clare nuns in Main St., Cavan town. The fire very quickly turned into an inferno. The alarm was raised by horrified townspeople who tried to help. At first they could not gain access to the convent and when they were admitted it was almost too late too reach the terrified, screaming children, trapped in the top floor dormitories. A hugely inadequate fire service meant that within forty minutes the flames had taken hold, the roof had caved in and the building was left just a shell. Thirty five children and an elderly lay woman burned to death. The following day the remains of the thirty six bodies were recovered from the smoldering ruin. They were put in just eight coffins and buried subsequently in a mass grave.
The subsequent investigation attributed it to a faulty flue. The sight of smoke coming out of the building alerted people on Main Street. They went to the front entrance and tried to gain entry. Eventually they were let in by one of the girls but not knowing the layout of the convent, they were unable to find the girls.
By this time all of the girls had been moved into one Dormitory. At this stage it would have been possible to evacuate all of the children but instead the nuns persuaded the local people to attempt to put out the fire. Two men (John Kennedy and John McNally) went down to the laundry to try to put the fire out. The flames were now too intense for this to be possible and McNally only survived by being carried out by Kennedy.
By this point it was no longer possible for the girls to get out through the main entrance or the fire escape. The local fire brigade had then arrived but their equipment was not sufficient for this fire. Wooden ladders were not long enough to reach the dormitory windows. In the absence of any other solution girls were encouraged to jump. Three did so, though with injuries, however most were too frightened to attempt it. By the time a local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, arrived with a long ladder, and a local man, Louis Blessing, brought five girls down. One child left by way of the interior staircase while it was still accessible. One child made it down the exterior fire escape. One child escaped by way of a small ladder held on the roof of the shed. the fire completely engulfed the dormitory and the remaining girls died.
Incredibly, when alerted to the gathering smoke by a orphan girl, a senior nun made the decision not to evacuate the children, instead she directed them to the top floor dormitory and closed the doors.
Being an enclosed order, the nuns were reportedly reluctant to leave the building themselves, which they considered would be a violation of their vows.
Over concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care, a Public Inquiry was set up. The report’s findings stated that the loss of life occurred due to faulty directions being given, lack of fire-fighting training, and an inadequate rescue and fire-fighting service. It also noted inadequate training of staff in fire safety and evacuation, both at the orphanage and local fire service.
This finding has been disputed by many, including in a piece of verse (to be precise, a Limerick) written by the secretary to the Inquiry Brian O’Nolan, better known as the author Flann O’Brien, and one of the counsel representing the Electricity Supply Board, Tom O’Higgins, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and presidential candidate.
“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.”
It was alleged that the nuns prevented firefighters entering the building in case they saw the girls inside in a state of undress.
Due to the nature of the fire, the remains of the dead girls were placed in 8 coffins and buried in Cullies cemetery in Cavan. A new memorial plaque was erected in 2010 just inside the convent gates at Main Street, Cavan. The plaque was anonymously donated to the Friends of the Cavan Orphanage Victims group.