In the Cavan Orphanage Fire, a fire broke out at St Joseph's Orphanage in Cavan on the night of February 23, 1943. 35 of the children and one adult lay worker died in the fire.
Much of the attention after the fire surrounded the role of the Poor Clares, the order of nuns who ran the orphanage.
History of the Orphanage:
The Poor Clares founded a convent in Cavan in 1861 in a large premises on Main Street. As a closed contemplative order the nuns themselves were never seen by the public.
In 1868 the Industrial school system was founded in Ireland to provide accommodation and education for orphaned and abandoned children. Most were run by religious orders although the Orphanage founded in Cavan in 1869 was unusual in being run by a closed order.
Events of February 24, 1943:
It is likely the fire started due to an electrical fault in the laundry housed in the basement of the orphanage. Nothing was noticed until about 2am when one of the girls from the dormitory alerted one of the head nuns.
The sight of smoke coming out of the building also alerted people living 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 Mr McNally only survived by being carried out by Mr 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. In the absence of any other solution girls were encouraged to jump. Some survived by doing this, 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, it was too late. Although a local man, Louis Blessing, went up to the dormitory window and managed to bring down five girls the fire completely engulfed the dormitory and the remaining girls died.
Aftermath and Inquiry:
In the immediate aftermath the fire was seen as a tragic accident and much sympathy was expressed to the local Catholic Hierarchy. Over concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care, a Public Inquiry was setup. The outcome of this Inquiry absolved the nuns of any blame but was critical of the local fire service. This finding has been disputed by many, including in a piece of verse written by the secretary to the Inquiry Brian O'Nolan, better known as the author Flann O'Brien.
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. "
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 has been 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