St Joseph’s Orphanage

Remembering the 35 girls who died in a Cavan orphanage fire in 1943

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell highlighted the tragic fire in the Dáil this week during a debate on the Eighth Amendment.

DURING HER SPEECH on Thursday, Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell reminded Dáil members who had gathered to debate and discuss the Eighth Amendment about a tragedy from the 1940s in which 35 children in institutional care died. / YouTube

Speaking among TDs who revealed and elaborated on their stance on the Eighth Amendment debate, O’Connell recalled the tragic fire at St Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School, and linked it to the State’s historic treatment of women.

“In 1943 in Cavan, 35 orphans perished in a blaze, locked in their dormitories as a fire raged. An RTÉ documentary attributed their deaths to the nuns not wanting them to be seen in their nightgowns.

One of the 50 children who were rescued said the children were ordered to say the rosary as the fire spread from the laundry to the second and third floors of the building.

“Holy Catholic Ireland was a monstrous hoax,” she concluded.

The girls who died that night

“It’s a miracle I was alive after that… When they put a ladder up it wouldn’t reach. I kept looking around and I thought – I’m going to die here. The flames were coming nearer and nearer.  I could hear glass cracking, cracking – I thought I’m going to die…”

That’s the account of one survivor of the fire, Sarah – who gave her account to the RTÉ documentary series Scannal. She was one of the last girls to be rescued from the building through the windows, as the fire escapes had been locked shut.

The Poor Clares, an enclosed contemplative order, founded the convent in the mid-1850s on Cavan’s main street. It began as a reformatory school for petty criminals, but an orphanage and industrial school was also added later.

Between 9.30pm on 23 February and 2am on the 24 February 1943, a fire broke out at the basement of the laundry.

As smoke billowed out of the school, locals rushed to the site, but the fire services wouldn’t arrive on scene until 40 minutes later.

That was because the town didn’t have any sort of formal or professional fire brigade. The machine for delivering water was a cart and a hose pipe, which, according to the inquiry, may have been faulty.

There was no formal, organised structure of fire officers either.

The response to the blaze became the subject of a public inquiry. It said that the cause of the fire was a “defective flue which could not have been discovered or anticipated by reasonable care”.

It concluded that the loss of life was caused by:

“…Fright or panic resulting in faulty directions being given; want of training in fire-fighting, including rapid evacuation of personnel and movement in smoke-laden atmosphere; lack of proper leadership and control of operations; want of knowledge of the lay-out of the premises on the part of persons from outside; and absence of light at a critical period”.

It added that:

“While we are satisfied that more efficient and safer permanent means of escape could and should have been made available, we are not justified in finding that the absence of these contributed materially to the loss of life in the circumstances of this fire.

If the existing means of escape were availed of properly under efficient leadership, no life need have been lost.

In the RTÉ Documentary on One called The Orphans That Never Were, it opens with the names of the girls who died in that fire being read out, with the reader pausing several times to say “they must have been sisters” when girls of the same surnames were listed side-by-side.

That man was Hugh McKiernan, whose two sisters Susan and Elizabeth died that night.

They had been placed in the convent six months previously after their mother died and it was deemed inappropriate for their father to raise them.

The morning after the fire, Hugh was told the news by a neighbour. He cycled to the post office in Butlersbridge and rang the Gardaí in Cavan town; he was told that both of his sisters were dead.

Eileen Maloney was one of the first people on the scene that day. “You couldn’t really describe it. They had been in an institution where the people in charge never mixed with anyone never spoke to anyone, never saw anyone.”

At the time of the RTÉ documentary, Eileen was 101 years of age. She gave this as the reasoning why the children didn’t leave as soon as the fire started:

“Number one, there was no one to organise them when the fire started. And they weren’t used to getting out the only thing was on a Sunday [when they went to Mass]. That was the only outing they got.”

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