On This Day 23 February 1943 – St. Joseph’s Orphanage fire in Cavan



Long before the Stardust—where forty-eight young people lost their lives in the 1981—there was the Poor Clares fire in Cavan! This is a story very much in keeping with the illustrious Irish tradition of religious run orphanages, mother and baby homes, reform schools and Magdalene laundries.

It was a disaster that could so easily have been avoided, a tragedy of errors, and it cost the lives of thirty-five young orphan girls, and one adult employee, in February 1943.

St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Industrial School, run by the enclosed and contemplative order of Poor Clare nuns, had been a fixture in the centre of the town of Cavan since its establishment in 1869. By 1943 it was a grim, austere building where, on the night of 23 February, a small fire broke out in the basement laundry. This wasn’t noticed until after midnight on the morning of the 24th.

Once the alarm was raised, everyone in the building could have been evacuated immediately. There was still plenty of time to get all the girls, nuns and staff down to the street below. Instead the nuns decided to move all their young charges into one dormitory, and wait until someone put the fire out. The received wisdom at the time was that the Poor Clare sisters were prepared to risk the lives of more than eighty young girls, in order to avoid the embarrassment of them being seen in public in their nightgowns.

Two local men, John Kennedy and John McNally, took it upon themselves to attempt to put the fire out at source. They barely escaped from the laundry with their lives. McNally collapsed and had to be dragged out by Kennedy. As the fire took hold it now became impossible for the girls to be evacuated from their upstairs dormitory through the main entrance.

The town of Cavan in 1943 lacked a formal fire service. Dundalk Fire Brigade was notified, but by the time the fire tender had come from almost fifty miles away it was far too late. It appears that no one thought to contact Enniskillen fire station which was closer to Cavan than Dundalk.

What there was of a local fire service in the town in 1943 did not have ladders long enough to reach the girls in their dormitory. They were encouraged to jump. Three did so, incurring injuries, but surviving. The others, mostly younger children, were too scared to attempt the leap. A number of children managed to escape by a variety of hazardous routes, including a burning fire escape. Five were rescued when a ladder, adequate to the task, was finally found. The rest died when the flames reached the dormitory.

Afterwards there was a public inquiry, which found that the disaster had taken place due to an electrical fault. No one was held responsible. Locals, in the main, blamed the inaction, panic or rumoured prurience of the Poor Clare nuns. Secretary to the Inquiry was one Brian O’Nolan, a Dublin-based civil servant, better known as the writer Flann O’Brien. Along with one of the barristers at the inquiry, future Fine Gael TD and Presidential candidate, Tom O’Higgins, he penned a limerick which captured local feeling on the proper attribution of blame. It went:


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.


Two of the dead girls, Mary Elizabeth and Susan McKiernan, had been placed in the Orphanage at the insistence of a local priest, after the death of their mother. The alternative was being raised by their father, or willing Protestant neighbours. The youngest orphan fatality was Elizabeth Heaphy from Swords, aged four, the eldest was eighteen-year old Mary Galligan from Drumcassidy in Cavan. None of the members of the Poor Clare order died in the fire, despite their own reluctance to leave the building. As members of an enclosed order many of the nuns apparently felt that to do so was a violation of their vows. The only adult fatality was the eighty-year old cook, Mary Smith. Rescuers found enough remains to fill eight coffins, these were then buried in a mass grave.

A fire that claimed the lives of thirty-six people, mostly young orphan girls, began to take hold in the laundry of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, seventy-five years ago, on this day.



On This Day- 16.2.1902  Birth of Delia Murphy




She was ‘The Ballad Queen’ whose voice and presentation would probably not conform to modern tastes, but, in a parallel and hazardous life, she also helped save hundreds of Jews and Allied soldiers from imprisonment, or the gas chambers. Delia Murphy may not have been Enya, but she was a courageous and remarkable woman nonetheless.

She had a relatively privileged upbringing in rural Ireland in the early 1900s. She was born in Mayo on the Mount Jennings Estate in Hollymount, in 1902. Her father, John Murphy, was one of those rarities, a returned emigrant who had made a fortune in North America. He had struck it rich during the Klondike gold fever of the 1890s, married a woman from Tipperary, and came back to Mayo. Despite his wealth, John Murphy was an exceptional individual in his own right, not least because he was happy for members of the travelling community to camp in the grounds of his newly acquired estate. This had beneficial consequences for his daughter, who learned many of the ballads that would later make her famous, around the campfires of the travellers.

Delia was fortunate, and somewhat unusual for a woman in those days, in receiving an education up to, and including, third level. She studied Commerce in University College, Galway, where she met and married fellow student, Tom Kiernan when she was twenty-two years old.


Kiernan then joined the Irish diplomatic service and was posted to London. That was where Delia’s career really began to take off. The huge Irish emigré population in pre-war London took to her singing, and her rise in popularity led to the recording in 1939, by His Master’s Voice—shortened in more recent days to the more familiar HMV—of some of her best-known songs, such as, If I Were a Blackbird, The Spinning Wheel and Three Lovely Lassies. Her popularity was probably based as much on her personality and charm as it was on her singing, because, truth be told, she was no female John McCormick.

And that might have been all there was worth saying about Delia Murphy, had Tom Kiernan not been transferred in 1941, by the Department of External Affairs, from London to Rome, as Irish Chargé d’Affaires (or Minister) to the Vatican. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and US entry into the war, the Irish legation in Rome became the only English-speaking diplomatic mission left in the city.

In 1943 Mussolini was deposed and Allied POWs in Italy were released. Nazi Germany, however, rapidly reasserted fascist dominance, and the POWs were in danger of re-capture. Enter the extraordinary Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest based in the Vatican City. For the next two years, he led a network which sheltered Allied soldiers on the run, and Jews in danger of being dispatched to Nazi death camps. They were hidden in dozens of safe houses in Rome and elsewhere. Delia Murphy was one of O’Flaherty’s closest associates in this hazardous enterprise. When in Rome O’Flaherty did as the Romans did, assuming a variety of disguises so that he could pass as Italian. But, as the SS grew more aware of his activities, and attempted to assassinate him, he was compelled to remain inside the confines of the politically independent enclave of the Vatican City, where the Germans couldn’t touch him.


After the war, Delia Murphy travelled with her diplomat husband to Australia, Germany, Canada and the USA where she continued to record and perform. In 1962, she recorded her only LP, The Queen of Connemara, in New York. Two years after the death of her husband, she returned to Ireland, and lived in Chapelizod outside Dublin. She died there in 1971 at the age of sixty-nine.

Delia Murphy, friend of the Irish traveller, ballad singer, and audaciously altruistic people smuggler, was born one hundred and sixteen years ago, on this day.



On This Day 9.2.1983 Kidnapping of Shergar




Would the name Cresswell mean anything to you? If it does, perhaps you should keep that to yourself, in case you become implicated in one of the greatest unsolved crimes in Irish history.

The main victim, who probably lost his life, was one of the most successful athletes of the 1980s, winning the blue riband event of his sport by the greatest margin ever recorded. In June 1981, at the running of the two hundred and first Epsom Derby, Shergar, with a teenage Walter Swinburn on board, showed a clean pair of heels to the field, in winning by ten lengths. So far ahead was he, that John Mathias, rider of the runner up, Glint of Gold, thought he was actually winning, until he spotted Shergar up ahead in the distance.

Shergar re-asserted his dominance a few weeks later in the Irish Derby at the Curragh, but the longer fourteen furlong trip of the final classic of the year, the St. Leger, was too much for him. The dual Derby winner only managed to finish fourth, and was retired to stud. His career as a stallion would be short.

Shergar had been owned by the Aga Khan. Before the horse’s stud career began, however, he had cashed in some of his chips, and sold shares in the horse to a few very interested buyers. Shergar had a syndicated value of £10m when he began to have sex with other horses for a living. Life as an equine gigolo was certainly preferable to being whipped by undersized men. Shergar the racehorse had been trained by Michael Stoute in England, Shergar the sire was based in Ballymanny Stud in Kildare. If you wanted him to get together with your favourite mare it would set you back at least a cool fifty grand.

In his only season as a professional Dad he sired thirty-five foals. They only ever produced one classic winner between them, and that was in the lowly Irish St. Leger. We never got to find out if the next crop would be any better, because there was none.

On the night of the 8 February 1983 a gang of at least six men, all apparently calling each other ‘Cresswell’, kidnapped Shergar’s groom James Fitzgerald, forced him to identify the Derby-winning colt’s stable, and stole the horse. Fitzgerald was released around midnight, after being given the code phrase—King Neptune—the gang intended to use in ransom negotiations.


What happened next was such a comedy of errors that had Shakespeare been around, he would have changed the plot of  his eponymous play. When Fitzgerald managed to raise the alarm in the early hours of 9 February the manager of the Ballymany Stud phoned the horse’s vet Stan Cosgrove, one of the members of the shareholding syndicate. So, obviously, Stan Cosgrove phoned the Gardai. Well, not exactly, he phoned a friend, as if he was a contestant in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rather than the victim of a serious crime. The friend then phoned the Minister for Finance, Alan Dukes … as you would. Dukes, probably became part of the chain because he was TD for Kildare and TDs, as we know, have all the answers. Alan Dukes, very sensibly referred the distraught shareholders to the Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan. Why not the Minister for Agriculture, one wonders, surely he would have more to do with horses.

Anyway, after the gang was safely home, having breakfast, and looking forward to reading about their exploits in the morning papers, before making that all important first call, someone told the cops.


That was when Chief Superintendent James Murphy got involved. Here was a man who knew he was a detective, because he wore a trilby hat. During one press interview Chief Superintendent Murphy is supposed to have uttered the immortal phrase ‘A clue … that is what we haven’t got.’ Philip Marlowe he was not, despite the trilby. The lack of clues persuaded Murphy to act on information supplied by psychics and clairvoyants. If you made this stuff up and put it in a story you would spend the rest of your life trying to find an agent for your work.

No one ever found poor Shergar. When last seen he was being ridden by Elvis Presley in the Adolf Hitler stakes in Atlantis. The IRA were blamed for the theft at the time, this theory being reinforced by the 1999 memoir written by the IRA informer Sean O’Callaghan.

Whoever stole Shergar probably overlooked two salient facts. Firstly, horses are bigger, stronger and more highly strung than human kidnap victims. The fashionable theory is that the kidnpappers were forced to kill their victim within hours because they had no clue how to handle him. Secondly, the Aga Khan didn’t own Shergar anymore, having sold thirty-three of the forty shares in the horse. This made ransom negotiations a little bit like a White House press conference. No ransom was ever paid and Shergar has not been seen since. If still alive he would be approaching human middle-age.

Somebody finally told the Garda Siochana that Shergar had been kidnapped, thirty five years ago, on this day.




On This Day – The Birth of James Joyce and the publication of Ulysees



The second of February was a red-letter day in the life of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. It was his date of birth, and of the publication, on his fortieth birthday, of probably the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Ulysees.

As you probably know the action of the novel all takes place in a single day, 16 June 1904, which just happens to be the day that Joyce and his future wife Nora Barnacle, first ‘stepped out’ together. What you may not know is how close the narrative of Leopold Bloom came to becoming a short story in the Dubliners collection, published in 1906. Joyce briefly considered, and then abandoned the idea.

He started writing Ulysees in 1914, as the continent of Europe began to eat itself alive. He completed it in October 1921. The content, judged as obscene by authorities in the USA and Britain on numerous occasions, made it far too hot to handle for any mainstream publisher, so the book was brought out by Syliva Beach, owner of the Parisian left-bank bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. We won’t even get started on how the novel was greeted in his native country. Oddly enough it was never actually banned here. But just try buying a copy in a Dublin bookshoop in the 1920s!

The first thing to be said about Ulysees is that it is actually very funny. The stream of consciousness technique that Joyce used can alienate a casual reader but if you just sit down and map your own thought processes for about five minutes, it all makes much more sense.

Another thing about Joyce was that if you ever came across him and made an impression of any kind, for good or ill, the chances are that you would end up in one of his books. You might not recognise yourself for the monster that you were, or you might, and then look forward to your next meeting with the short-sighted and vindictive author.

So, who is who in Ulysees?

Not much doubt about Stephen Dedalus, as Joyce’s alter ego had already appeared as the ‘artist’ in his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Bloom may have been based on a Dubliner named Alfred Hunter. Joyce had got himself involved in a drunken fight in St. Stephen’s Green, where he came off worse. He was helped by Hunter, who brought him to his home and looked after him. Hunter was Jewish and was said to have been cuckolded by his unfaithful wife. All of which makes him uniquely qualified him for consideration as the template for Leopold.

Then there’s ‘stately plump Buck Mulligan’, who appears in the first sequence, set in the Martello Tower in Sandycove which, for a brief period—six days in all—Joyce shared with the poet, novelist and future senator, Oliver St. John Gogarty. The two men fell out before Joyce abandoned Dublin for Zurich in 1904. The portrayal of Mulligan is not precisely how Gogarty would have liked to be remembered. But, as time passes, few have any recollection of the man himself, while his loutish and God-awful fictional representation remains fresh in the mind of anyone who has read the book. Revenge is, after all, a dish best served cold. Gogarty himself sought some consolation in being, as he put it, the only character in any of Joyce’s work, ‘who washes, shaves and swims’.

Joyce finally completed Ulysees in Paris, to which he had been invited by the celebrated poet, and proto-fascist, Ezra Pound. He was supposed to stay for a couple of weeks but ended up living there for two decades. Just as neutral Switzerland had been his home during the Great War, he fled Paris in advance of the Nazi German invasion in 1940, and returned to Zurich where he died in 1941. Nora Joyce, who finally married her partner in London in 1931, twenty-seven years after their first date, later offered to have his body repatriated for burial in Ireland, an offer which the Irish authorities churlishly declined. So, the grave of Ireland’s greatest author is in the Fluntern cemetery in Zurich, situated, in an irony that Joyce would probably have appreciated, near the city zoo.

James Joyce was born on 2 February 1882, and his masterwork Ulysses, was published ninety-six years ago, on this day.