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.