Cavan Orphanage Photo 1

Fire broke out on the night of the 23rd February 1943 resulting in the deaths of 36 people, 35 children and 1 elderly lady (lay worker). Many questions were raised about the actions of the nuns in charge on that faithful night.

The convent, which was first founded in 1861, was run by the Poor Clares Order.  They were (and still are) an enclosed order which never ventured outside the confinement of the convent/monastery itself, confining themselves to a life of "Consecrated and virginal Chastity, bridal love, is embraced in Poverty and lived in Obedience, directed towards Christ"; 

Today, there are currently 7 such monasteries/convents in operation, with one located only a short distance from Glangevlin, in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

A background to this would be to explain how these schools came into operation.  In 1868 the industrial school system was established in Ireland.  This is referred to in detail in the address by Sir John Lentaigne,  to the 31st Session of the 'The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland' in 1878.  In his speech, he outlines the background for the establishment of the schools as follows:

In May, 1868, the Industrial Schools Act for Ireland, introduced into Parliament by The O'Conor Don, and supported by the late Lord Mayo, passed the Legislature. Then, for the first time in the annals of Ireland, the State gave a home, not in a prison or a workhouse, to the young vagrant, the houseless, friendless child, and the destitute orphan, who was not a criminal. Up to that year, the young pickpocket and precocious burglar had an asylum in the reformatory, where if well disposed he could be taught a trade by which he might become self-supporting, and by industry gain a livelihood and make for himself a respectable position in life; but the destitute orphan and the friendless vagrant were expressly excluded by the provisions of the statute from the advantages of the reformatory school system because they had not yet fallen into vice."

(For the full speech please see The Trinity College Dublin (TCD) Archive, )

Prior to this act, orphan's or homeless children would not be guaranteed an education; whereas the petty criminal could expect to be educated in a reformatory setting.  This act ensured that homeless/orphaned children would be educated through the Industrial School system.  The convent in Cavan became one of these industrial schools and was operating as such when the fire took hold on that faithful night in question. 


The fire itself was believed to have started in the laundry area, that was located in the basement area of the convent.  The fire was first noticed by one of the girls at around 2am in the morning, when she alerted one of the nuns to it.

Around the same time, townspeople living on the main street also noticed some smoke.  They raised the alarm and some local people attempted to gain access though the locked front doors.  These were eventually let in by one of the young girls. 

In the meantime, most of the girls were moved to the dormitories at the top of the building. It may have been possible for the children to have been rescued  from the dormitory.  However the nuns made the faithful decision, convincing the rescuers, that an attempt should be made to put out the fire, raging in the basement.  Two of the rescuers, John Kennedy and John McNally headed down to the basement in response.  The fire was so intense even at this stage that they almost lost their lives. McNally was overcome by the fire and was only saved by his comrade carrying him out to safety.

By the time help arrived in the form of the fire brigade, there was no possible exit through the entrance to the convent or the fire escape (that were locked!). The fire brigade were ill equipped to deal with the blaze or the rescue attempt.  Their ladders could not reach the dormitory windows, resulting in the rescuers asking the girls to jump.  Some that did this did survive, but were injured in the process, but many were too afraid. 

A local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, did eventually arrive with a long ladder that could reach the windows.  Louis Blessing (a local business man, who son still runs their pub "Blessings" in Cavan's Main Street) did rescue 5 of the girls, but the remainder had succumbed to the fire.

Initial reaction to the fire, was one of sympathy to the local Catholic Hierarchy with emphasis on it being a tragic accident.  However,  disquiet caused the setting up of an Public Inquiry. The Inquiry ultimately found that the nuns/order were not to blame, but which laid criticism at the local fire services door.  They make some recommendations which were the basis of reform of local fire fighting services and fire safety standards in Industrial Schools - the locked fire exits were to have horrific echoes in the Stardust tragedy almost 40 years later; where on Saint Valentines night in 1981 a fire in a Dublin disco claimed the lives of 48 young people.

Questions still surround the way the inquiry was run and ultimately whether significant blame should have been laid at the doorstep of those responsible for the wellbeing and education of these children.  Some are still convinced that the reason why so many children were burnt to death has still not being uncovered!

As even the head of the inquiry, at the time,  Brian O'Nolan  (pen name Flann O'Brien) once wrote:

"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."

The remains of the 35 girls were so badly destroyed that they were buried in 8 coffins, in an unmarked grave until recent times.  There is now a memorial in place to mark their resting place.

It should be noted that some of these children were often not orphaned but may have lost one parent and placed in residential care under pressure from those in authority, where alternative and often more beneficial options were available.  One such case was that of the Susan and Mary (Elizabeth) McKiernan, who perished in the Cavan Orphanage fire.

The McKiernan family lived outside Butlersbridge, a few miles from Cavan town.  They lived in a small rented house and were by all means happy.  The family consisted of Hugh Snr and Elizabeth (his wife) and their children Hugh, Matt, Susan and Mary.  On a Sunday morning the 1st August 1937, Mrs McKiernan died.  At the time, as was commonplace, when there was no woman at home to look after the children, the local clergy (local parish priest) would intervene and place such children in care. However in their case, there was a very close friend of the deceased Mrs Kiernan, a kindly Church Of Ireland lady, who offered to take the two young girls in.  She clearly indicated that she was prepared to raise the children as Catholics.  However the local parish priest intervened and prevented this from happening.   The two girls were moved to the convent that quickly, that they hadn't even time to attend their mother's funeral! The family visited the girls on a number of occasions over the following years; often allowed only 15 precious minutes with them at a time.  They were never allowed to leave the convent grounds during these periods. The morning after the fire in the orphanage, Hugh heard news of the fire from a neighbour.  He immediately thought of his sisters.  He cycled all the way to the post office in Butlersbridge and rang the Gardai in Cavan town.  Both sisters were dead. In a similar twist of faith, to that of the girls concerned, their family were unable to attend their funeral.  By the time Hugh and his family had reached Cavan town, the funeral had already gone out to Cullis Grave Yard and they had missed it!

The full story by the McKiernan brothers, compiled and presented by Ciaran Cassidy (a native of Cavan town), for RTE Radio One (2006) is an excellent documentary.  It can be downloaded from here:

Much of the historical information above have been referenced from the book

'Children of the Poor Clares' (Paperback) by Mavis Arnold & Heather Laskey - ISBN 0862819172 , Appletree Press Ltd (1985)

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