Victims Of The Orphanage Fire

  • Mary Harrison (15 yrs Dublin)
  • Mary Hughes (15 yrs Killeshandra)
  • Ellen McHugh (15 yrs Blacklion)
  • Kathleen & Frances Kiely (12 yrs & 9 yrs Virginia)
  • Mary & Margaret Lynch (15 yrs & 10 yrs Cavan)
  • Josephine & Mona Cassidy (15 yrs & 11 yrs Belfast)
  • Kathleen Reilly (14 yrs Butlersbridge)
  • Mary & Josphine Carroll (12yrs & 10 yrs Castlerahan)
  • Mary & Susan McKiernan (16 yrs & 14 yrs Dromard)
  • Rose Wright (11 yrs Ballyjamesduff)
  • Mary & Nora Barrett (12 yrs -Twins - Dublin)
  • Mary Kelly (10 yrs Ballinagh)
  • Mary Brady (7 yrs Ballinagh)
  • Dorothy Daly (7 yrs Cootehill)
  • Mary Ivers (12 yrs Kilcoole Wicklow )
  • Philomena Regan (9 yrs Dublin)
  • Harriet & Ellen Payne (11 yrs & 8yrs Dublin)
  • Teresa White (6 yrs Dublin)
  • Mary Roche (6 yrs Dublin)
  • Ellen Morgan (10 yrs Virginia)
  • Elizabeth Heaphy (4 yrs Swords)
  • Mary O'Hara (7 yrs Kilnaleck)
  • Bernadette Serridge (5 yrs Dublin)
  • Katherine & Margaret Chambers (9 & 7 yrs Enniskillen)
  • Mary Lowry (17 yrs Drumcrow, Cavan)
  • Bridget & Mary Galligan (17 & 18yrs Drumcassidy, Cavan)
  • Mary Smith (80 yrs employed as Cook)
Seanad Éireann - Volume 27 - 10 March, 1943 (From Historical Seanad Debates at
Cavan Fire Inquiry-Motion.


Mrs. Concannon: On behalf of Senator Quirke I move:-

That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into the following definite matters of urgent public importance, that is to say:-


The cause of the fire which occurred during the night of Tuesday, the 23rd February, 1943, at St. Joseph's Orphanage, Main Street, Cavan, and the circumstances in which loss of life was occasioned by the said fire, and to make such recommendations in relation thereto as the tribunal may think proper.


Mr. Baxter: If I may, I should like to second this motion to set up an inquiry into the cause of the fire which occurred in Cavan on Tuesday, the 23rd February. Naturally when a great tragedy like this strikes a small community, such as ours in Cavan, there is, as there should be, a searching of mind and soul to discover what and where are the weaknesses which make it possible for such a catastrophe to come upon us. Up to the present the public know only what was served up to them through the daily newspapers. However undesirable it may be that the daily Press should institute a sort of inquiry into such a catastrophe, without indeed being very well equipped to do so in the circumstances, we have no complaint to make of what the public were told in regard to the occurrence, with the exception of the report and a comment in the Irish Times. We welcome this inquiry. All intimately or remotely concerned are glad of the Minister's decision to hold an inquiry. We welcome it and all possible facilities will be afforded the tribunal by the interested parties-the religious Order and the ecclesiastical authorities as well.


For various reasons, as I have said, through the Press and the Press alone have the public been told anything about this fire. It is regrettable that an organ of opinion like the Irish Times should have acted and written so unwisely as it did in the circumstances. It caused very considerable pain-it may be without knowing it. The religious community who are the sufferers to the greatest extent by this catastrophe feel that they were hardly treated fairly. The Minister's action is welcome because there is an urgent necessity in the first place to prove or disprove some of the things that have been written and circulated from one end of Ireland to the other and, perhaps, outside our shores as well. In its editorial on the fire, the Irish Times asked the question: "Is it reasonable, in this year of grace, 1943, that more than 80 children should be housed in buildings that lack fire escapes?" That statement was not true. Other statements were made about the difficulties of gaining access to the buildings, and the facilities placed at the disposal of the people who went into them by the members of the religious community. There were some statements made about the difficulty of procuring keys, but that is really a misrepresentation of the facts. In great trouble like this, people-the public and the Press in particular-should be doubly careful about what they say and write, lest a great injustice may be done. Hence it is that the Minister's decision to set up an inquiry is comforting and encouraging to all interested in the situation that has been created and in the trouble that has come upon the religious community, the town of Cavan and the surrounding neighbourhood.


I should say that really the truth is that the period from the time when the fire was discovered at approximately 2 o'clock until the last possible rescue of the last child at a quarter to three, was so short, the fire had got such a hold, the difficulties that confronted the few people who had discovered the fire in dividing their energies and in trying to provide more help were so great, their attempts to effect rescues from the room into which they went until it was flooded with smoke, and to get equipment to reach a building four storeys high were so unavailing, and the efforts of the number of people who congregated in that time had to be scattered over so many different activities, that it is little less than miraculous that so much was achieved.

Mr. Crosbie: On a point of order, are we holding an inquiry now in this House into the fire?

Leas-Chathaoirleach: I think it is undesirable to have any statements affecting matters that will be the subject of inquiry.

Mr. Crosbie: The matter is surely sub judice.

Leas-Chathaoirleach: The whole matter will come before the inquiry.

Mr. Baxter: I do not want to say anything that is not in order. This may not interest Senator Crosbie, but if Senator Crosbie were a member of our small community down there, about whom so much has been said and written that is not true, Senator Crosbie would feel that there were impelling reasons why we should hold this inquiry. Much has been said that is untrue. It has gone out to the public and has not yet been contradicted. I felt, therefore, that there was justification for giving in this House the reasons why we welcome this inquiry. I think I am within my rights in saying that I do know that in such a catastrophe there are lengths to which decent people will not go. The charity of silence is often much more powerful and fairer to afflicted people than any desire for work of a spectacular nature on the part of newspapers however attractive it may be from the point of view of circulation, it is undesirable that, when tragedies come upon the country, people should feel an impelling urge to describe them in the most gruesome form and in a manner that may be very unfair. When the commission starts its investigations, I think that a tale of marvellous heroism will be unfolded, and that those who misunderstand at present, because they have not been given the facts, will then see the facts in their proper light. This will have a restraining influence on people who desire to speak of these things in a manner that should not be encouraged.


Perhaps the House does not desire me to go further than that: at least some Senators obviously are not anxious that I should. I would like the Minister to give some information, of a more explanatory nature than he gave in the Dáil, when he indicated his intention to set up this commission of inquiry, with regard to the personnel of the commission. The Minister indicated that it was not a question of trying to fix blame or responsibility, and I am sure that view would be accepted. We have been thinking about this locally, to find the weaknesses in our defences. If this inquiry is to result in securing our communities against such occurrences in the future, it must fix responsibility somewhere. We must discover the causes of the weaknesses and, probably, we will have to distribute the causes over different authorities and even different persons. Even Government Departments have partial responsibility in this matter and in arranging the personnel the Minister should give consideration to that aspect. Those who are interested in the holding of the inquiry would be happier if the Minister would recognise that it will be impossible for the commission to make a report without finding faults or weaknesses somewhere. It is quite conceivable that responsibility might be fixed with a certain disregard for the actions or efforts of different parties in the past to provide against occurrences like this.


The Minister would be well advised to indicate that the chairman of the commission would be a lawyer, that someone acquainted with fire-fighting would be another member and that an inspector of his own or of some other Department would be included. That third person, I gather, would be from some Department in contact with these institutions in the past, and that would make the commission better balanced and its judgment would be more fair. It would make the people concerned at both ends feel that there would be a judicial approach to the questions which the Minister is putting to the commission. I think it will be revealed that there is nothing to be shirked, nothing which cannot be discussed and that, as the circumstances were, everything that could be done was done. If there were faults, they are faults which are to be found in a great many of our institutions. That aspect is very important in regard to the personnel of the commission, and the Minister would be well advised to take it into account, especially in view of the fact that the Irish public has been given an interpretation of the position which is not true and which has tried sorely the feelings of people who have had a great burden put upon them. It is a peculiar dispensation of Providence that that burden should be put upon those people. Wrongs must be righted and it is important that the commission should watch every aspect of the case to ensure that the examination will be regarded as perfectly impartial and that the ultimate decision will be regarded as a judicial decision.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister I know has no Departmental responsibility but as we are on this question of an inquiry will the Minister say whether an inquiry is to be held into the disaster in Waterford, although I know that is not a matter of local government?


Mr. MacEntee: Of that I have no knowledge. With regard to what Senator Baxter said I should like to say that I have reason to know that this inquiry will be welcomed by all concerned-I mean by those who have been most intimately and tragically associated with it. Perhaps it conveys a wrong impression of my point of view if it is assumed that the commission will not have to fix responsibility. I did say in the other House that I was setting up this commission not so much to find scapegoats as to try to find what were the weaknesses which led to this tragic and regrettable loss of life, and with a view to devising such safeguards as would prevent similar occurrences in the future. I am not able to announce the personnel of the commission to-day. There are certain formalities which have to be gone through between the Minister responsible for the setting up of this tribunal and the Department of Finance which have not yet been completed, and I am not yet at liberty to give precise details. The chairman will be an experienced lawyer. We have secured the consent of a person experienced in fire fighting and in fire prevention to act on the commission and I hope to secure a lady as third member of the commission. She will not be an inspector of the Department of Education but she may be a lady who is attached to another Department. The third member will in any event be a lady. I should say we have had to ask for this tribunal because there is no Department which has special powers of holding what is in the nature of a sworn inquiry at which people can be compelled to produce evidence and papers. I have taken the responsibility of setting up this tribunal because not merely the internal regulations which were supposed to be applicable to these buildings come into the question but also the sufficiency of the fire-fighting appliances in the town, and the measures which were taken to deal with the fire.


I would like to ask the general public and the Seanad to withhold judgment upon these issues until the committee has made its report. I think that when the personnel of the committee is published it will command confidence. Certainly it is my desire that the matter will be fully investigated and that whatever issues from the commission should receive general acceptance. It is particularly my desire that the people in Cavan and those people elsewhere associated with institutions of this kind will realise that it has been a fair and just attempt, not indeed so much to find culprits, nor as I said to make scape goats of people, but to see how these things can occur and, having regard to the fact that there are numerous institutions of this kind throughout the country, to consider whether it is necessary for us considerably to revise the powers which we have for dealing with them, and for ensuring that the precautions which this disaster has shown to be necessary will always be taken. I do not know that there is anything else I can add. I have considered the question of putting a lay person on this commission, that is one who is not associated with any Government service, but my difficulty is that I do not want to everweight it. The industrial inspector, on the one hand, with a knowledge of what is required in industrial undertakings in relation to fire prevention, and the experienced technician on the other hand, will be more or less assessors to guide and direct the chairman of the tribunal in relation to the investigation, and in consultation with him to make the necessary recommendations. It might be very difficult to find a third person who would be as competent to do that as a person who is already familiar with factory and workshop regulations and the manner in which they are generally applied. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that it would be best to put there a person of the type I have mentioned. However, my mind is not closed, and if suggestions are made to me between now and, say, Friday or Saturday, I will consider them. I do not want to overload the tribunal. The custom has been to keep the size of these tribunals as small as possible, down to three persons, indeed sometimes only one person has constituted the tribunal. As a rule when there are technical questions involved there have been two or three. If I can I do not want to exceed that number.

Question put and agreed to.