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Behind the Scenes: St. Joseph’s Orphanage Fire

On the night of February 23rd 1943, 35 girls and one adult died in a terrible fire at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Main Street, Cavan.  Nearly 80 years on the documents held by the National Archives relating to this cataclysmic fire brings the chaos and tragedy of that night vividly to life.

The transcripts (ref. ENV/INQ/1/1/3/10) of the proceedings from the inquiry on the fire, held in April that same year, detail the circumstances and actions taken in response to the fire and the overall impression is how hard local residents tried to help, but ultimately how inefficient the response was in every respect.

St Joseph’s Orphanage was first established as an Industrial school in 1869 by the Sisters of the Poor Clares, an enclosed and contemplative order, a year after the first Industrial School Act.  The institution expanded over the years to incorporate a National School in addition to the convent.

The fire broke out in the portion of the convent premises devoted to the Industrial school. Specifically a block of buildings including the laundry, kitchen and refectory on the ground floor, class room number one and Our Lady’s Dormitory on the first floor, and St Clare’s and the Sacred Heart Dormitories on the second floor. It was established that smoke from an electrical fault had been smouldering in the laundry undetected for a few hours until finally around 2am the fire took rapid hold and decimated the building and the many lives within it.  The transcripts convey the confusing and conflicting accounts of what occurred on that night with lengthy questioning on the first identification of smoke to the first view of flames. The sense is that the first view of smoke was not taken as seriously as it should have been.

The inquiry recorded that 35 children in all were trapped in St. Clare’s Dormitory “they might have been trapped by their own disinclination to go a particular way or fail to go a particular way. But they were trapped along with some children from the Sacred Heart Dormitory who went into St Clare’s, the smoke, perhaps, not being so severe there…Nine escaped, some two or three by jumping from the windows of St. Clare’s Dormitory into Sullivans’ yard, and the others by being rescued by civilians and the Guards who were in Sullivans’ yard with ladders”.

The inquiry papers report attempts to put out the fire at the request of the Sisters before action to evacuate, on ladders breaking and ladders being too short to reach children screaming at windows, the arrival of the fire service 40 minutes after the raising of the alarm and arriving with inadequate equipment.  The inquiry noted that the lack of sufficient equipment was not the fault of Cavan District Urban Council despite previous requests for a pump, the pumps were made in England and due to the on-going war it had not been possible to obtain one.  The inquiry concluded that despite this combination of inept action no-one was to blame for the loss of life.   Subsequent accounts outwith the official report allege that the Sisters sent the girls to get fully dressed before they evacuated, although this is not mentioned explicitly in these records witnesses were questioned on the state of dress of the children.  There were 72 girls in the Industrial school and 35 of them died along with porteress Margaret Smith.

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