While World War 2 rampaged throughout Europe and the wider world, closer to home, here in Ireland a complete disaster was unfolding and for two days, the tragic inferno that raged through St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School in Cavan Town, killing 35 children and an elderly care woman, Miss Mary Smith at 80 years of age, employed as Cook, dominated the headlines here at home and further afield. The four or five packed bars in and around the Convent had just closed their doors in the country town of Cavan Town, with the locals chatting and heading home late on the cold and wet night of Tuesday the 23rd. of February 1943. At about the same time as the local pubs were closing, a smouldering fire broke out in the basement laundry of St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School run by the enclosed Order of Nuns, the Poor Clares, where their existence literally consists of a life of work, prayer and penance. Their Convent sits on the Main Street of Cavan Town. Within a few minutes the smouldering fire had turned into a raging inferno, consuming the entire basement, which was now dangerously out of control at this stage. A few of the Nuns up late praying in their overstuffed sitting room, saw and heard the rage of the fire, the Nuns panicked and stampeded for the exits amid total “chaos”, the Holy Nuns reneged on their basic sacred duty to care for these orphan children, in which the Convent made a handsome living from the child slaves running their Laundry.
Scandalously The Nuns did nothing to contain the raging inferno which began late in the night as the fire grew and grew to an inferno engulfing the main laundry buildings. The only thing the Nuns did as the inferno raged was to gather most of the children to the top rooms of the laundry building, gave them a few rosary beads and locked the frightened children alone into the top floor darkened rooms, the electrics were out of action due to the fire. At this stage the overwrought children were hysterical, trapped in a death grip of uncontrollable fear and anxiety as a few knelt weeping to pray. A few ran to the bolted door, but to no avail, A few more of the desperate children went to the sealed windows pulled down the torn curtains in a frenzy, struggling to open or break the windows, with their now bloodied hands, cut from the broken glass they managed to break, hoping to crawl out, but to no avail, there was no place of safety for them, they were to high up almost in the attic of the darkened building. Their piercing cries and pleads could be heard from all over the town.
The wretched children now in total despair, were crying in high-pitched, frenzied way for help, urgently and vociferously calling attention to the top windows at the top of the laundry building. A few of the children started to call out different names of the apathetic Nuns, or the elderly woman who was normally with them, but nothing, a few loud noises of men calling out asking where they were, a few of the men, worse for drink could be heard pleading with a group of obdurate Nuns at the locked front gates, the anxious men could see and hear the overwrought children, but the Nuns ignore the men, finally allowing just two men to enter the convent grounds and the stubborn Nuns directing the two men to fight only the uncontrollable fire in the basement, which within forty minutes the inferno would tightly grip the entire building where the screaming children were locked into. A few of the hysterical children who were not locked into the top rooms could be seen escaping through different windows with screaming, angry Nuns running after them, in a desperate attempt to keep the children locked in the building so the men couldn’t see them in their nightgowns. A bigger crowd of concerned men and women from the various houses near by had now gather at the convent locked gates, offering to help, but still the obstinate Nuns refuse any help. The wailing of a fire engine could now be heard and within minutes the Firefighters were at the locked gates of the Convent, but the cloistered Nuns refused to let them into the Convent grounds to fight the fire.
The angry Firefighters and intransigent Nuns were bickering as the inferno could be seen consuming the entire building, a few of the Nuns knelt to pray out loud amid the screaming and distress calls of the desperately trapped children, which grew louder and louder. A crying Firefighter broke the lock of the Convent gates and the angry Firefighters ran in to set up their equipment, but it was far to late. The inferno was now completely out of control, the tenacious Nuns kneeling were still praying, while the screaming children, in great agony died first from carbon monoxide poisoning secondary to smoke inhalation, the trapped children suffocated to a certain death. The fire savagely consumed their thin bodies as the roof of the laundry building caved in on them. The door of the room were the children were confined to was still locked, when finally the Firefighters found the room, the hung door stood, still locked in its charred frame. The children’s blacked and cremated bodies were all hurled together, under a few burnt out metal beds, pushed together in the far corner of the burnt out room, the hardened Firefighters were sickened at the sight that awaited them and also angry at the indefatigable Nuns still kneeling saying the rosary.
The overweight local Parish Priest come to administer to the kneeling Nuns and offered his concerned that all the good Nuns were safe, the Parish Priest offered no condolence to the 35 cremated children now among the ruins of the burnt out building, the slavery laundry were the children lived and worked, morning, noon and late into the night. The Convent proper were the Nuns lived and prayed, was untouched by the inferno, the Parish Priest offered to say mass in the morning in the Convent chapel for the safety of the Nuns, there was no enquiry about the ungrateful despicable children who the Parish Priest felt and viewed as deserving hatred and contempt, he told the gathered nuns, according to a passing Firefighter who heard the Parish Priest speak, that the black-hearted children must have caused the fire. The heinous Nuns obvious to the screaming children they locked into the room at the top of the convent, hastily returned to their part of the Convent with the Parish Priest in tow for late night tea, and a spot of Irish Whiskey for the very reverend father, also to inspect their treasures, money and their ill gotten gains, rescued from the office of the burning laundry building, while abandoning the now screaming children to their fate, after all the irreligious children were mere vermin, born out of holy wedlock was their collective manna, and the collective manna of the entire Irish Catholic Church.
As is now known, the Nuns didn’t raise the fire alarm, nor used their telephone, instead the fire alarm was raised by horrified townspeople leaving local bars after closing time, who tried in vain to help. At first they could not gain access to the Convent because the Convent was locked up like a high security prison. Some local people forced their way into the Convent but it was to late, they didn’t know where the children were, but all the local people could hear were the frantic screams and cries of the frightened terrified children stemming from the top floor of the laundry building, a few men made there way to the source of the screaming children who were trapped, trapped in the top floor dormitories, but to no avail. The willing men were actively prevented from helping the screaming children by the Nuns gather below. Within forty minutes to an hour the flames had taken hold of the laundry building, the roof had caved in and the laundry building was left just a burnt out shell. Thirty five frightened and screaming children were burned to death that night, plus an elderly lay woman, Miss Mary Smith, all burned to death in the hell that was the Convent and the laundry building. All the Nuns got out safely of the inferno fire at their laundry building within minutes of the fire, once the children were secure in the top floor rooms, the Nuns made their escape to safety with their church treasures and monies. While the local people and brave Firefighters tried to help and gain entrance to the burning laundry building, the Nuns prevented the Firefighters and local people from entering the Convent grounds. The Nuns told the locals and Firefighters that they couldn’t help the now screaming children because they were locked into the top floor rooms and that the Nuns were worried that the local people and Firefighters might see the young girls inside the building in a state of undress, that’s why the Nuns locked the young girls away into the top of the laundry building, so that the locals couldn't see the children in their nightdresses, a Nun at the time said, to one of the Firefighter, that it would be better if God took them now, then you men seeing the semi naked children.
The following day the remains of the thirty five charred bodies of children and an elderly woman, Miss Mary Smith age 80, were recovered from the smouldering ruins. They were put into just eight coffins and dumped subsequently into a mass grave. Because of the public outrages and concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care by the Nuns, a Public Inquiry was set up, the first public inquiry ever set up in Ireland, which was run and greatly influenced by the Powerful Catholic Church who sat in on the Public Inquiry. The whitewash began immediately as the Report’s findings stated that the loss of life occurred due to faulty directions being given, lack of fire-fighting training, and an inadequate rescue and fire-fighting service. It also noted inadequate training of staff in fire safety and evacuation, both at the orphanage and local fire service. There was no criticism of the Holy Nuns, nor the fact that children as you as six were working as slaves in the Convent Laundry for vast profits for the Nuns, nor was there any criticism with the fact the the Nuns, both actively obstructed the locals and fire services and locked the screaming children into the top rooms of the Convent, when in fact the Nuns could have easily led the frightened children to the yard and gardens within the Convent grounds where the Nuns themselves waited, actively blocking any local help from entering the Convent grounds to help the screaming children while the fire raged and consumed the children and the laundry building. There was only one fire exit on the top floor which the Nuns came to and left it deliberately bolted and locked, hence trapping the screaming children to an almost certain death. Many local people said the children could all have been saved, but the cruel Nuns who locked the exits doors claimed that they had no keys, nor they couldn’t find out where the keys were kept. The children could have been easily evacuated safely, but instead the mendacious Nuns brought rosary beads into the room to give to the imprisoned children, asking the frightened children to pray while they the duplicitous Nuns bolted and locked all the escape doors, and they themselves left the burning building after they took monies and account books from the laundry office on the ground floor.
Being an enclosed Order, the Nuns were reportedly reluctant to leave the Convent grounds themselves, which they considered would be a violation of their vows, but the abandoned Children must never leave. Yes the Nuns, themselves all left their Convent, but rejoiced in the knowledge that the 35 frightened and screaming children who were held in human bondage and one elderly woman, Miss Mary Smith, who lived all her natural life, (80 years) in the servitude of the Holy Nuns, were locked away safely by the Holy Nuns in the dark rooms at the top of the building, praying, while an inferno, engulfed the entire laundry building as the treacherous Nuns deliberately obstructed the locals and the local Firefighters from entering.
What was clear at the Official Inquiry proceedings was that, the Irish Catholic Church which was the State at the time, were determined to take no blame. In fact what became clear during the Official Inquiry was that the slave children lived as prisoners in the Convent. A picture of what happened that night in 1943 emerged from local newspaper archives, interviews with the locals, and transcripts of evidence given to the Official Inquiry. Terrified children were ordered into and trapped in smoke-filled dormitories, endless references to finding keys to open locked doors and terrible confusion in the dark. And there was the great bravery of townspeople in their frustrated attempts to find and rescue the children, and all the time the open hostile obstruction of the Nuns. The fickle Nuns it would appear were immune to the suffering and screaming children that were burning, the despairing children were detained though not for any crime, but because they were born of unwed mothers.
The unscrupulous Nuns couldn’t even be bothered to attend the Official Inquiry but instead were allowed give their evidence from the comfort of the Convent, and hired senior Barristers at huge cost to represent them.The exploitative Nuns themselves in whose care the children were placed were virtually unquestioned and treated with holiness deference. At the Official Inquiry the surviving Children were treated as young ruthless criminals, never to be rehabilitated. The 35 children who were burned to death were posthumously slandered as the real culprits who some suggested had caused the fire in the first place. The surviving Children, whose words couldn’t be accepted against the words of the holy Nuns, were verbally beaten and easily confused and intimidated by unscrupulous shysters, passing off as Barristers at the Official Inquiry.
The callous, relentless cross-questioning of the child survivors was seen as repellent. Those children who were rescued through windows were asked to describe the last minutes of other children's lives, an attempt to pin responsibility on the rescued themselves. The only interests not protected at the inquiry were those of the screaming children who were viewed as spawns of the devil by the shameless Nuns, deserving to die. All the children survivors of the inferno at the Convent told stories of casual brutality, by the brutal Nuns, even towards the youngest children, and of semi-starvation and slave work conditions at the Convent’s Laundry.
The permanently hungry children were fighting over the contents of the waste peel bucket and the scrapings of the Nuns' generously-covered food table. There has never been a financial audit of any of the Orders' Accounts, all the money the Nuns rescued during the inferno they hid away among themselves. The Criminal Nuns at the Cavan Convent operated unchallenged, flouting the law and ignoring the protective regulations of the 1908 Children's Act that governed the Industrial Schools. There was unregulated punishments melting out daily to the slave children by the Nuns. There was a growing public voice of criticism and a number of people like Owen Sheehy-Skeffington and Noel Browne spoke out about the whole system of imprisonment of children in what were, essentially, slave-labour camps run unopposed by the powerful Irish Catholic Church. It took another 50 years before the Industrial Schools finally closed, and still the deaths of thousand of other children which could have been preventable, but were allowed to continued, unashamedly, by the powerful Irish Catholic Church. Owen Felix O’Neill
The Children who Died were: 8 of the Girls were Sisters, and there was one pair of Girls, Twins.
1. Mary Harrison -15 years of age from Dublin
2. Mary Hughes - 15 years of age from Killeshandra
3. Ellen McHugh -15 years of age from Blacklion
4. Kathleen Kiely - 12 of age from Virginia (Sister)
5. Frances Kiely - 9 years of age from Virginia. (Sister)
6. Mary Lynch - 15 years of age from Cavan (Sister)
7. Margaret Lynch - 10 years of age from Cavan (Sister)
8. Josephine Cassidy - 15 years of age from Belfast(Sister)
9. Mona Cassidy - 11 years of age from Belfast (Sister)
10. Kathleen Reilly – 14 years of age from Butlersbridge
11. Mary Carroll – 12 yrs years of age from Castlerahan (Sister)
12. Josephine Carroll – 10 years of age from Castlerahan (Sister)
13. Mary McKiernan - 16 years of age from Dromard (Sister)
14. Susan McKiernan - 14 years of age from Dromard (Sister)
15. Rose Wright – 11 years of age from Ballyjamesduff
16. Mary Barrett - 12 years of age – from Dublin-(Twins)
17. Nora Barrett - 12 years of age – from Dublin-(Twins)
18. Mary Kelly - 10 years of age from Ballinagh
19. Mary Brady – 7 years of age from Ballinagh
20. Dorothy Daly – 7 years of age from Cootehill
21. Mary Ivers – 12 years of age from Kilcoole Wicklow
22. Philomena Regan – 9 years of age from Dublin
23. Harriet Payne - 11 years of age from Dublin (Sister)
24. Ellen Payne - 8 years of age from Dublin (Sister)
25. Teresa White – 6 years of age from Dublin
26. Mary Roche - 6 years of age from Dublin
27. Ellen Morgan – 10 years of age from Virginia
28. Elizabeth Heaphy - 4 years of age from Swords
29. Mary O'Hara – 7 years of age from Kilnaleck
30. Bernadette Serridge - 5 years of age from Dublin
31. Katherine Chambers-9 years of age from Enniskillen (Sister)
32. Margaret Chambers - 7 years of age from Enniskillen(Sister)
33. Mary Lowry – 17 years of age from Drumcrow, Cavan
34. Bridget Galligan -17 years of age Drumcassidy, Cavan(Sister)
35. Mary Galligan -18 years of age Drumcassidy, Cavan (Sister)
36. Mary Smith 80 years of age employed as Cook
Postscript;- In the days that followed messages of sympathy flooded in to Cavan Town, though they were seldom addressed directly to the families of the deceased or the survivors. They were directed instead to the Abbess of the Poor Clare’s Convent, none of whom had perished, and stranger still they were sent to the Catholic Bishop of Kilmore, Dr Patrick Lyons. In the requiem mass the bishop spoke of the “… terrible ordeal it has been for the good Nuns to have the fierce glare of publicity turned on their quiet sheltered lives.” Nothing was said about the children who died, huge sums of money at the time were raised for the Nuns and the Bishop, all the money was spent on improving the convent which was not touched by fire, the families of the dead Girls received NOTHING…
Owen Felix O'Neill
Author of Child Laundering Secrets, 2017