The fight to be remembered: the Cavan orphanage fire

By Sean Cuttle

Image: Creative Commons license

“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.”

This is a limerick, by Flann O’Brien and Tom O’Higgins, written about the conclusion of the public inquiry investigating a fire in St Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan in which, on the 24th of February 1943, 35 children and one adult lost their lives.

In the early hours of the morning the young girls in the Sacred Heart dormitory on the second floor of the orphanage were awakened by the smell of smoke. They quickly went to wake Miss O’Reilly, one of the lay-teachers in charge of the dormitory’s at night, who, not understanding the seriousness of the situation, ushered the girls back to their beds.

Thirty-six girls and one adult lay-worker would perish in the fire. Due to the intensity of the flames, only one of the girls, Mary Lowery, could be formally identified by a small necklace she wore. The remains of the 36 girls were placed into eight coffins and buried together in the local Cullies cemetery.

For years, an alternative story has been circulating around Cavan town with some locals calling the public inquiry a whitewash. Some of the surviving girls alleged that the nuns had prevented their evacuation as they did not want the girls to be seen on the street in their nightdresses.

A row of shops and apartments now stand on the site of the tragedy. However, no permanent memorial was ever constructed. A group of Cavan locals have been campaigning over the last number of years for Cavan County Council to erect a permanent memorial to the victims of the fire.

Cavan local, Seán Galligan, first got involved in the campaign after learning about the history of the orphanage. During Pope Francis’s visit to Dublin in 2018, in solidarity with protests happening in Dublin and around the country, Seán and other locals tied baby shoes, white ribbons and locks to the gate of the orphanage site – one for every victim. They were removed a number of weeks later — it is not known by whom.

A wooden plaque was left anonymously outside the shop of one of the local campaigners. It was erected on the orphanage site for a short time but, according to Seán, it was ironically destroyed accidentally by fire. Since then the campaign has continued for a permanent memorial made from marble or stone.

Lorraine Keeven, Cavan local and freelance photographer, started a petition which amassed many signatures from locals around the town. The petition was passed onto the local county council where it has sat ever since.

The campaigners have found it difficult to discover the status of the memorial project. They have received no contact from the county council. According to Seán, “people are questioning if any progress had been made”.

Not all the people living in the local area are supportive of the campaign. Seán and the campaigners have come across some reluctance from both, other Cavan locals and members of the clergy in the surrounding diocese. Some of the local priests refused to assist in the memorial campaign or to advertise for a memorial event held last year. 

“One young priest made a massive effort to support the campaign,” Seán said, “there were others that had a different attitude to it… they wouldn’t promote it at all and I think that said a lot.”

The diocese of Kilmore, which owns the orphanage site, and Cavan County Council, did not respond for comment when contacted.

The fight to remember the victims of the Cavan Orphanage fire continues. Led by a small group of locals who refuse to let the past be forgotten. It is still unknown when, or even if, they will achieve their goal – A permanent memorial commemorating the young girls who lost their lives over 75 years ago.

Leave a Reply