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RTÉ One, Monday, 7.30pm
Scannal

Scannal! The Cavan Fire

36 Die in Cavan Orphanage Fire
In the early hours of a February morning in 1943 fire broke out in the basement laundry of St. Joseph's Orphanage & Industrial School run by the enclosed order of Poor Clare nuns in Main St., Cavan town. The fire very quickly turned into an inferno. The alarm was raised by horrified townspeople who tried to help. At first they could not gain access to the convent and when they were admitted it was almost too late too reach the terrified, screaming children, trapped in the top floor dormitories. A hugely inadequate fire service meant that within forty minutes the flames had taken hold, the roof had caved in and the building was left just a shell. Thirty five children and an elderly lay woman burned to death. The following day the remains of the thirty six bodies were recovered from the smoldering ruin. They were put in just eight coffins and buried subsequently in a mass grave.

The horrific tragedy became national front page news and controversy about locked fire exits and why the children were not evacuated in good time gave the impetus for a public Tribunal of Inquiry. But the results of the Inquiry raised almost more questions than it answered. The inquiry was viewed as a whitewash by some as there was no attempt to hold anyone directly responsible.

"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."

Dogerel penned by
Brian Ó Nualáin (aka Myles na gCopaleen)
Secretary to the Tribunal of Inquiry.

While the Tribunal of Inquiry did make some reccomendations 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 almost 40 years later. Some argue that the true story of what really happened that night and why so many children were burned to death was not uncovered.

"Duradh liom agus creidim an té a dúirt liom é. Gur ceann de na fathanna nár tugadh na páistí amach ón áit ná nach raibh na mna rialta ag iarraidh go mbeidh siad feicithe agus feisteas oíche orthu." Mícheál Holmes - Craoltóir

("One of the reasons given why the children were not evacuated in time was that the nuns did not want the girls to be seen in their night clothes")

However one thing is certain, for those who were involved in the fire the nightmare still lives on

"It's a miracle I was alive after that ... when they put a ladder up it wouldn't reach. I kept looking around and I thought - I'm going to die here. The flames were coming nearer and nearer. I could hear glass cracking, cracking - I thought I'm going to die..."
Sarah - Survivor of the fire

Sarah (not her real name) was one of the last girls to be rescued that night from the burning building; it's a trauma which has haunted her life. The memories are as vivid 63 years on as she tells her story for the first time publicly but the stigma felt by inmates of such institutions then, for her, has not diminished either.

"Sure no-one would imagine that that would happen.... my two sisters - yes they went into meet their deaths...that's all I can think about."
Matt McKiernan - Brother of Mary & Susan McKiernan who perished in the fire.

Cavan man, Matt McKiernan still feels the acute pain of the loss of his two sisters who perished in the fire. They had been placed in the Industrial school only 6 months earlier after the death of their mother because the local Roman Catholic priest felt it was not appropriate that young girls be looked after by a protestant neighbour or even their own father.

Scannal talks to some of the people who risked their own lives to try to save the children and who had the unenviable task of recovering the bodies afterwards.

"I think I'd like to forget it because it was one of the saddest days I ever remember in my life... something like 9/11 it was dreadful..." John McKiernan - Rescuer

This week Scannal examines the events of that night and the scandal of how 35 young girls & one old woman were burned to death because of a deadly combination of incompetence and arrogant narrow mindedness, officially swept neatly under the carpet of a smug era where children and especially those kind of children really did not count.

Those who lost their lives in the fire

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

National Counselling Service for Adults who have Experienced Childhood Abuse
The HSE provides a National Counselling Service for Adults who have experienced abuse in childhood.
This is a free, confidential counselling service available nationwide.

If you wish to speak to a counsellor tonight you can call our helpline on:

Republic of Ireland: 1800 234 111

Northern Ireland & UK: 0800 235 235 55

Lines are open now until 10.00pm tonight and during regular office hours Monday - Friday

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