OPINION: A gruesome horror almost impossible to comprehend

March 27th, 2017 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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Thirty-five children left to burn to death in a locked 

orphanage dormitory by nun who fled scene of fire 

AGAINST the background of ferocious criticism recently directed at religious orders on account of the Tuam and Bessborough scandals, it is worth noting that tucked away in the archives is an incident of pure, gruesome horror – something that is almost impossible to comprehend.

And, although the event happened in 1943 in the border town of Cavan, the reverberations continue to be felt: such a hammering did the relationship between Church and State receive at the time.

In the early hours of February 24th of that year, a fire broke out in an orphanage run by the Poor Clare nuns. Eighty-five girls, ranging from three years of age to 15 years, lived in the building and within forty minutes of the fire taking hold, 35 children, as well as an 80-year old lady who worked in the kitchen, were immolated in the inferno.

Ireland was profoundly shocked, particularly as news broke that the 35 youngsters had been locked in a top storey dormitory while their guardians fled the building. The ghastliness was accentuated with the revelation that not one of the religious had a lock of hair singed. They all escaped injury. 

As for the 35 kids who had been burnt to a cinder, their remains were so unrecognisable that they were stuffed into eight coffins and buried in an unmarked grave. The fire in Cavan shook the country to such an extent that even then Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera, a sanctimonious religious hypocrite who was reluctant to make any criticism of the Catholic Church, felt obliged to establish a public inquiry.


Tribunal of Inquiry

The 11-day Tribunal of Inquiry took place against a background of huge public outrage. But the outcome was predictable: no one was held responsible for the deaths.

The Inquiry was perceived as nothing but a sleveen cover-up, a sham that facilitated the Poor Clare Order to get off the hook and to assuage the collective conscience of priests who had entrusted the care of young children to an enclosed, contemplative Order with no experience of minding children, and which confined itself to a life of ‘consecrated and virginal chastity embraced in poverty and lived in obedience.’

Shocking too was the assertion from a witness that the Poor Clares refused to evacuate the children because they did not want them to be seen in an immodest state of dress (their night clothes) on the public street!

The Inquiry disgusted people, locally and nationally, and in Cavan it continues to do so. For instance, after 70 years a memorial plaque was erected inside the convent gates on Main Street, Cavan and a representative of the Poor Clare Order appealed for an end to ‘the blame game.’   

She sought a respectful commemoration of the memory of those girls who died in the fire: ‘We are also remembering those who survived, and we will certainly be remembering the families of those who died because they suffered a great deal too. They can’t be forgotten,’ she said.


Whitewash report

The government’s whitewash report attributed the loss of life to incorrect directions that were given to rescuers, lack of familiarity by rescuers with the layout of the building, and a fire-fighting service that had no ladders to reach the upper windows, a badly functioning pump and a faulty hosepipe to extinguish the blaze.

Although the full truth never came out, Cavan people believed then and continue to believe now that all the children could have been saved if they had been brought down in the first 15 minutes. But the nuns did not give local rescuers immediate access to the building nor did they lead them to the top floor dormitory where the children had been gathered. In contrast, a Miss Harrington, who was in charge of a dormitory in the middle of the building, got all her charges out safely.

It was the decision taken by a nun responsible for the top floor that led to so many deaths. Instead of immediately leading the girls from the building, or seeking the assistance of rescuers, she moved them from room to room to avoid the smoke; and, although there was a fire exit on the top floor, she left it bolted. Then, as the roof caught fire, she ran for her life, leaving the children locked in the dormitory.

It was hard for people to understand why the nuns, who gave their evidence to the Inquiry from within the convent, did not do more to save the children rather than trying to convince rescuers that the priority was to
extinguish the source of the fire.

De Valera’s investigation into the catastrophe was clear-cut and to the point. It recommended that fire-escape regulations should be amended in industrial schools, while concluding that an electrical fault was responsible for the Cavan fire.


Comic verse

Interestingly, the secretary to the Inquiry was civil servant Brian O’Nolan who, as author Flann O’Brien, later became known for his satires on Church and State –although nobody paid much attention to him until he was safely dead. One of the counsel representing the ESB was Tom O’Higgins, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and failed Fine Gael presidential candidate on two occasions – nobody paid much attention to him either.  

During a drunken encounter, the two buckos scribbled a bit of comic verse as a synopsis of the terrible occurrence.  It goes like this:

‘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.’

And that was it! A tacit recognition that those responsible for the callous treatment of children in the Cavan orphanage would never be brought to account and that, except for a cynical rhyme, there would be no other acknowledgement of what actually took place.


In the doghouse

Hilarious antics at a recent meeting of Cork County Council when Cllr ‘Frick’ Murphy tabled a proposal requesting the council to provide a vacant property for a Men’s Shed project – a collaborative enterprise where men could meet in a blokey environment and work out their problems. 

Some groups repair steam engines, others do fretwork; things like that to keep them sane, away from the missus and out of the pub.

But it was the amendment from a female councillor that put the cat among the pigeons; she wanted the ‘wimmin’ also to benefit from the amenity.  To which Cllr ‘Frick’ retorted that, if his proposal were to be altered, councillors might as well label Men’s Sheds as Hens’ Sheds!

The inevitable argy-bargy ensued during which a tired official, who shall be nameless, turned to a colleague and asked: ‘Why do husbands die before their wives?’  

On receiving a blank look, the official laconically said: ‘Because they want to!’

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