36 Die in Cavan Industrial *School* Fire

Those who lost their lives in the fire

  • Mary Harrison (15 yrs Dublin)
  • Mary Hughes (15 yrs Killeshandra)
  • Ellen McHugh (15 yrs Blacklion)
  • Kathleen & Frances Kiely (12 yrs & 9 yrs Virginia)
  • Mary & Margaret Lynch (15 yrs & 10 yrs Cavan)
  • Josephine & Mona Cassidy (15 yrs & 11 yrs Belfast)
  • Kathleen Reilly (14 yrs Butlersbridge)
  • Mary & Josphine Carroll (12yrs & 10 yrs Castlerahan)
  • Mary & Susan McKiernan (16 yrs & 14 yrs Dromard, Belturbet,Cavan)
  • Rose Wright (11 yrs Ballyjamesduff)

Those who lost their lives in the fire

  •  Mary & Nora Barrett (12 yrs -Twins – Dublin)
  • Mary Kelly (10 yrs Ballinagh)
  • Mary Brady (7 yrs Ballinagh)
  • Dorothy Daly (7 yrs Cootehill)
  • Mary Ivers (12 yrs Kilcoole Wicklow )
  • Philomena Regan (9 yrs Dublin)
  • Harriet & Ellen Payne (11 yrs & 8yrs Dublin)
  • Teresa White (6 yrs Dublin)
  • Mary Roche (6 yrs Dublin)
  • Ellen Morgan (10 yrs Virginia)


Those who lost their lives in the fire

  • Mary Roche (6 yrs Dublin)
  • Ellen Morgan (10 yrs Virginia)
  • Elizabeth Heaphy (4 yrs Swords)
  • Mary O’Hara (7 yrs Kilnaleck)
  • Bernadette Serridge (5 yrs Dublin)
  • Katherine & Margaret Chambers (9 & 7 yrs Derrylin,Fermanagh)
  • Mary Lowry (17 yrs Drumcrow, Cavan)
  • Bridget & Mary Galligan (17 & 18yrs Drumbrath,Kilnaleck, Cavan)
  • Mary Smith (80 yrs employed as Cook)

 “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.

“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.

St. Clare’s Church is situated right in the centre of Cavan town, just off the main street. Given the close connection between St. Francis and St. Clare it seems appropriate that the church built closest to the medieval Franciscan Friary of Cavan should be St. Clare’s Chapel.

The Poor Clare Order was founded in Asissi in 1212 and they had a convent in Newry. It was a contemplative order though some of the sisters were involved in teaching and caring for the destitute.
In 1861, at the invitation of Bishop James Browne, they moved to Cavan and set up a convent there. On 2 July 1881 the foundation stone for St. Clare’s Chapel was laid by Bishop Nicholas Conaty.

 There was an orphanage attached to the convent and the nave of the chapel, which is quite large, was designed to make place for the orphans and for the locals who wished to attend Mass there.
Tragically on 23 February 1943 thirty-five children and a woman carer died in a fire at the orphanage.
St. Clare’s Chapel, though almost hidden from view, is a fine gothic-style buiding with cut-stone walls and stained-glass windows.
In 1981 the Poor Clare Community sold the convent and the chapel was given to the diocese of Kilmore. Mass is celebrated there daily and Eucharistic Adoration takes place from 11am to midnight every day.

The convent, which was first founded in 1861, was run by the Poor Clares Order. They were (and still are) an enclosed order which never ventured outside the confinement of the convent/monastery itself, confining themselves to a life of

“Consecrated and virginal Chastity, bridal love, is embraced in Poverty and lived in Obedience, directed towards Christ”;


Today, there are currently 7 such monasteries/convents in operation,

Read more here by Glangevlin Admin

“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

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.

36 bodies were recovered from the building.

The full story by the McKiernan brothers, compiled and presented by Ciaran Cassidy (a native of Cavan town), for RTE Radio One (2006) is an excellent documentary.  It can be downloaded from here:


 Much of the historical information above has been referenced from the book

Children of the Poor Clares’ (Paperback) by Mavis Arnold & Heather Laskey – ISBN 0862819172 , Appletree Press Ltd (1985)

I bought the book in a second-hand shop in Cavan town in the late eighties and gave it out on loan to a woman in Cross-Keys. I’m sorry not to have pushed to get it back. I read it very quietly in my bed-sit, as nobody knew about my incarceration in an industrial ‘school’. It was purely accidental coming across it, as it was never discussed by anyone in the whole five years that I’d spent in the county. I was stunned by its contents. I encountered some relatives of the fire at Aislinn Centre, for survivors of industrial schools some years ago. They were very perturbed when I’d approached the subject, when they told me that they came from Cavan. I never meant to hurt them at all. They reacted very badly saying that they were not there to discuss their personal business. Bernadette Fahy called them into the office and told them that Mary and myself were from Goldenbridge and really only meant to empathise with them – when they said that thy came from Cavan. I thought that was very understanding of the counsellor to intervene on our behalf.

I encountered Mavis Arnold some years ago. She talked about the book to me. She seemed to be very angry with a lot of things that were said at the time of the fire in 1943. However, I was in another place in my head when we were talking and never took too much of the chat on board. It’s such a pity as I would be able to talk about it in more detail. To think that I’d passed by the actual building on my sojourn every Saturday into Cavan town and had associated with the Sisters of St. Clare, who treated me always with the height of respect and I knew absolutely nothing about it until I discovered the book, in a shop just up the road from the convent, industrial school. It beggars belief. Frolics in Ballyjamesduff would never dream of doing a sketch about the tragedy as the town is stepped in St. Clare’s nuns history. It’s such a pity as this story should not be allowed to fade from the consciousness of the Cavan people and the Irish as a nation. We hid too much in the cupboards for far too long.

“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.”

The remains of the 35 girls were so badly destroyed that they were buried in 8 coffins, in an unmarked grave until recent times. There is now a memorial in place to mark their resting place.

Convent Front as it presently stands.

H/t Wiki images, ConorMcCool videos and An Scannal for running commentary.


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