Children of the Poor Clares by Mavis Arnold and Heather Laskey

The original 1985 edition of Children of the Poor Clares was the first book to expose the reality of the treatment of children placed in church care in Ireland’s post-independence horrendous industrial school system. Giving an intimate picture, covering over four decades, of life in one of these institutions, it documented the gross physical and emotional abuse, neglect, malnourishment, exploitation, lack of proper education, deprivation, and humiliation that scarred the children for life. It further identified the collusion of the state and its own lawbreaking that enabled the abuse in its vast apparatus of incarceration of impoverished children. This revised updated edition gives chilling details of revelations that have since become public and of the state’s ultimate responsibility for what took place.

Children of the Poor Clares

On Tuesday 23 February 1943 a fire broke out in a County Cavan orphanage ran by the enclosed order of Poor Clare nuns killing thirty-five children and an adult. The horrific tragedy was widely covered by Irish newspapers and an inquiry was launched into how such a terrible thing could have happened. 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. Many local people felt however that the inquiry was a cover up, that more lives would have been saved if the first reaction of the nuns hadn’t been to avoid themselves or the girls being seen in their nightclothes.

The tragedy led to questions as to how an enclosed order of nuns came to run an orphanage in the first place when few of them had experience of childcare and were more concerned with the discipline of the religious life. Here are the stories of the children who once lived in St Joseph’s orphanage.

Paddy Doyle over at Godsquad has a post about this book. There is also a lively discussion.

I placed a comment at Paddy’s. It vanished. So here it is again.

“People now say that everyone knew about it. Yet at the time no one spoke out.”

Yes, the valley of the squinting windows prevailed. People were afraid, because the church was basically a shadow government with so much power.

I know the area from having lived all but fourteen miles away in Ballyjamesduff. I used to frequent Cavan Town most saturdays. I accidentally came across the book in a second-hand shop nearby the industrial *school*. I spent five years in Cavan in the mid-to late eighties, and never heard anything about the most tragic fire. I was gutted upon reading the book to find out what happened to the children.

I found it so painful not alone for the devastating events therein, but also because of the secrecy of my own industrial *school* background.

 I did a post about it here very recently.

 Memorial to burned orphans mooted for Cavan town

Profile by Sean McMahon  Updated: Wednesday, 3rd March, 2010 5:00pm


Eamon Carthy and Joanne Geraghty from New Beginnings with Sean Galligan, Kilnaleck, at the old convent on Main Street. They are among those campaigning for a momument to the fire victims. Photo: Adrian Donohoe

When scores of locals and visitors to Cavan town last week observed the list of 35 orphans’ names and that of an elderly cook who perished in the St. Joseph’s Industrial School fire, pinned to the gate of the old convent, they were amazed that 67 years later, still no permanent memorial had been put in place to remember those who perished.

The Anglo-Celt spoke to two men this week who are mooting the idea that a fitting memorial, preferably bearing the names of all those who lost their lives in that most horrific and terrifying manner, should be put in place.

They would like people to come forward with ideas as to where the commemorative plaque should be located.

Sean Galligan from Kilnaleck told The Anglo-Celt that the memorial pieces should ideally be in a place where people can access it easily. It could be placed on the convent site or in close proximity to the chapel or maybe set into the building facade, which fronts onto Main Street.

“We will have to consult with lots of people about the location, but he would like to preferably see it put in position as near as possible to the site of the fire,” said Sean Galligan.

Mr. Galligan said he took a definite interest in the when he saw an article on the internet about the issue. He then purchased the book, ‘Children of the Poor Clares’, and he was horrified when he read that book, which recalled the fire but also the alleged treatment of orphans (all girls) at the school. The Sisters of the Poor Clares were the only enclosed order in the country to run an industrial school.

“I was surprised that there was no memorial place and I got the idea that a lot of people would be interested in addressing the issue. This year I established a Facebook page on the subject and, to date, over 400 people have joined that group,” he said.

He pointed out that ten of the victims of the fire actually came from Dublin: “So we would like to see some Dublin involvement in this as well.”

Thirty five young girls and one elderly lady lost their lives in that fire and they are buried in a communal plot in Cullies graveyard. “We intend to get more people involved and then hold a public meeting on the issue and take it from there,” he said.

Reports from the time reveal that 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. The tribunal of inquiry that followed threw up other questions over fire drill practice, locked doors and also the condition of the local authority’s fire fighting equipment. It concluded that the fire was, more probably caused, by an electrical fault in a defective flue in the laundry room.

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,” said a 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 67 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.

Eamon Carthy who runs the ‘New Beginnings Shop’ in the entry to the old St Clare’s building, called Convent Court, said it would be very fitting that the people of Cavan and people directly involved should have a say in the type of memorial that should be put in place.

“A lady from London was walking down the street last week and spotted the flowers and the names on the gate and came into my shop. She revealed that she could well be related to two of the girls that died in the fire. It was her first time in Cavan and could not understand that there was no memorial in place,” said Mr. Carthy.

It is his view that the memorial bearing the names should be put out at the front of the building, where people would see it when walking past.

He proposed that a meeting be held and a committee formed to put a plan into action and fundraising can then be initiated.

There is a suggestion book in the shop and anyone going in there can write down their ideas.

Anyone with ideas or wanting to join a committee to progress this initiative can telephone Sean Galligan at 087-4169102.

Cavan Fire Inquiry—Motion. – Dáil Debates

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