Irish Orphan School Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Industrial School in Cavan, Ireland, was a home for orphaned girls and was run by Roman Catholic nuns. One night, a fire ignited in the basement laundry room. The blaze engulfed the school and the dormitories, where the girls slept. While the fire spread, the nuns reportedly encouraged the local people to help put out the fire rather than evacuate the children. As a result, thirty-five girls and one elderly woman were killed. An inquiry followed and the nuns were officially absolved of any wrongdoing; however, concerns and speculations about their actions remained.

Summary of Event

Located in Cavan, Ireland, sixty-three miles northwest of Dublin, St Joseph’s Orphanage and Industrial School was considered to be one of the best industrial schools in the country. Children could be committed to industrial schools if they were orphaned, destitute, or in need of care and protection. Originally, industrial schools admitted children between the ages of six and sixteen, and St. Joseph’s began accepting babies during the late 1930’s. Under the terms of the Education Acts at the time, girls were supposed to stay in school until they were fourteen years of age. Many of the older girls were retained by the nuns at St. Joseph’s to clean, wash, cook, and embroider at the convent. The orphanage, school, and convent were run by an enclosed order of Poor Clare nuns. Most industrial schools at the time were run by religious orders, but it was unusual that one would be run by a closed order. [kw]Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls, Irish Orphan School (Feb. 23, 1943) O’Reilly, Bridget Harrington, Margaret Orphans;Irish school fire Ireland;orphan school fire O’Reilly, Bridget Harrington, Margaret Orphans;Irish school fire Ireland;orphan school fire [g]Europe;Feb. 23, 1943: Irish Orphan School Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls[00720] [g]Ireland;Feb. 23, 1943: Irish Orphan School Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls[00720] [c]Education;Feb. 23, 1943: Irish Orphan School Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls[00720] [c]Families and children;Feb. 23, 1943: Irish Orphan School Fire Kills Thirty-five Girls[00720] McEntee, Sean

On the night of February 23, 1943, a fire started in the basement laundry room of the orphanage. The blaze spread quickly from the laundry room to the refectory and classrooms. Alerted by the smoke, the nearby townspeople rushed to St. Joseph’s to render aid. The first responders were asked to concentrate their efforts on containing what they thought was the source of the fire, and they were provided with fire extinguishers brought from the refectory by the nuns. Most of the children were still in the dormitories and the flames moved rapidly through the building. The children in Our Lady’s dormitory, on the first floor and under the care of nun Margaret Harrington, were able to flee the building, but the girls in St. Clare’s dormitory, on the second floor and under the care of nun Bridget O’Reilly, were trapped. Many rescuers attempted to reach the children, but the wooden staircase inside the building was engulfed in flames. Moreover, a thick blanket of smoke made rescue efforts from inside the building impossible.

Outside, the residents of Cavan battled the fire. Newspaper articles reported that women kneeled in the streets and prayed while men attempted to rescue the children. Shortly after the fire began, members of the town’s fire brigade arrived with a handcart and hose. The apparatus, however, was leaking so badly that there was little water pressure and the hose was useless. Meanwhile, others ventured into the town to find ladders that were long enough to reach the second floor dormitory. The ladders that were returned were in disrepair and either fell apart or did not extend far enough to reach the windows. The girls in St. Clare’s were encouraged to jump from the dormitory window. A few jumped but suffered terrible injuries. An additional three girls were able to jump into the outstretched arms of a rescuer. These were the last girls to escape the fire. At 2:40 a.m., approximately forty minutes after the fire began, the flames completely consumed St. Clare’s dormitory and the remaining children.

In the morning, the remains of the thirty-five girls and the elderly cook, Margaret Smith, were recovered and placed into eight coffins. The horrific event was covered widely by local Irish newspapers and even reached New York Times The New York Times. The aftermath provoked many questions about how such a tragedy could have happened. Many criticized the inadequacy of the firefighting equipment as well as the response of the nuns on the night of the fire. A tribunal of inquiry, called for by local government minister Sean McEntee, was established a week after the disaster. The tribunal investigated the cause of the fire and the circumstances that resulted in such an immense loss of life. The hearings lasted eleven days. Testimony came from sixty-four witnesses, including the first responders, members of the fire brigade, the nuns and employees of St. Joseph’s, and the surviving children.

After the hearing, the tribunal published a report that asserted that the fire was possibly caused by a defective flue in the laundry. The consequent loss of life was the result of panic and fright, which impaired decision making and appropriate directions from the nuns. The report also found fault with the lack of leadership at the time of the crisis, the rescuer’s lack of knowledge of the layout of the building, and poorly trained firefighters.

Because St. Joseph’s was a certified industrial school, many of the girls had been admitted through the courts by the Department of Education. The department’s duty was to ensure that regulations were implemented and enforced. One regulation concerned fire drills. Fire drills were required to take place once every three months and alternate between daytime drills and nighttime drills. Although the inspector of industrial and reformatory schools testified that she had been satisfied that all of the compulsory requirements, including fire drills, were being carried out at St. Joseph’s, there were questions concerning why the fire drill operations were not carried out on the night of the fire. Additionally—although not required by state institutions at the time—St. Joseph’s had a fire escape; however, it saved the lives of only two girls. Speculation centered on why the children were not able to use the escape. One theory was that the fire doors leading to the fire escape were locked.


In the end, the inquiry absolved the nuns, including O’Reilly, of any fault or misconduct on the night of the fire. It is believed that the pious and respectful attitude of the time influenced the investigation. Decades later, however, this finding was met with contention, and many local people believe that the inquiry was a cover-up for incompetence and even prudishness.

A number of facts remain to challenge the inquiry’s conclusions. First, many people believe that, were proper steps taken by the nuns as the fire broke out, all of the children could have been saved that night because of the swift rescue response by the local townspeople. Rescue attempts were hindered by a lack of equipment. Second, some claim that many of the doors in the building had been locked at the time of the fire and that finding the keys to open each door consumed too much valuable time. The time that was lost opening locked doors could have been used to rescue more children. Third, some also believe that the nuns were so concerned and preoccupied with the children being seen in their nightclothes by the public that they failed to assess the seriousness of the emergency at hand. It can be argued that thirty-five girls perished in a fire because they were in their nightgowns.

The Cavan disaster is reminiscent of a similar catastrophe that happened thirty-two years earlier in New York City. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire Shirtwaist Company factory in Greenwich Village. Because of locked doors and inefficient firefighting equipment (neither the ladders nor the water from the fire hoses was able to reach the top floors), 146 people—123 of whom were young women and girls—perished in the flames or jumped to their deaths from the ninth and tenth floors to the street below. The aftermath of the disaster led to major changes in labor laws protecting factory workers. The new laws covered health care, disability, and fire prevention.

The fire at St. Joseph’s orphanage also led to reform and new regulations. The inquiry report recommended that industrial schools include proper fire escapes and more effective fire drills. It further proposed the establishment of a national fire brigade. St. Joseph’s Orphanage closed its doors in 1967. Ireland;orphan school fire O’Reilly, Bridget Harrington, Margaret Orphans;Irish school fire

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Mavis, and Heather Laskey. Children of the Poor Clares: The Story of an Irish Orphanage. Belfast, Ireland: Appletree Press, 1985. A history of the orphanage that includes a concise account of the disastrous 1943 fire. Also features interviews with a number of survivors of the fire, the townspeople who were first to respond and rescue the children, and others involved in the rescue efforts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003. Relevant to any study of fire disasters that take the lives of many, including the fire at St. Joseph’s Orphanage. Provides a thorough account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire and the political and social climate of the era.

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Categories: History