On 23 February 1943, 35 children and one adult died in a fire at St Joseph’s Orphanage in County Cavan. The fire was caused by an electrical fault and the nuns running the orphanage were not aware of it until around 2am. They believed the fire could be controlled and instead of evacuating, they moved all the girls into one dormitory on the other side of the building.
Two members of the public, John Kennedy and John McNally, had seen the smoke and rushed to help but the nuns told them to extinguish the fire before it spread any further.
The two men were unable to quell the flames and were lucky to escape with their lives, with McNally having to be carried from the building by Kennedy.
The girls were now trapped inside the building with the flames blocking all the exits. Some jumped to safety from the upstairs window, but most were too scared to try. Another passer-by, Louis Blessing, did manage to climb up and rescue five girls but the rest perished as the fire brigade struggled to get the fire under control.
Bridie Riley helped in the rescue
Bridie Riley, who was 14 years old at the time of the fire, lived at St Joseph’s Orphanage. The tragedy affected her the rest of her life.
Her daughter, Cathy Kerins tells what her mother told her about that tragic night.
“My late mother lived in this place when this tragedy happened – she was about 14 at the time. She was always a bit of a tomboy growing up – I think it was the mercy of God on that fearful night that she was a tomboy. She told us how she climbed and fought and kicked with bare hands and feet, and whatever she could lay her hands on, to break windows and kick the doors in. She fought like an ox to save and help those poor kids.
“She managed to rescue and save four young girls from this awful disaster. I’m sure if she could have done more she would have.
“My mother died in 1986, but she never forgot that day and could never speak of it without crying. She never got over witnessing the horror of that eventful night.
“May God bless and rest those poor little children.”
36 bodies were recovered from the orphanage
Mary and Nora Barrett (12 yrs Twins Dublin)
Mary Brady (7 yrs Ballinagh)
Josephine and Mona Cassidy (15 yrs and 11 yrs Belfast)
Mary and Josphine Carroll (12yrs and 10 yrs Castlerahan)
Katherine and Margaret Chambers (9 and 7 yrs Derrylin, Fermanagh)
Dorothy Daly (7 yrs Cootehill)
Bridget and Mary Galligan (17 and 18yrs Drumbrath, Kilnaleck, Cavan)
Mary Harrison (15 yrs Dublin)
Elizabeth Heaphy (4 yrs Swords)
Mary Hughes (15 yrs Killeshandra)
Mary Ivers (12 yrs Kilcoole Wicklow )
Mary Kelly (10 yrs Ballinagh)
Kathleen and Frances Kiely (12 yrs and 9 yrs Virginia)
Mary Lowry (17 yrs Drumcrow, Cavan)
Mary and Margaret Lynch (15 yrs and 10 yrs Cavan)
Ellen McHugh (15 yrs Blacklion)
Mary and Susan McKiernan (16 yrs and 14 yrs Dromard, Belturbet, Cavan)
Ellen Morgan (10 yrs Virginia)
Mary O’Hara (7 yrs Kilnaleck)
Harriet and Ellen Payne (11 yrs and 8yrs Dublin)
Philomena Regan (9 yrs Dublin)
Kathleen Reilly (14 yrs Butlersbridge)
Mary Roche (6 yrs Dublin)
Bernadette Serridge (5 yrs Dublin)
Mary Smith (80 yrs employed as Cook)
Teresa White (6 yrs Dublin)
Rose Wright (11 yrs Ballyjamesduff)