On the night of the 23rd of February 1943, tragedy struck the town of Cavan.
A fire started in the basement laundry of St Joseph's Orphanage in the early hours of the morning. By the time it was discovered, the fire had already spread beyond the point where it could be tackled by local volunteers.
The Orphanage was under the administration of the Poor Clare nuns who by this time had gathered the young girls in a dormitory. Though it would have been possible for them to escape by the main entrance at this point, local witnesses have reported that the nuns would not allow the girls to go outside as it would have been improper for them to be seen in their night dresses. Instead they insisted that the fire be put out. Two local men made another attempt to enter the basement and tackle the fire at its source but were unsuccessful and almost lost their lives in the attempt.
At this point putting out the fire was clearly not an option, and the main entrance became impassable. The girls were then encouraged to jump, which some did, but many were far to afraid to make the leap.
Tragically 35 children lost their lives on that fateful night. The youngest of the girls was only 4 years old. An 80 year old woman who worked as a cook at the Orphanage also lost her life.
An inquest was held and the cause of the fire was identified as a faulty wire, and that this was exacerbated by a lack of fire safety and evacuation training, as well as insufficient fire fighting resources. However the local people have always maintained that the true cause of the tragic loss of innocent life was a matter of neglect and fear of indecency.
The tragic victims of St Joseph's Orphanage Fire were all buried together in Cullied Cemetery in Cavan, and a memorial plaque was placed at the Cavan Convent in 2010.