Life in Cavan orphanage destroyed by fire was ‘cruel’ – survivor

Thirty-five children died in fire 75 years ago after nuns failed to take chance to evacuate

For years, Catherine Graham returned to a cemetery in Co Cavan to visit the resting place of the 35 children who died in an orphanage fire in 1943.

“I always go and put up flowers because I knew them all,” she says, even though by now her memories are old ones. It is 75 years since her dormitory at the St Joseph’s orphanage caught fire.

Catherine, or “Wuzzy” as she was known, was woken with the rest of them at about 1.30am. She was about 14 years old and she remembers pulling on any clothes she could find before trying to make her escape.

“I was half dressed and we made our way down the stairs,” she says. “There was a fire escape at the top of the stairs, but we couldn’t use it because the nuns had the keys.”


Her little sister Bernadette, about seven or eight years old at the time, was also in the dormitory.

“I went in to get her out, but then we couldn’t get out because the smoke coming up the stairs was so bad,” she says.

They were driven back. “The smoke got so bad at the end and it was so hot.”

There was a girl called Mary with them and Catherine remembers her collapsing on the floor beside her. She bent down to help her but nothing worked.

“She was dead. She collapsed on the floor and I tried to wake her up and started pulling her but there was nothing,” she says.

Thick smoke

Later she would be told Mary had probably saved her life because by going down to the floor to help her, Catherine had avoided the same thick black smoke that had overwhelmed her companion.

“I started crawling up to try and get to the windows. I couldn’t find my sister Bernadette but apparently she was up at one of the other windows.”

Catherine managed to break the glass and she cut her hands in the process. The raging fire had taken some of her hair.

Somebody rescued her from the ledge. She remembers the ladder wasn’t long enough to reach and she was told to try and lower herself down to meet it.

According to reports, a subsequent inquiry alleged the nuns who ran the orphanage had not evacuated the children because they were wearing only their nightclothes. There was a chance to evacuate them, but it wasn’t taken.

By the time locals arrived to help – although ill-equipped to do so properly – it was too late for the majority of the children who had perished inside. On Friday, commemorations will be held for the 75th anniversary.

Catherine remembers the only adult who died in the blaze, a woman called Maggie who had been a resident at the orphanage and who had come back every year for a holiday.

Life at the orphanage was hard, she says, a “cruel place” where even people in the town threw stones at the children when they got the opportunity.

Her mother Margaret had had nine children but died when she was just 35. Her father Thomas Graham had tuberculosis and was sent to the sanitarium. He died at 41.

After the fire Catherine left for England and settled in London, where she worked in a hotel and married. She eventually had nine children.

Today it’s only when she sees a fire on television that it all comes back. She told her youngest daughter, Denise, that the children would search for food in the orphanage bins and huddle around the outside vents of the drying room for warmth.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times