An Irishman's Diary
Among all the published works of Brian O’Nolan, there is perhaps only one completely without humour. It was the report into the Cavan Orphanage Fire of 1943, compiled in his then official capacity as assistant principal officer in the Department of Local Government.
He had just been promoted to that position, his civil service career still on a rapid upward trajectory. And one of his first tasks was to be secretary to the government inquiry into the Cavan tragedy: a job he was expected to do outside normal working hours.
The fire at St Joseph’s Orphanage happened 70 years ago this month, on February 24th. It ended the lives of 35 children, all girls, and one adult employee of the institution, which was located on Cavan’s Main Street and run by the Poor Clare nuns.
For long afterwards, the nuns’ role in the disaster was the subject of much rumour. There is no doubt that the rescue operation was, in general, very flawed. But it was also suggested that the nuns, reluctant to have the girls seen in their night clothes, had kept dormitory doors locked until it was too late.
The suspicion lingers that the inquiry too was a cover-up, or at least that it failed to ask the right questions. A telling detail is that, while most of the protagonists – the nuns, the attorney general, Cavan Urban District Council, the ESB (electrical wiring being one of the things implicated) – hired teams of barristers, the children were represented only by solicitors.
O’Nolan’s role was confined to summarising the evidence presented. But his private attitude to the proceedings later emerged in an infamous limerick concocted with one of the lawyers involved, the future chief justice, TF O’Higgins: “In Cavan there was a great fire;/Joe McCarthy came down to inquire,/If the nuns were to blame,/It would be a shame,/So it had to be caused by a wire.” Behind this grim joke lurks the uncomfortable question as to whether O’Nolan himself was part of a conspiracy of silence. In No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, his friend and biographer Anthony Cronin touches on it, briefly. He largely excuses him on the basis that the inquiry was set up on narrow terms, to examine the immediate causes of the blaze and its aftermath, not to investigate how the orphanage was run, allegations about which came later and would have been unknown to him.
Certainly, says Cronin, if O’Nolan was aware of any deliberate cover-up, he never mentioned it in conversation, whereas he did speak of “the harrowing nature of the evidence . . . and the impression it had made on him”.
In any case, his involvement in the inquiry illustrates one of the paradoxes of O’Nolan’s life: that he spent much of it simultaneously working as a servant of the State, while also writing a famously anarchic and iconoclastic newspaper column.
More than most people, he was aware of the inadequacies in the newly-founded state, of which he was a pillar, and more than most he had an outlet to share indiscretions with a national audience.
In some ways, he did. Yet in all potential conflicts of interest, he seems to have remained true to the Official Secrets Act by which he was bound. As Cronin put it: “his reticence in relation to matters that he had official cognisance of was always remarkable”.
For good or bad, 1943 was a pivotal year in O’Nolan’s dual life. His satirical play, Faustus Kelly, opened and closed at the Abbey in January. And with that, the curtain fell for almost two decades on any literary activity other than Cruiskeen Lawn (which, incidentally, appeared only once during the period of the Cavan hearings).
His civil service career would come to a bad end a decade later when, where his growing alcohol-related absenteeism had failed, a veiled insult to his minister in one of the columns earned him forced early retirement. But he would serve as private secretary to a succession of ministers before then. And in 1943, he was at the peak of his administrative powers.
When his report was published in September, it made for a rare event: the writer being mentioned in this newspaper by his real name (Irish version).
Notoriously pseudonymous, he masqueraded at various times as Myles na gCopaleen, Flann O’Brien, and under a plethora of other false identities, often on letters to the editor. On this occasion, however, the other tribunal members expressed formal thanks to their secretary, Brian O Nuallain, for his “assiduous care and attention”.