seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Cavan Orphanage Fire

cavan-orphanage-fireThe Cavan Orphanage fire occurs on the night of February 23, 1943 at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, County Cavan. Thirty-five children and one adult employee die as a result. Much of the attention after the fire surrounds the role of the Poor Clares, the order of nuns who run the orphanage and the local fire service.

The Poor Clares, an enclosed contemplative order, found a convent in Cavan in 1861 in a large premises on Main Street. In 1868, they open an orphanage. At the time young petty criminals could be educated and learn a trade in a reformatory, however, orphaned and abandoned children are not accorded the same opportunity. The Industrial Schools Act 1868 seeks to address this by the establishment of the Industrial school system. In 1869, a school, attached to the convent, is established and becomes known as the St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School.

Fire breaks out in the early morning hours of February 23, 1943, in the basement laundry and is not noticed until about 2 AM. The subsequent investigation attributes the fire to a faulty flue. The sight of smoke coming out of the building alerts people on Main Street. They go to the front entrance and attempt to gain entry. Eventually they are let in by one of the girls but, not knowing the layout of the convent, they are unable to find the girls.

By this time all of the girls have been moved into one Dormitory. At this point it would have been possible to evacuate all of the children but instead the nuns persuade the local people to attempt to extinguish the fire. Two men, John Kennedy and John McNally, go down to the laundry to try to put the fire out. The flames are now too intense for this to be possible and McNally only survives by being carried out by Kennedy.

By now it is no longer possible for the girls to get out through the main entrance or the fire escape. The local fire brigade arrives but their equipment is not sufficient for the fire. Wooden ladders are not long enough to reach the dormitory windows. In the absence of any other solution, girls are encouraged to jump. Three do so, though with injuries, however most are too frightened to attempt it. A local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, arrives with a long ladder and a local man, Louis Blessing, brings five girls down. One child leaves by way of the interior staircase while it is still accessible. One child makes it down the exterior fire escape. One child escapes by way of a small ladder held on the roof of the shed. The fire completely engulfs the dormitory and the remaining girls perish.

cavan-orphanage-graveOver concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care, a Public Inquiry is set up. The report’s findings state that the loss of life occurs due to faulty directions being given, lack of fire-fighting training, and an inadequate rescue and fire-fighting service. It also notes inadequate training of staff in fire safety and evacuation, both at the orphanage and local fire service. This finding has been disputed by many. It is alleged that the nuns prevent firefighters from entering the building for fear that they might see the girls in a state of undress.

Due to the nature of the fire, the remains of the dead girls are placed in eight coffins and buried in Cullies cemetery in Cavan. A memorial plaque is erected in 2010 just inside the convent gates at Main Street, Cavan. The plaque is anonymously donated to the Friends of the Cavan Orphanage Victims group.

(Pictured lower right: The grave containing the remains of the 36 victims)


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Assassination of Irish Criminal Martin Cahill

martin-cahillMartin Cahill, prominent Irish criminal from Dublin, is assassinated on August 18, 1994. Cahill generates a certain notoriety in the media, which refers to him by the sobriquet “The General.” During his lifetime, Cahill takes particular care to hide his face from the media and is rarely photographed.

At age 16, Cahill is convicted of two burglaries and sentenced to an industrial school run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Daingean, County Offaly. With his brothers, he continues to commit multiple burglaries in the affluent neighbourhoods nearby, at one point even robbing the Garda Síochána depot for confiscated firearms.

In 1983, Cahill and his gang famously steal gold and diamonds with a value of over €2.55 million from O’Connor’s jewelers in Harolds Cross. The jewelers subsequently is forced to close, with the loss of more than one hundred jobs. He is also involved in stealing some of the world’s most valuable paintings from Russborough House in 1986 and extorting restaurants and hot dog vendors in Dublin’s nightclub district.

On November 1, 1993, Cahill’s gang abducts National Irish Bank CEO Jim Lacey, his wife, and four children and holds them hostage in an attempt to force the bank to hand over the estimated €10 million in cash in the bank’s vault. Ultimately, the plan fails and the gang is arrested.

With all gang members from the Lacey kidnapping released on bail, on August 18, 1994, Cahill leaves the house at which he has been staying at Swan Grove and begins driving to a local video store to return a borrowed copy of Delta Force 3: The Killing Game. Upon reaching the intersection of Oxford Road and Charleston Road he is repeatedly shot in the face and upper torso and dies almost instantly. The gunman, who is armed with a .357 Magnum revolver, jumps on a motorbike and disappears from the scene.

There are a number of theories about who murdered Martin Cahill and why. Within hours of Cahill’s murder, the Provisional Irish Republican Army claims responsibility in a press release. The reasons cited are Cahill’s alleged involvement with a Portadown unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had attempted a bomb attack on a south Dublin pub which was hosting a Sinn Féin fund-raiser.

Another theory surfaces that reputedly claims that two of Cahill’s underlings, John Gilligan and John Traynor, had put together a massive drug trafficking ring. When Cahill demanded a cut of the profits, the Gardaí believe that Traynor and Gilligan approached the IRA and suggested that Cahill was importing heroin, a drug that the IRA despised and were trying to prevent from being sold in Dublin. Gilligan reputedly paid the Provisional IRA a considerable sum in exchange for Cahill’s assassination. Frances Cahill’s memoir, Martin Cahill, My Father, alleges the General detested and steered clear of the drug trade.

After a Roman Catholic requiem mass, Martin Cahill is buried in consecrated ground at Mount Jerome Cemetery. In 2001, his gravestone is vandalised and broken in two.