herald

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Nation mourned when six nuns died in college blaze

The fire destroyed the Loreto College’s four-storey building
The fire destroyed the Loreto College’s four-storey building

Newly-released government files today provided a stark reminder of one of the most tragic fires in Dublin's history.

Six elderly nuns died when flames swept through the Loreto College for girls at one of the capital's best-known landmarks, St Stephen's Green.

The fire erupted in the early hours of June 2, 1986.

Those who died were all retired teachers at the school and were aged between 60 and 83 years.

They all perished when they were trapped in a dormitory on the top floor of the old four-storey building.

Poignantly, some of the sisters were thought to have been attempting to escape the fire as it gained a grip. However, they were tragically thwarted in their escape bid by the sheer intensity of the flames and thick, choking fumes as the blaze strengthened its hold on the school.

Three other nuns managed to get out of the dormitory with their lives.

They afterwards told how they had looked back to witness what one of them called "a blazing inferno".

"The women who died were reckoned to have been trying to get out of their sleeping area but they did not make it," the school authorities said later.

The fire was first reported by a garda on patrol in the city centre at around 3.30am.

Eight water tenders were later needed to bring the blaze under control.

A passer-by in St Stephen's Green recalled that a nun had come out of the building and asked for the fire service to be alerted.

Locals tried desperately to get into the burning building when they realised that a number of nuns were trapped inside.

Unfortunately, all were beaten back by the smoke, heat and flames.

When Dublin Fire Brigade units were eventually able to bring the blaze under control, the scale of the tragedy was confirmed when fire fighters equipped with breathing apparatus were able to gain entry.

Heartbreaking

Apart from the heartbreaking loss of life, the fire, which was thought to have been started accidentally, possibly in the science laboratory, was subsequently also found to have also destroyed a number of school facilities.

These were all sited in the convent quarters and including the lab and the concert hall.

The sisters' dormitory was also totally gutted.

People in the area moved in swiftly to lay on supplies of blankets in a bid to ease the ordeal of those able to avoid the full force of the fire.

Today, the tragedy is marked by a plaque listing its victims. The plaque is located in St Stephen's Green's celebrated gardens, just yards from the central point of the blaze.

A top-level inquiry failed to pin-point the precise cause of the fire.

But, as the shock waves over what happened hovered over the whole of Ireland, the government issued firm guarantees.

It promised that all efforts would be made to compensate the victims, some of whom had to be identified by the rings on their fingers.

Each ring was unique in that it named the patron saint for each of the nuns involved.

The school itself originated 150 years ago. It moved to an address in nearby Harcourt Street soon after the fire.

Later, though, the way was paved for its move back to the institution's rebuilt base at St Stephen's Green.

Commitment

A senior colleague of the nuns who were killed said the return was a fitting memorial.

"This is what they would have wanted," the colleague wrote. "To see it [the school] up and running once more."

At the time of the fire, the Loreto nuns demonstrated the strength of their faith by declaring that the deaths of their colleagues redirected them to even deeper levels of commitment to religious life.

The sheer scale of the tragedy prompted a remarkable outpouring of national grief.

Letters were written from all over Ireland by people expressing their shock and sympathy, as well as by many who wanted to know if there was anything they could do to support the survivors and their order.

It was the second horrific fire tragedy in Dublin in the space of five years following the Stardust disaster in 1981.

A total of 48 people lost their lives when the Stardust nightclub in Artane caught fire on February 14, 1981.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News