Gardaí: Convent fire likely deliberate

Gardaí believe the fire which gutted a listed former convent building in Cork City was started deliberately.

Gardaí: Convent fire likely deliberate

However, it will be today before forensic experts will be allowed inside the unstable remains of the former Good Shepherd Convent in Sunday’s Well to conduct a detailed examination.

Engineers are also due to assess the structure later amid concerns that it may have to be demolished.

Lord Mayor, Cllr John Buttimer, described the blaze as a “wake-up call” for how local authorities manage derelict sites.

He plans to write to Environment Minister Phil Hogan asking him to review derelict sites legislation to increase councils’ powers in tackling similar sites.

“This is a huge loss to the city,” said Mr Buttimer.

“The derelict sites legislation needs to be changed to allow local authorities intervene at an earlier stage. The legal standard for a declaration of dereliction is too high. But complex constitutional property rights will have to be examined.”

The alarm was raised at 7.31am yesterday as fire swept through the historic former convent on the north side of the city. Flames and smoke from the main five-storey red-brick Victorian building could be seen across the city.

Five units of the Cork City Fire Service responded but a 50m section west of the convent’s chapel was already well ablaze.

Third officer Victor Shine said most of the building’s internal structures, including large beams, stairs, and floors, collapsed soon afterwards. Up to 20 firefighters brought the blaze under control by 8.30am. Some remained on scene for several hours dampening down pockets of fire.

Supt Con Cadogan said that while gardaí were keeping an open mind on the cause, it was most likely started deliberately.

“From our discussions with the fire service, it would appear that this fire didn’t start all of a sudden, and was burning for some time before it ignited the building. I would appeal to anyone in the area, who noticed anything suspicious in the 24-hours leading up to the fire, to contact Gurranabraher Garda Station.”

The three main buildings, a home, convent, and orphanage, have lain derelict since a serious fire in 2003.

The site was bought in 2005 by a developer who secured planning permission to develop apartments but the project stalled. In May 2010, the site was seized by Ulster Bank, which appointed KPMG as receivers.

After several complaints about anti-social activity and unauthorised access to the site, gardaí and city council officials met with representatives of KPMG and secur-ity firm G4S on Oct 24, after which a €20,000 site security plan was agreed.

KPMG said the security firm it had engaged to oversee the site carried out three inspections each night.

KPMG said it also agreed that a series of measures and further safeguards would take place on the site within eight weeks.

City manager Tim Lucey defended the council’s role and stressed the site is in private ownership. He said the council issued a derelict sites notice in late October, setting out the owner’s responsibilities, with specific references to site security.

The council also indicated that mobile infra-red cameras could help.

The structure will now be assessed by its insurers, the receiver’s engineers, and the council’s building control unit before engineers are called in to prepare a plan to secure the building. However, given its protected status, the city council will have to sign off on any proposals that are put forward.

Long history

The Good Shepherd Convent operated a Magdalene Laundry and orphanage on the Sunday’s Well site from 1874 until late 1977.

While there are no publicly available figures for the number of women and children who passed through the institution, newspaper records show courts sending women there well into the 1970s.

In one case in 1932, the courts sent a woman to the laundry for the concealment of a birth for two years.

She remained there for 46 years and is buried in the Magdalene plot in Sunday’s Well.

Grave records show that at least 188 women died while in the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Cork.

The women were buried at four locations around the country between 1875 and 2011.

The Magdalene plot on the site, where at least 30 women are buried, was significantly vandalised in recent months and was overgrown, preventing access by relatives.

The site also includes the grave of the orphan “Little Nellie of Holy God”, a four-year-old who died of TB in 1908.

Conall Ó Fátharta

Fears realised

They’ve been warning for years that it would happen. Their worst fears were realised yesterday.

Angry residents on Blarney St, who have watched the former Good Shepherd Convent fall in to dereliction, last night demanded swift action from the authorities to finally deal with the site.

And Justice for Magdalenes spokeswoman, Claire McGettrick, expressed her sadness at the loss of the complex.

“We are saddened to see the further destruction of the Good Shepherd complex which forms a significant part of our country’s disturbing history. More importantly, we are deeply concerned for the dignity of the women and girls, numbering at least 30, who are buried in the graveyard adjacent to the location of the fire.”

Tom Coleman, chairman of the Blarney Street Resident’s Association, said the fire was inevitable.

“This is a bad day for the area. Now is the time that something drastic is done,” he said.

He called for all the bodies involved to sit down with the local community to discuss the site’s future.

“They all failed to make the site safe when it was structurally right. Nobody seemed to care.

“They all showed total disrespect and disregard to the people in the area. Now it’s a health and safety issue. Their bluff is called now. They should all come out and face the people.”

The National Conservation and Heritage Group said it was “deeply saddened” that a gem of Cork’s heritage and history had been lost.

— Eoin English and Conall Ó Fátharta

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