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Eucharistic Congress tragedy recalled in Kildare and Offaly

The 2012 Eucharistic Congress which begins on Sunday next will inevitably draw  comparisons with the last occasion on which a Congress was staged in Dublin in 1932. The enduring way in which memories of the 1932 Congress have been handed down illustrate the impact which the event had on the Ireland of that time – a raw and impoverished Ireland still healing after the bitter divisions of the Civil War in the previous decade and facing into an Economic War in the 1930s. As if to banish hardship of the time memoirs of the 1932 Congress recall in awed terms the vast congregation which gathered in the Phoenix Park for a Pontifical High Mass, the singing of John Count McCormack in front of that great assembly and the solemn procession down Dublin’s quays to a benediction on O’Connell Bridge.
The newspapers accounts reinforce the almost overwhelming scale of pomp and ceremonial which attended the Congress and the vast infrastructure which was put in place by church and state to facilitate every facet of the ceremonies and assemblies. Indeed so anxious was the Government to indicate its deference to the needs of the Dublin Catholic Archdiocese in organising the event that a special law was passed through the Oireachtas entitled the Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932, which, under certain conditions, allowed unlicensed drivers and unlicensed cars to operate in the Dublin area so as to facilitate transport to and from the great ceremonies. 
It is not thought that such exemptions from the normal standards were factors in the only tragedy to occur in connection with the Congress when two people were killed outside Leixlip returning home from the ceremonies.  The two were passengers in a vehicle belonging to D.E.Williams, the malting firm in Tullamore, on which more than thirty were taking a lift home from the Phoenix Park in the early hours of Monday morning.
The approach to the Liffey Bridge at the entrance to Leixlip involves a downward hill followed by a sharp right-handed bend over the bridge. The lorry did not make the turn and collided with considerable violence with the parapet. Although the vehicle did not topple over many of the pilgrims were thrown from its open back over the bridge into the Liffey thirty feet below. The fall and impact with the river in the dark of night was a terrible experience and eight of the pilgrims sustained serious injury including the loss of limbs.
The crash startled a sleeping Leixlip, locals roused themselves from their beds, and rushed to help. A makeshift treatment area was set up in the adjacent Salmon Leap premises and the most seriously wounded were conveyed to Jervis Street Hospital while those less seriously injured were ferried to Dr. Steeven’s. For two of the pilgrims – Edward Daly and Patrick Kenaney  – the help was to no avail and they died later on in the day. The news stunned their native Tullamore where their families were inconsolable.
The Tullamore Tribune highlighted a particularly unfortunate sequence of events for twenty-three year old Patrick Kenaney. He had travelled with his parents by car to Dublin and paid a visit to his brother, a member of the Tullamore Boy Scout troop which – like Scouts all over Ireland – was on duty in Dublin City to guide the throngs of visitors from Ireland and overseas. He had decided to travel back to Tullamore not with his parents but on the lorry with his friends from D.E.Williams.
There was a deep sense of loss too for Eddie Daly (28) who was a brilliant player with Tullamore GAA club. Colleagues from the county and town football teams formed a guard of honour when his remains were brought back to the Offaly county town. The funerals of the two deceased brought Tullamore to a standstill and there was a big turnout of civic dignatories led by the chairman of Tullamore town council.
Eighty years later his successor, the Mayor of Tullamore, led a party of relatives of the two men to Leixlip where the Parish Pastoral Council had commissioned a bronze plaque in memory of the two men  as part of its pastoral preparation for the 2012 Eucharistic Congress. The Tullamore delegation was welcomed by the Mayor of Leixlip, clergy and parishioners of the Liffeyside town, on an evening last month when the tragedy was remembered with great sense of occasion. Benediction at the Church of Our Lady’s Nativity, Leixlip, was followed by a procession, escorted by Gardai and Civil Defence personnel, to the bridge where a service of prayer and music took place before the unveiling of an impressive brass plaque on the parapet of the Liffey bridge.
The plaque by Celbridge sculptor Jarlath Daly bears the symbols of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and of the 2012 Congress. Although the scale and atmosphere of the two Congresses could not be more different – the first vast and triumphal, the latter modest and humble – both are linked by memories of that fateful night in Leixlip eighty years ago. 
 * Appreciation to Mr. Ger Scully, editor of the Tullamore Tribune, for his help in recording the circumstances of the 1932 accident. Series no: 283.

An article from the Looking Back series in Leinster Leader of 5 June 2012 on the anniversary of the Eucharistic Congress tragedy. Our thanks to Liam Kenny

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