At early Mass on Christmas morning 1842, there was a dreadful accident at Galway’s Pro-Cathedral during which 37 people were killed, and many more were injured. Known as the Parish Church, and completed just twenty-one years before, it was by far the largest Catholic church in the town, surprisingly built in preCatholic Emancipation times.
It had a large gallery which was a popular vantage point with the people, but on this occasion the gallery was crowded for the 6am Mass. For whatever reason, someone shouted that the gallery was collapsing, and instant panic ensued. Historian William Henry takes up the story: ‘..there was a frantic rush to the exits. Many of those trapped in the gallery were so terrified that they opened the windows, and jumped, some to their deaths, into the street below. Most of the congregation tried to force their way out through the main exit resulting in the front porch being crammed with people making escape almost impossible. It was described as a most pitiful scene, the terror of people being crushed in a confined space was appalling. Many of them were panic-stricken parents with children trying frantically to reach the safety of the street only a few feet away.
‘After the church was eventually cleared, there was a gloomy silence in the street as the people began to realise that the frightful panic was groundless….’ The gallery never collapsed, nor was it in danger of collapsing.
‘The flickering gas-light added to the gloomy atmosphere that hung over the awful scene. ‘There were more pitiful scenes over the following days as the funerals of the fatalities left the same church. In one day alone, seventeen victims were buried in Forthill Cemetery. ‘
During the inquest that followed it was unanimously agreed that the incident was a ‘tragic accident’. No one was to blame.
‘Met in Friendship’
The Pro-Cathedral was located on the corner of Abbeygate Street Lr., and Middle Street, and its exterior is still largely intact. Overall, however, the once impressive building, following its deconsecration in 1965,* has been clumsily converted into a number of small businesses and offices. But it was a highly significant religious building in its day, representing the cordial relations that existed between the Protestant and Catholic clergy despite persecution and dangerous years. Even when Penal Laws forbade a Catholic priest to be seen in public, Protestant and Catholic clergy shared the coveted Wardenship of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, which was a unique privilege given to Galway in the 15th century. It resulted, in those bitter times, in the Protestant authorities turning a blind eye to the known locations where Mass was celebrated, and of the identity of priests, often in disguise, who carried out their duties around the town.
When the foundation stone was laid for the Pro-Cathedral, on July 1 1816, by the Protestant Mayor of Galway, Hyacinth Daly, accompanied by the Sheriff, and other magistrates and officers of the corporation, along with the Catholic warden of St Nicholas, Dr Ffrench, accompanied by his religious attendants, and watched by a crowd estimated at 10,000, it was regarded as highly significant day. Two great religions, officially public enemies for so many years, now publicly together in friendship. One journalist wrote that Galway witnessed a scene ‘unparalleled in her history, or in the history of the British Empire.’
The Freeman’s Journal, and the Daily Commercial Advertiser (July 8 1816 ) commented: ‘The day chosen for the purpose happening to be the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, the circumstances presented an appropriate opportunity, which was eagerly seized by all classes, of affording a gratifying demonstration of the union and cordiality which exist here (and to the honour of this country be it remembered, always did ), between members of different religious persuasions.’
Also witnessing the event where the band of the 12th Regiment played into the afternoon, and a giant bonfire lit up the night sky, was Galway’s famous historian James Hardiman: ‘This memorable day presented a sight in Galway which forcibly evinced the increased liberality of the times, and which was as grateful to every liberal patriotic and enlightened mind as it was novel and unprecedented in the annals of the country - the head of a Protestant corporation laying the foundation of a Catholic chapel in a town where, within the memory of many persons yet living, a Catholic would be liable to persecution for daring to avow the principles of his religion….’
More from William Henry’s book next week.
NOTES: * In 1937 when Dr Michael Browne became Bishop of Galway the ceremony was conducted in the Parish Church. During that ceremony Bishop Browne said that the building was no longer adequate to accommodate the growing city population. He was soon planning Galway’s cathedral. When it opened in 1965, the old Pro-Cathedral, the Parish Church, was closed.
This week’s Diary is prompted by William Henry’s new book: Galway - Walking Through History, a sweeping account of the story of Galway from earliest stone-age times to the present, magnificently illustrated, and a prominent addition to the growing Galway library. Now on sale €20.