Deceased boys families ‘were very much forgotten by the state’

By Maurice Garvey

WEDNESDAY marked the 42nd anniversary of a tragic moment in Lucan’s history – the Glen of Imaal explosion that killed three Lucan children and maimed nine others on April 14, 1979.

The three deceased boys Declan Kane (13), Derek Finn (13) an Victor Mills (12) were part of an ill-fated Easter weekend trekking party from St Mary’s Youth Club.

Sarsfield Pk memorial 21 1

The plaque erected in honour of the victims

The 32-strong group of teenage boys and girls, led by six registered youth leaders, went to the remote glen in the Wicklow mountains, much of which has been used by the Irish Army as an artillery firing range since 1900.

During a hike, a device was found by one of the kids. According to the then Minister of Defence Bobby Molloy in a Seanad debate following the tragedy, one of the boys threw the projectile against a small rock causing an explosion.

Speaking in the Seanad at the time, Senator Eileen Cassidy expressed “grave disquiet” at the “absence of safety precautions” in the area, and noted three fatal accidents at the glen in as many years, “two involving children and one involving members of the Defence Forces.”

The Glen of Imaal is no stranger to disaster and remains the site of the worst single incident involving loss of life in Irish Defence Forces history. In 1941, 16 soldiers were killed when an antitank mine exploded.

The three Lucan victims, all from Sarsfield Park, were buried side by side in Esker Cemetery, less than half a mile from their homes.

A report in the Evening Press on April 17, 1979, quoted a statement from Lucan priests who said it was “not enough to put up warning notices” if the glen was to “continue to be used as an army missile range as well as a place of recreation.”

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A paper clipping

Nearly 2,000 residents gathered at St Mary’s Church in Lucan for the funeral. Lucan was a close knit community back then with a population of approximately 12,500 compared to 45,000 today, and the tragedy hit hard.

A report in the Independent on April 17, 1979, featured a quote by Patrick Burchill, a deceased and much loved former chairman of St Mary’s Youth Club, who “vigorously denied allegations the trekking party was not properly supervised” as they climbed from Ballinciea youth hostel to Lugnaquilla via the army firing range in the glen.

“The party of 32 had no less than six registered youth leaders with them. That is more than is required by An Oige regulations. It is impossible for the leaders to be beside every member of the party every step of the way. The leaders showed their worth after the accident when they organised the rescue without any panic,” said Mr Burchill.

Over 40 years on, and while the tragedy has not been forgotten, some in the area feel it has never got full recognition.

RTE’s Reeling in the Years episode from 1979 is packed with news of the Pope’s visit to Ireland, massive industrial disputes, IRA bombs, postal strikes, but no mention of the Glen of Imaal.

One such resident saddened by the anniversary is Ruth Murray, from Sarsfield Park, who would have been a similar age to the youth group at the time in the close knit community, and knows many of the affected family members.

“I feel they should be recognised, I’m getting upset even thinking about it. It must be tough for the families,” she said.

“I met one of the survivors out walking and we both agreed that ‘they were like the army’s dirty little secret’. He said they were never acknowledged. One of the lads lost an eye and is still getting treatment to this day.”

Flashbacks of the tragedy came flooding back to Ruth when she was asked by local radio station Liffey Sound FM, to recall stories of Lucan’s past.

Ruth continued: “I was being interviewed by Liffey Sound about my late father Kevin Murray’s book ‘Some Lucan Memories’ and life growing up in the village. I mentioned the weir when the memory of one of the saddest days I recall surfaced – the Glen of Imaal. The forgotten.

“Meeting one of the survivors so close to the anniversary and realising that four decades later, some of the physical wounds are still being treated and the mental scars will never heal. Every Easter, survivors have to relive the ill-fated day as if it was yesterday.”

While there is a plaque erected in honour of the victims at Sarsfield Park and memorial masses for the anniversary every year, Ms Murray feels more could be done to acknowledge the “enormity of it all.”

“I suppose it was never talked about. If the radio station had never asked me to come on, it might not have sparked that in me. I feel compelled to have something done for the families. Lucan was a smaller place them with bigger families of five and six. It affected the whole community.”

Ruth recalls the media descending on Lucan Village to speak to residents on that fateful day, and in an age of no mobile phones, many were just discovering the true horror there and then.

“We were all down by the river, the media came down. You looked around and the river had turned black. It was so strange. There was a dark cloud hanging over the area.”

Lucan Cllr Joanna Tuffy (Lab), supports Ruth’s efforts for a renewed commemoration and believes the families, over time, “were very much forgotten by the State.”

“It was the most significant tragedy in Lucan’s history and had a huge impact at the time. It did shape Lucan’s history. People were greatly affected by it. Lucan was a smaller place then with about 4k houses, now there is about 20k houses, and a lot of new residents may not know about it,” said Cllr Tuffy.

“I too recall it very vividly. A sister of one the boys that was there who survived was in my class at school. I knew Mrs Mills. Masses were held every year for the anniversary.

“There is a plaque in Sarsfield Park but maybe something in the village or in the park where the youth club was located at The Hollows. Ruth doesn’t want people to forget. I want to assist her in any way. There might be other things that can be done. But we have to be cognisant of the families and their wishes.”

Back in 1979 during the Seanad debate, then Defence Minister Molloy, who has since passed, said it would not be possible to change the location of the range, and he set up a committee to make recommendations.

Senator Trevor West, also since deceased, said of the commission: “As every politician knows, this is one of the great ways of putting off an unpleasant decision which should be taken urgently.”

A spokesperson for the Defence Forces told The Echo: “The Glen of Imaal and Coolmooney Camp remain the main training area and live fire range for the Defence Forces. The ranges and camp are used to train personnel on various courses within the Defence Forces. The ranges and training areas have seen a number of very tragic incidents over the years.

“The Defence Forces have learned lessons and made changes following these events to ensure that where possible they do not reoccur. The Defence Forces continue to evolve and enhance safety measure in line with best international practice. The Defence Forces wishes to pay its respects to anyone, both civilian and serving members, that may have lost their lives in the area. Ar Dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.”

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