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Berkeley balcony tragedy: I'm no stranger to family tragedy, says Northern Ireland-born priest consoling the relatives

By Lawrence White

Published 20/06/2015

Banbridge-born priest Fr Michael McAleenan has been comforting relatives of victims of the Berkeley tragedy
Banbridge-born priest Fr Michael McAleenan has been comforting relatives of victims of the Berkeley tragedy

A Northern Ireland-born priest who has comforted the families and friends of six young Irish people killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse has called the last week one of the most emotionally draining of his life.

But Fr Michael McAleenan, who is originally from Banbridge, also revealed that he has had more than his own share of family tragedy. His father died by suicide 13 years ago, his mother dropped dead 11 years ago, and six months later his brother Gerard, a keep-fit fanatic, died suddenly at the age of 40.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph as the families of four of the young people killed prepared for an all-night vigil with the coffins in St Columba's Church in Oakland, not far from the scene of the tragedy, Fr McAleenan said he was asked to preach at a service for the bereaved families and friends because of his past experiences.

He said: "Like these young people I came to the US in 1986 on a J1 visa and I can have a certain empathy with the families because of my own losses."

He learned of the tragedy when a friend sent him a text the following morning asking if he was going to the hospital. "Because of the time difference people in Ireland knew what had happened sooner than many of us here.

"I contacted the Irish Pastoral Centre to find out more and was asked to go to one of the hospitals where the injured had been taken. While I was there I had to tell one young man that his friend had become the sixth person to die. That was very hard."

He added: "Yesterday I visited more of the injured in two other hospitals. Fortunately, their injuries do not seem to be life-threatening.

"When I arrived at one hospital the father of the injured boy said that I was just in time as his son was going to surgery. I anointed him but had to tell the boy not to be afraid. Sometimes when people see a priest they think the end is nigh."

Fr McAleenan says that he has been unable to sleep for several nights during the past week because of the emotional strain, but says that the families' ordeal is much more difficult to even contemplate.

"Obviously as a priest I cannot think of what it would be like to lose a child.

Two students comfort each other at the scene of the Berkeley balcony collapse
Two students comfort each other at the scene of the Berkeley balcony collapse
Mourners cry as the caskets of cousins Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, are placed in hearses following services at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif. on Saturday, June 20, 2015. Olivia, an Irish national and Ashley, an American, died with others while celebrating a birthday when a balcony collapsed at a Berkeley, Calif. apartment complex on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
The coffin of Olivia Burke arrives at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. She died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The flag of St Mary's College in Rathmines is carried during the funeral of Niccolai Schuster at The Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. He died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
GAA commentator Micheal O Muircheartaigh attends the funeral of Niccolai Schuster at The Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. He died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The coffin of Olivia Burke arrives at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. She died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Olivia Burke arrives at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. She died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Olivia Burke arrives at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. She died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Singer Hozier at the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, where he was due to perform at the funeral service of Olivia Burke. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 24, 2015. She died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eoghan Culligan is carried during his funeral at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham in Dublin, after he died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Mourners leave after the funeral of Eimear Walsh at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. Eimar died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh leaves Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, after his funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. Eimar died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh leaves Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, after his funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. Eimar died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh leaves Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, after her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. Eimar died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh leaves Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, after her funeral service. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. Eimar died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh arrives at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for her funeral after she died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Mourners gather at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for the funeral of Eimear Walsh who died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Mourners gather at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for the funeral of Eimear Walsh who died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eimear Walsh arrives at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin, for his funeral after he died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The coffin of Eoghan Culligan is carried during his funeral at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham in Dublin, after he died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The coffin of Eoghan Culligan is carried during his funeral at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham in Dublin, after he died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Paul Burke places items on top of his daughter's casket during a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
The Burke family from right, father Paul, mother Paula and brother Gavin look on during a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Monsignor Dan Whelton gives his condolences to the Burke family from right, father Paul and mother Paula Burke and brother Gavin Burke during funeral services for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Ashley Donohoe looks at her sister's casket during a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Friends and family gather for a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Olivia Burke's brother Gavin Burke holds consoles his mother Paula Burke as Paul burke looks on during a service for Olivia and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Olivia Donohoe's brother Gavin Burke, left, stands with his parents Paul Burke and Paula Burke as they watch a funeral worker tend to the casket of Ashley Donohoe, following services for Donohoe, 22, and Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Pallbearers, including Ashley Donohoe's father George Donohoe, right, carry her casket to a waiting hearse following services for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Pallbearers, including Olivia Burke's brother Gavin Burke, left, wheel out her casket following services for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
From left, parents George and Jackie Donohoe with their daughter Amanda Donohoe pray during services for Ashley Donohoe, 22, and Olivia Burke, 21 at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Mourners pray during services for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Friends and family gather for a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Caskets of Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, are set in front of the altar before a service at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Funeral directors transport the body of an Irish student who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed, Friday, June 19, 2015 in Oakland Calif. Caskets bearing four of the six victims arrived at St. Columba Catholic Church for a vigil Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A funeral director transports the body of an Irish student who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. Caskets bearing four of the six victims arrived at St. Columba Catholic Church for a vigil Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Mourners embrace following an open casket vigil for four Irish students who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed on Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. The fourth floor balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex detached early Tuesday morning killing six and injuring seven during a 21st birthday party. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland's Minister of State for the Diaspora, leaves an open casket vigil for four Irish students who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Pallbearers attend to the caskets of Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, before a service at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Pallbearers attend to the caskets of Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, before a service at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Jackie Donohoe places items on top of her daughter's casket during a service for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Gavin Burke, second from right, brother of Olivia Burke holds his head in his hands as his fatter Paul Burke looks down during services for Olivia Burke, 21, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, at St. Josephs Catholic Church in Cotati, Calif., on Saturday, June 20, 2015. The two woman were among the several people killed on Tuesday when a balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Michael Short)
Funeral directors transport the body of an Irish student who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. Caskets bearing four of the six victims arrived at St. Columba Catholic Church for a vigil Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A man holds his head during a memorial service for six Irish students at the Cathedral of Christ the Light Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. The six Irish students died when a balcony collapsed during a party in Berkeley. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
Mourners embrace following an open casket vigil for four Irish students who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Funeral directors transport the body of an Irish student who died Tuesday when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed on Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. Caskets bearing four of the six victims arrived at St. Columba Catholic Church for a vigil Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Mourners arrive at a vigil for four Irish students who died when a Berkeley apartment balcony collapsed on Friday, June 19, 2015, in Oakland Calif. The balcony at Berkeley's Library Gardens apartment complex detached early Tuesday morning killing six during a birthday party. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Members of the public queue to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A member of the public arrives to sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday June 20, 2015. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Tributes left in a book of condolence in the chapel at St Mary's College in Rathmines, Dublin, where UCD students Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan studied before they were killed in a balcony collapse in the US. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. The victims - five from Ireland and one from California - plunged to their deaths while celebrating a 21st birthday party in Berkeley. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A flag flies at half mast at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin, to honour the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. The victims - five from Ireland and one from California - plunged to their deaths while celebrating a 21st birthday party in the US city. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. The victims - five from Ireland and one from California - plunged to their deaths while celebrating a 21st birthday party in the US city. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Candles are lit in memory of the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. The victims - five from Ireland and one from California - plunged to their deaths while celebrating a 21st birthday party in the US city. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A list of the names of the victims beside a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin opened in memory of those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Messages written by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina in a book of condolence opened at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dublin Lord Mayor Christy Burke (right) invites members of the public to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins signs a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Lord Mayor Christy Burke (left) watches as President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Mourners attend the funeral of Eoghan Culligan at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham in Dublin, after he died when a balcony collapsed in the college town of Berkeley, California. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 23, 2015. See PA story FUNERAL Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina whoi attended a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost their lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People gather for a mass at UCD this afternoon for the young Irish students who lost thir lives in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness signing a book of condolence at the Mansion House following the deaths of the young Irish students in the Berkeley tragedy. Pic:Mark Condren 19.6.2015
People stand in silence at a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
Members of the public queue to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Tributes left in a book of condolence in the chapel at St Mary's College in Rathmines, Dublin, where UCD students Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan studied before they were killed in a balcony collapse in the US. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
A woman holds a candle during a candlelight vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to mourn the loss of six students who died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A flag flies at half mast at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin, to honour the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Candles are lit in memory of the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
The Irish students killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse: Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, all 21 years old and friends from south Dublin. The sixth fatality is Irish-American Ashley Donohoe (22), from California.
People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of the balcony that sent six young Irish nationals plummeting to their deaths. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of the balcony that sent six young Irish nationals plummeting to their deaths. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
A crowd of people stand in silence at a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of a balcony at a California apartment building, sending five Irish citizens and an Irish-American woman plummeting to their deaths, media reports said on June 17. At least seven other people were injured in the accident in Berkeley, which took place in the early hours of June 16 during a 21st birthday party. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
People place candles at a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of a balcony at a California apartment building, sending five Irish citizens and an Irish-American woman plummeting to their deaths, media reports said on June 17. At least seven other people were injured in the accident in Berkeley, which took place in the early hours of June 16 during a 21st birthday party. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
People place candles and signs at a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of a balcony at a California apartment building, sending five Irish citizens and an Irish-American woman plummeting to their deaths, media reports said on June 17. At least seven other people were injured in the accident in Berkeley, which took place in the early hours of June 16 during a 21st birthday party. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Young friends attend a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015.
People embrace at a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of a balcony at a California apartment building, sending five Irish citizens and an Irish-American woman plummeting to their deaths, media reports said on June 17. At least seven other people were injured in the accident in Berkeley, which took place in the early hours of June 16 during a 21st birthday party. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
BERKELEY, CA - JUNE 17: A man cries during a candlelight vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to mourn the loss of six students who died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - JUNE 17: A woman looks at a makeshift memorial outside of an apartment where six students died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - JUNE 17: A man looks at a makeshift memorial outside of an apartment where six students died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - JUNE 17: People gather at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to mourn the loss of six students who died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BERKELEY, CA - JUNE 17: People hold candles as they gather at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to mourn the loss of six students who died in an early Tuesday morning balcony collapse on June 17, 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for six students who were killed, five of which were in the United States on J1 work visas from Ireland, when a balcony they were standing on collapsed during a birthday party in their Berkeley, California apartment. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Emotional tributes have been paid to the tragic students (AP)
Eoghan Culligan and his girlfriend Sarah McCarthy
Neil Sands of the Irish Network Bay Area places a flag of Ireland over wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015 (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A woman leaves flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Newspapers in the student centre in University College Dublin where three of the six students studied before they were killed in a balcony collapse in the US. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
The remaining wood from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony that collapsed is shown in Berkeley (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A worker measures near the remaining wood from an apartment building balcony that collapsed in Berkeley (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Irish flag, flowers and a sign are shown at a shrine left for victims of the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man who did not give his name looks at photographs, cards and flowers from a shrine for victims from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A crew works on the balcony which collapsed, killing six people
Police at the scene of a balcony collapse at an apartment building near UC Berkeley on June 16, 2015 in Berkeley (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A group stands in the lobby at Highland Hospital, where some victims from a balcony that collapsed were taken (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
People gather at the scene of a balcony collapse in Berkeley (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Flowers and a cigarette box form a makeshift shrine near the area where a fourth floor balcony collapsed in Berkeley (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Police examine the scene of a balcony collapse in Berkeley, Calif. on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

"But I do know what it was like when tragedy struck my own family and I would not wish that on anyone. My sister, who lives out here, and I have been home to Banbridge three times - each time for a sad occasion.

"Perhaps I have learned to be a better priest because of those experiences. God prepares you for the work you have to do, although this past week has been extraordinarily difficult."

He says that the bereaved families now just want to get home and bury their dead children. "They say that time has stopped for them. In the hospitals the parents keep saying how awful it must be for the other parents. Everyone is doing all they can to help.

"I remember when I came out here on a J1 visa and how we enjoyed ourselves and then I think of how my own mother and father would have reacted if they had received the same awful news that those families did this week. It doesn't bear thinking about." He revealed that he had received a message from one of the priests involved in the Clonard Novena in Belfast this week saying that all the congregations were praying for them.

Fr McAleenan was a late vocation.

Now aged 52, he was ordained 10 years ago in St Patrick's Church in Banbridge, where he had been baptised, made his First Communion and was confirmed.

"It was the place where I buried my mother, father and brother and my ordination was a very emotional time for me, but also very joyous," he said.

At the end of the conversation it was back to the church to prepare for the all-night vigil by the parents who spent a couple of hours alone with the coffins during the day before opening the church to other J1 visa holders and then the general public to pay their respects.

Belfast Telegraph

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From Belfast Telegraph