Homecoming of pain and grief for victims of Berkeley tragedy
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Homecoming of pain and grief for victims of Berkeley tragedy

IRELAND is in a state of mourning as the funerals of five victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse tragedy begin in the capital today.

Students Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan, all aged 21 and from Dublin, died in the California disaster.

So did their friend, 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe, an Irish-American from California who was with them when the tragedy stuck on Tuesday, June 16.

The six had been among numerous Irish J-1 visa students attending a party at an apartment in Library Gardens, Berkeley. The victims, along with seven other Irish students, were socialising on the apartment’s balcony.

The balcony, which was four floors up - 40 feet from street level, collapsed without warning at around 1am local time.

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The fall left six dead, along with seven injured, some of whom remain in critical condition in the US.

As the reality of the tragic loss of so many young Irish lives continues to sink in among the Irish community at home, in Britain and in the US, arrangements for funeral services have had to be made.

Olivia and Ashley, cousins who were deemed “inseparable” by their families, were mourned in a joint funeral mass held in Ashley’s native Rohnert Park in California over the weekend.

There the devastated families came together in their grief, as hundreds gathered to hear Cork-born Monsignor Dan Whelton lead the service.

“They went back and forth, Ashley to Ireland, Olivia to here. They were in a way like twins. In life they were together and in death they are together too,” he told the crowds.

That emotional service marked the first of the funerals to be held for the Berkeley victims.

Following the funeral the Burke family flew Olivia’s remains back to Ireland yesterday (June 22), to lay her to rest in her hometown. She will be buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin, tomorrow morning, June 24.

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The bodies of Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Eimear Walsh were flown back to Ireland on Saturday, June 20.

A special Aer Lingus flight was commissioned to transport the families of the 21-year-old students of University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology and their remains.

Eimear Walsh will be the first to be laid to rest in Dublin, where she is due to buried in Shanganagh Cemetery this morning after an 11am funeral mass.

Around the same time, just across the city, a similar service will take place for Eoghan Culligan, in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross.

Tomorrow (June 24) the family of Niccolai Schuster will say their goodbyes at his funeral in the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, before removing his body to Mount Jerome Crematorium in Harold’s Cross.

Lorcán Miller's family will lay their eldest son to rest privately on Thursday morning, as they deal with their "inexpressible grief" together.

While the devastated families in Dublin grieve their children, the tragic loss of six Irish students continues to send waves of grief through the Irish Diaspora worldwide.

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In Ireland, the institutions where the young men and women studied held remembrance services in the days following their deaths and are still helping their friends and fellow students come to term with the loss.

Hundreds attended memorials held at the Dublin Institute of Technology and University College Dublin in the past week – with President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina attending the latter.

The site of the accident in Berkeley also became an impromptu site of mourning, with flowers, Irish flags and candles being left at the scene after a huge memorial service took place there.

Here in Britain, the Irish Embassy opened its doors for mourners to sign a book of condolences yesterday, which remains open today, while the London branch of the UCD alumni organisation also marked the deaths.

“Our hearts are broken this week by the events that took place in the US”, chair of the group David O’Reilly told The Irish Post. “Our thoughts are with the victims and their families and friends.”

Members of the London group also attended a mass on Sunday, June 21 in Farm Street Catholic Church in Mayfair to pay their respects.

As tributes continue to pour in for the Berkeley six, the families of the victims have made their first public statements regarding their loss.

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“The family want everyone to know and understand that Ashley and Olivia were two intelligent, talented and hardworking women. They had bright futures ahead of them,” the statement for the Burke and Donohoe families read.

As they boarded their flight home from Berkeley last Saturday, the families of the remaining four victims issued a joint statement, saying: “We cannot thank enough the students that were in the apartment and apartment complex that night.

“The manner and speed at which they reached out to our families, to our Consul, and to each other was faultless. Our children were extraordinarily blessed in their friends and we are enormously proud of them.”

Meanwhile, the first of the injured students is expected to leave hospital in Berkeley and travel home for the difficult week ahead later today.

Five more students remain in hospital in California, while one of the injured, Sean Fahey, returns home to Dublin today, to attend the funerals of his friends.