Father James Reilly, who was the oldest remaining survivor of the Glen Cinema disaster in which 69 children died in 1929 in Paisley, Renfrewshire, died at his home in Cardross, Dunbartonshire, after a short illness and on the eve of the 71 st anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Glasgow.
He had served as a priest in three Dunbartonshire parishes, beginning with St Stephen’s in Dalmuir, Clydebank, immediately following his ordination by Archbishop Donald Campbell at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow on June 29, 1945.
Father Reilly was educated at St Catherine’s PS and St Mirin’s Academy, Paisley, St Mary’s College, Blairs, Aberdeenshire, and St Peter’s College, Bearsden.
Other parishes included St Anne’, St Laurence Martyr, St Mary Immaculate, Our Lady and St Mark’s, Alexandria, St Barnabas and St Lucy’s, Cumbernauld, from which he retired in 1984.
Father Reilly was Glasgow’s oldest priest. He was a man of sharp intellect and kept up to date with modern communications technology to the end. He celebrated his 70th anniversary of ordination last year when there was a Mass for jubilarians in the cathedral.
He could not attend because of physical frailty, but Father Reilly told Archbishop Philip Tartaglia that he would follow the Mass on the live webcam. The archbishop saluted him at the Mass and he said he waved back when the archbishop addressed him directly.
Father Reilly, who was brought up in Silk Street, Paisley, was just ten at the time of the Glen Cinema tragedy.
He had gone without a care with around 1,000 other excited children to see a western, Desperado Dude, which was showing at a matinee on Hogmanay, 1929. Within a short time of the film starting, smoke from a reel of film began filtering from the projection room into the packed cinema and panic ensued.
The children who died lost their lives when the audience rushed to the exits in a desperate effort to escape and were trampled underfoot. Hundreds more suffered smoke inhalation injuries or were otherwise injured, many of them seriously, as they pushed to get through the locked doors.
Years later Father Reilly explained to his local newspaper, the Paisley Daily Express, how he was pronounced dead and taken to the mortuary.
He said: “My mother was informed I had died and that my body was in the mortuary. However, when I woke up there was a nurse pumping away at my chest.
“I was in the basement of the mortuary and there were other children lying around me.
“They had been looked at by the doctors and were probably all dead, but this nurse must have passed close to me and, by luck, she saw some flicker of life in me.
“The next thing I remember was waking up in a bed in a hospital corridor. I must have blacked out again because I don’t know how I got there.”
Father Reilly, whose family were Irish immigrants to Scotland, lived in Paisley with his parents Patrick and Annie, brothers Charlie and Eddie John and sisters Patricia, Lena and Kathleen. He told friends he was the luckiest man alive.
The then newspaper delivery boy was, however, left with both mental and physical scars after the tragedy, which is remembered with sorrow to this day in Paisley as Black Hogmanay.
He said: “After what had happened to me, I was afraid to go to the football and the cinema because, everywhere I went, I was looking for exits. I’ve never forgotten that dreadful day and I never will.”
A fatal accident inquiry into the Glen Cinema disaster accepted that the fire was caused by a smoking film canister, resulting in panic and a crush which killed 69 children and seriously injured 40; the final death toll was 71. It is considered one of Scotland’s worst human disasters.
Father Reilly was a quiet, highly educated man and a caring pastor who touched the lives of many people who came into contact with him. His funeral Mass, which took place at St Michael’s Church, Dumbarton, on Friday, 7 July, was concelebrated by Archbishop Tartaglia and his fellow priests of the Archdiocese.