Memories of the tournament for residents of the Co Wicklow town will forever be tinged by the tragic death of a local soccer fan while following the team in Poland.
Blessington came to a standstill yesterday morning as local people turned out in their hundreds for the funeral mass of James Nolan whose body was recovered from a river in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz last week.
The tiny Church of Our Lady was packed with mourners while several hundred others were forced to wait outside the building due to the size of the crowd.
They heard local parish priest, Fr Tim Murphy, describe how people’s “hearts are broken because a beautiful young man has been taken from us”.
Relatives and friends of the 21-year-old environmental engineering student — known as Jam to most people — paid moving tributes at the start of the ceremony with his uncle, Noel Nolan, fondly recounting the young man who was always known for the big smile on his face.
Mr Nolan said it was unbelievable to watch and read media reports about James going missing and how people who had never known him, including dignitaries from Ireland and Poland, had spoken with such care and compassion about his nephew.
“It gives me a sense of pride to think the world thought James was so special. He will never know the effect he had on two countries,” said Mr Nolan as he fought back tears.
The chief mourners were James’s parents, Jimmy and Essie, his brother, Andy and sister, Suzie.
In a tribute to her younger brother, Suzie recalled how James “lived every day with absolute contentment with life”.
She claimed if there was a reason for his death, it might be to remind people in Ireland who are suffering from despair and depression to “live and to love”.
Among those in attendance were FAI chief executive John Delaney; Irish soccer goalkeeper, Shay Given; Claudine Keane, the wife of Irish soccer captain, Robbie Keane; and the Polish ambassador, Marcin Nawrot.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Michael D Higgins were represented by their respective aides de camp, Cmdt Michael Treacy and Capt Louise Conlan.
The requiem Mass was concelebrated by a number of clergy including the Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, Éamonn Walsh.
In his homily, Fr Murphy thanked the Polish authorities for their efforts to get James home to allow his family to give him a Christian burial.
A letter from the Mayor of Bydgoszcz, Rafal Bruski, was read out in which the Polish official spoke of the grief felt by locals at the “death of a guest in our city”.
“James will be remembered in the hearts of Bydgoszcz,” he said.
The gifts brought to the altar for the offertory represented the typical interests of a young man, including sports jerseys and an iPhone.
The popular anthem of Irish soccer fans, The Fields of Athenry was sung as James’s coffin was led out of the church before burial at nearby Burgage Cemetery.
Members of the local soccer team, Blessington FC, where James was a regular player, formed a guard of honour along the route.
Among the many wreaths placed on the hearse was one from Irish midfielder, Keith Andrews, which read: “You will always be in our thoughts every time we play for Ireland.”
James’s body was recovered from a river in Bydgoszcz last Wednesday following a major search. It began after he was reported missing the previous weekend following a night out with his friends.
CCTV footage showed James turning down a street towards the river near where his body was found. No foul play is suspected in relation to his death.