September 11
Friday, 25 January 2002
My normal reactions to moving here from the States took a hiatus as I watched in horror.

By Gary Hetzler

My normal reactions to moving here from the States took a hiatus as I watched in horror, along with the rest of the civilized world, at the repeated replay of the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Pennsylvania tragedies. Janis and I were traveling around County Limerick at the time, and had just visited a small goat farm near the town of Hospital before heading in to the town of Kilfinnane for a very late lunch.

We first stopped at a hardware store, intending to get a few things, when the shopkeeper told us something about an airplane crash in New York. She'd just caught part of the story on the radio and wasn't too clear on the details. She thought two planes had crashed midair above the city or had accidentally hit a skyscraper. She may have mentioned something about a hijacking, but none of the story made any sense. Soon we were to learn the grim details, but even then it did not make sense.

We headed across the street to a pub. There we saw the pub owner and one lone patron staring in disbelief at the television, which was tuned to Sky News. They had seen the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and were simply stunned. Now we stood transfixed, also staring at the television and could not take in what was being fed to us by the live reports. We saw the flames from the Pentagon too, and reports of the fourth plan downed in Pennsylvania. Gradually, the inconceivable horror and enormity of the situation came over us. We were literally speechless.

Here we were, on an island so far away and yet astonishingly near in this global village. The Irish connection to America, New York City and Boston in particular, has always been close. But this tragedy brought that connection into tight focus. The litany of Irish surnames in the roster of firefighters and policemen lost was unfortunately a comprehensive one. And in a cruel twist of fate, Irish nationals themselves were victims, both on the planes as well as in the Towers.

How would the Irish react? Before long, we knew and were deeply touched as we saw the reactions during our travels that week. A National Day of Mourning, Ireland's first, was declared for Friday the 14th. We were in County Kilkenny on that Thursday prior and saw the flags at Kilkenny Castle at half mast, citizens lining up to sign a Book of Condolences, and business owners taping handwritten signs to their shop windows announcing that they would be closed that Friday, out of respect. All towns and cities throughout Ireland were replicating those scenes. Families near Shannon Airport also opened their homes to stranded Americans, so that they would have a bed to sleep on, instead of the airport floor.

On the Day of Mourning, virtually every business was closed. Shops, pubs, offices, petrol stations, all were closed. Or if they were open, like the Post Office, it was with reduced hours. There were very few cars on the roads in the rural Ireland that we saw that day in County Clare. And we watched on television and listened to the special service held at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. The Irish President's (Mary McAleese) genuine expressions of deeply felt sympathy were very touching in particular. During the telecast she said, "We are only beginning to hear the human stories, the unbearable reports of the final phone calls of love, the heroism of so many, the loss of so many." Throughout this whole ordeal, on the news or other programs as well, she has been consistent in her message of empathy and plea for restraint.

And to hear Mark and John Clifford from Cork on RTE's Late Late Show television program later that evening also call for restraint in the response of President Bush was especially moving. They lost their sister, Ruth Clifford McCourt and her daughter Juliana, who were passengers on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center. The brothers' plea was for justice, not revenge. They wanted no other innocent life taken in behalf of their loss.

Such compassion in the midst of unbearable pain is a testament to the human spirit. Perhaps that is the message from a land so often torn by terrorist, often sectarian, violence and a lesson to be heeded by a land with so much greater military might. Let us seek justice, not retribution. Let us unite in our laws and vision of a civilized world where that law does rule.

© Gary Hetzler 2002

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