By Ray O’Hanlon
Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, laid a wreath at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan last week on behalf of the people of Ireland.
Visibly moved by what she was witnessing firsthand, McAleese stood silently for a minute after Thursday’s brief ceremony.
Moments later, McAleese inscribed her thoughts on a makeshift memorial wall dedicated to non-Americans killed during the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
“God bless those whose good hearts keep vigil here,” McAleese wrote. “May the souls of the dead rest well.”
Before McAleese’s visit, the word had gone out for Irish and Irish-American cops, firefighters and construction workers to turn out and meet the Irish head of state.
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And turn up they did. The president was surrounded during her visit to the observation platform at the southwest corner of Ground Zero by a throng of hardhats and emergency service personnel.
The wreath of flowers in the colors of the Irish tricolor, included a memorial card. The card included a dedication to the victims “and the many who inspired us with their selfless and courageous acts.”
“We know,” the dedication continued, “that by standing shoulder to shoulder, hope for the future will triumph over the hurt of the past.”
The card was signed by the president “on behalf of the people of Ireland.”
President McAleese, who was accompanied by her husband, Dr. Martin McAleese, and their daughter Emma, was assisted in the wreath laying by representatives of two police forces, Inspector Ronald Wasson of the New York Police Department Emergency Service Unit, which lost 14 members on 9/11, and Chief Superintendent John O’Brien of the Garda Siochana.
President McAleese was guided around the observation area by the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, Michael Collins.
As she was leaving Ground Zero, the president paused at yet another temporary memorial upon which was inscribed the names of the more than 2,600 people who perished at the twin towers. Among the names was that of Brian McAleese, a firefighter.
The wall of names also proved to be particularly poignant for Irish TV reporter Tommy Gorman, who was covering the presidential visit for RTE. The name of his cousin, Sligo-native Kieran Gorman, was also among the list of the dead.
As she left Ground Zero, President McAleese stopped to talk with police and firefighters. She also signed her name on a number of hardhats.
The president then walked a short distance from Ground Zero to the sight of the New York Police Department’s permanent memorial to dead officers.
At this spot, just a few yards from the Hudson River, she was presented with an Irish tricolor that had recently been uncovered from the ruins of the trade center.
The flag was presented by Officer Brian Hanberry of the New York Corrections Department emergency service unit.
Officer Hanberry, whose mother came to New York from Derry and whose father came from Galway, explained that members of his unit first spotted the orange part of the flag and at first thought it might be clothing from a rescue worker lost in the collapsed towers.
“But when we pulled it clear we realized it was the Irish flag,” he said.
At that moment, all work in the immediate area ceased and the tricolor was solemnly folded.
At this point, McAleese also met and embraced Ann McCabe, widow of murdered Garda Gerry McCabe.
McCabe was in New York to attend the annual presentation of a fellowship named in her husband’s honor by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
At the end of her visit to the Ground Zero area, McAleese made a brief stop at nearby Battery Park where work continues on a memorial to the victims of the Great Hunger in Ireland.
The memorial, which includes the ruin of a cottage shipped to New York from County Mayo, is due to be completed by this summer.
Speaking after her Ground Zero visit, McAleese said that she had felt moved, particularly when she had spoken with firefighters, police officers and construction workers.
“I was deeply moved as they explained how what might just be a job had become a vocation, and that they would not rest until they found everybody they could find,” she said. “They could have cleared it more quickly without considering the dead. But they did not. There is a great and tangible sense of sacredness about the place.”
McAleese said she had been acutely aware of the “absence” of the great buildings that had once stood on the World Trade Center site.
“But people redeem the absence of that space. They are tired and weary, but they have a serenity and softness despite the fact that what they are doing is very harrowing.”
McAleese said that she had been aware in advance of her visit that the wall with the list of the dead included a namesake, Brian McAleese.
She said that the people of Ireland well understood the impact the 9/11 attacks had on the people of New York and the U.S. It was a theme she would return to several times during her almost week-long visit to New York. Indeed, she missed no opportunity to reiterate Ireland’s solidarity with the U.S. and its sympathy for the victims and their families, sharing deeply felt words of comfort in speeches to hundreds of guests at the Ireland U.S. Council luncheon Friday at the Metropolitan Club and again Saturday at the pre-parade Governor’s Breakfast at the Waldorf.
“It was both shocking and profound, as if we had all been in Manhattan that day,” McAleese said at Ground Zero. “We all knew we had brothers, sisters, cousins that could have been there. And some were.”
Part of the web that linked Ireland and America was pulled on that September, she said. “And all of us felt it.”
McAleese had clearly been impressed by those she had met at Ground Zero on a spring morning during which two more bodies had been recovered.
“You have to admire their guts and determination,” she said of the emergency and construction teams at the site. “They are quite majestic people.”