By Ray O’Hanlon
We mourn our dead. Our Irish dead. Our Irish American dead. Our American dead. Our dead of all nationalities.
It was a week in which “the intimacy of connections” between Ireland and America was brought home as never before.
As with every diplomatic outpost in the city, the Irish Consulate in Manhattan was handed the appalling task of sifting through the consequences of carnage and confusion wrought by last week’s terror attacks.
The heart-rending mission was grotesquely simple in one sense. Seek out and confirm the status of those Irish who were missing and presumed dead in the rubble of great buildings and downed aircraft.
But who was Irish and who was not?
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Very quickly, it became apparent that such were the bonds of family and heritage linking Ireland with America and America with Ireland that it was impossible to keep the parameters of the search within the bounds of simple classification.
Many Americans held Irish passports and thus qualified as Irish citizens. Irish-born among the missing held American passports. Some who were American had an Irish parent, sometimes two. Some Irish had American spouses, some Americans had Irish spouses.
The normal nomenclature didn’t fit any more, or seemed suddenly irrelevant.
The transatlantic Irish family, in the very broadest sense of the term, had suffered the most grievous loss, together and with one heart. The sometimes hyphen between ‘Irish’ and ‘American’ was buried, too, in the rubble.
It was indeed, as the consulate official described it, a searing reminder of that intimacy of connections between two countries with a shared history, shared values and, now, a shared sadness so profound that it eclipsed national boundaries.
But the families of the missing who were in Ireland ensured that there would be yet some distinction between this number of missing, and that one.
Loosely speaking, how many Irish immigrants, most of them in their younger years, had perished in the towers and in the skies? The number fluctuated all week, but seven days after the attacks it was hovering in the region of twenty.
Add that to the anticipated number of missing-presumed-dead Irish Americans and the numbers to mourn in the broader Irish context reached into the hundreds.
But again, there would be here a blurring of ethnic and national lines. Such is America that an Italian surname can hide an Irish family line. An Irish surname might not immediately reveal a family root in Africa.
In the end, it seemed to matter little. They were all just human beings. And there were close to five-and-a-half thousand of them.
It was sobering, no, more than that, numbing, to consider the number for a moment. In all the thirty-plus years of the recent troubles in Ireland, the death toll had reached a little over 3,600.
This number, itself enormous for a small country, had been matched and left behind in a mere couple of hours, in two cities and in a Pennsylvania field, on Tuesday, September 11.
Amid the horror of the raw statistics, there would be individual stories of sheer good luck, heroism and tragedy. And those that could be loosely described as “Irish stories,” – they were legion.
Michael Desmond McCarthy’s was but one. And his was as near perfect an example as there could be of a shared Irish and American tragedy.
By the beginning of the new week, with smoke yet rising from “ground zero,” Michael was still missing in the ruin of the once mighty towers and though his mother, Margaret, still hoped for a miracle, she was now talking about her son in the past tense.
Michael had been working at his desk with the French company, Carr Futures, on the 92nd floor of the North Tower, the first to be struck by a hijacked airliner.
He had recently returned from London where he had been working as a broker. Michael was 33, as yet unmarried and, with six foot three inches of himself to throw into the fray, enjoyed playing rugby with a team based in the Bronx.
Margaret McCarthy is a native of Tulsk in Co. Roscommon. Her husband, Bill, is as Irish American as they come. He’s from Woodside in Queens.
“I am still hoping for the best,” said Margaret on Monday from her home in Huntington, Long Island.
“We can only hope. But it’s all so sad. Michael was on a great career path. He had so many plans now cut short.”
Margaret McCarthy was not just speaking for herself. She was speaking for the thousands of moms and dads who were clutching at hope even in the knowledge that there was less and less of it to grasp at.
It has been a week now. A week replete with the overwhelming and the comforting.
On Monday evening, St. Patrick’s Cathedral played host to the prayers of the world in a Mass of Supplication dedicated to the uniformed emergency services who had so impressed that same world in the hours and days after the “Attack on America.”
Not for the first time in its proud history, St. Patrick’s, grand and spacious though it might be, proved to be too small for the number of people who wanted to get closer to their God in a troubled time.
So hundreds stood outside even as the rush hour gathered momentum. The front of the cathedral resembled St. Patrick’s Day with people crowded together on the front steps. Hundreds more leaned against crash barriers on the other side of Fifth Avenue and down the streets on either side of the cathedral.
They prayed or simply meditated as the resonant voice of Cardinal Edward Egan was carried over the traffic’s roar by speakers placed outside the granite walls of the great church.
On one of the streets, on a low stone wall that forms the outer boundary of the cathedral’s holy ground, there was a plaque screwed into the wall. It was a functionary sign, one of many in the city. It instructed firefighters on where to go to find the kind of fire hydrant known as a Siamese Twin.
On any normal day it would not attract even a first glance. But someone, one of the millions who yet live to remember the fallen in this city, had taken notice of the bold lettering atop the sign: F.D.N.Y.
That someone had placed a bouquet of flowers on the wall and just over the sign. It was a week when the everyday became fearsome, and the smallest gestures attained a new, towering, beauty.