Tuesday 27 September 2016

A week for hard grief and for quiet pride

The country has responded in such an unprecedented way to the terrible deaths of six students, who died in California when the balcony they were standing on collapsed

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Book of condolences at Mansion House
Book of condolences at Mansion House

'The six who are dead have become the children of Ireland. They have now become symbols of our country, and the people have responded accordingly in so many different ways."

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How did that happen? How did Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller; and indeed Aoife Beary, Sean Fahey, Hannah Waters, Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray, Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn become, as Jimmy Deenihan called them, the children of Ireland?

Why has the country responded in such an unprecedented way to this terrible tragedy?

The first thing you realised as the news started to trickle out of the tragedy in Berkeley is that south Dublin is a village. As news of different people began to spread across the affluent suburbs of Dublin 4, 6 and south county Dublin, everyone knew someone who was affected.

To the rest of the country, south Dublin can sometimes seem like an enclave of privilege, cut off from the rest of the country. It can also seem a glamorous, metropolitan place, full of competing, anonymous neighbourhoods and schools.

But, in truth, it is a village, a big village made up of smaller villages. And like any village, it is linked by the ties of sport, church, schools, friendships and relationships.

The shockwaves reverberated first through the smaller communities within this community. As word got out that several boys from Saint Mary's College in Rathmines were involved, the community around this relatively small and tight-knit school began to gather.

Parents gathered, boys gathered, past pupils gathered. Many past pupils of Mary's still have brothers in the school. It can tend to be a family affair. And lots of the boys and their parents would have known Eoghan Culligan or Nick Schuster, or perhaps Nick's brother, who is still in the school.

Sean Fahey, who is said to be making a good recovery, was also an ex-Mary's boy. Before this ever happened, Mary's had had a tough year, with more than its share of tragedy. And again this week, the Mary's community gathered in shock and sadness.

As the Mary's community was rallying around, so was Foxrock, so was UCD, so were all the affected communities within the village of south Dublin. And, perhaps to the surprise of some people, churches were central to it. The chapel is at the heart of Mary's anyway and many of the boys are more religious than you might expect southside rugby lads to be.

Mass at Mary's had to be held in the gym the other night to accommodate everyone. In Foxrock, too, they turned to the Church. Despite everything that has happened around the Catholic Church in the last few years, it was where these villages turned when they wanted to gather, and talk and be with each other.

Even the young people who didn't go to churches held their own rituals. They gathered, away from the adults often, they lit candles, they hung out like young people do and talked or didn't talk as much as they wanted to.

As the shockwaves reverberated out, another thing became clear: that Ireland is a village too. We are all connected. And at times like these, we put aside our differences. There was none of the "If they were from Finglas, would we be having this outpouring?"

It was, perhaps, summed up by a Dublin woman who appeared on the TV news during the week having signed the book of condolences. She hadn't gone to Loreto and you would guess she had never enjoyed a J-1 summer. But, she carefully pointed out, these were kids who were supposed to be having a nice summer break before knuckling back down to college work. "It's what we all aspire to for our children, isn't it?" she said, transcending class and all the social divides that have been stoked in this country over the last decade.

Of course, another reason they became all of our children was social media. Social media has obviously changed the nature of public grief. At times it can seem to have devalued the notion of grief. It can seem to make people feel an ownership of a grief that isn't actually theirs. But somehow, on this occasion, perhaps because these kids were products of the social-media age, it seemed like a perfectly appropriate bush telegraph, where people could share news and share their shock and their sympathy. And it has clearly given the families and the friends and indeed perhaps the victims of this tragedy some comfort.

And neither has it just been empty Facebook sentiment. The outpouring on social media has been mirrored in the offline world. Again, because we are a village.

As the Taoiseach, who is at his best at times like this, when emotional intelligence is required, so memorably said, parents looked at the pictures in the papers and saw their own children. And all of us saw different things in different ways. Like that woman on the news who saw everyone's aspirations for their own children, and saw them in tatters for these kids.

It chimed, too, of course, with those of us who had that magical J-1 summer, the first time most of us had the choices of adults. We had those choices, our own places, our own money, our own jobs, but we had the freedom to enjoy it. We had no responsibilities.

And we fell in love with America and Americans, a place so free and open and friendly compared to what we were used to. We first took the piss and then marvelled and admired at how quickly Americans befriended you, had you around their houses, loaned you their cars. Coming from where we came from, we found their openness almost embarrassing at first, and then we found it liberating.

We realised quickly that their positivity was something we could learn from rather than mock. We thought the worst thing that could happen you on those magical summers was to fail your exams and have to go home, that grim journey home, the summer over, prematurely. In fact, there are much worse journeys home, aren't there? Much, much worse.

What wouldn't any of the parents who made that journey to California last week give to have a pissed-off kid, home from Berkeley, to repeat their exams?

It caused some of us to reflect, too. On the parties we had gone to those magical summers, the balconies we had stood on, the harmless fun we had. And on the risks we took, too. There are tens of thousands of us who went on the J-1 who deserve to be dead more than those kids do. All those crazy risks we took, and somehow the universe brought us home safe for late registration at college at the end of the summer. These kids didn't even get to take those risks.

The snuffing out of potential and hope struck a universal chord too. Young people get a hard time these days, but these gilded youths, in a strange way, gave people hope. They were sporty high-achievers, they were clearly kids who valued community and giving to the communities they were part of, rather than just taking. They were bright and ambitious. They were the kind of kids anyone would be proud to call their own.

And perhaps that is why they became Ireland's children, and symbols of the country. They maybe represented the best of modern Ireland. In a perverse way, they make us proud.

It is, you may think, a strange time to be that strange thing, proud to be Irish. But underneath the sadness, we were quietly proud to be Irish this past week. We were proud of our young, proud of our diplomats, even proud of our flag-carrying airline.

And in grief and sadness, we perhaps realised that we are all together in this community, that we are all connected, and that for all we beat ourselves up at times, we can be proud of this village.

Sunday Independent

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