Saturday 29 April 2017

How can we prepare for so many last goodbyes?

Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States (left), helps Neil Sands, president of the Irish Network Bay Area, lay an Irish flag on two wreaths at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters
Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States (left), helps Neil Sands, president of the Irish Network Bay Area, lay an Irish flag on two wreaths at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

How does a nation prepare for the numbing sight of five coffins arriving back on home soil in the wake of unspeakable tragedy?

The scale and circumstances of such loss has rarely been witnessed in the history of our State.

Multiple coffins arriving by aeroplane is something we associate with military disasters, not joyous, J1 summers.

As we brace ourselves for the arrival of the remains of the five young Irish victims of the Berkeley balcony disaster, we already know that the summer of 2015 will forever be defined by this sorrow.

We mourn together when major tragedies arrive - such as the loss of the five schoolgirls in the Navan bus crash in 2005; the collision that claimed four young women's lives in Co Mayo just before Christmas 2009; the deaths of eight men in Donegal in July 2010; and the Carlow crash that resulted in the deaths of four students last January.

So too are we enveloped in overwhelming grief as we anticipate the five funerals that will be held over the course of next week.

Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Tributes left in a book of condolence in the chapel at St Mary's College in Rathmines, Dublin, where UCD students Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan studied before they were killed in a balcony collapse in the US. Niall Carson/PA Wire
A flag flies at half mast at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin, to honour the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Candles are lit in memory of the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public queue to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
A list of the names of the victims beside a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin opened in memory of those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dublin Lord Mayor Christy Burke (right) invites members of the public to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Messages written by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina in a book of condolence opened at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins signs a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire

In a country the size of our own, and with the intimacy that brings, the individual connections have already been quickly established, however tenuous. Maybe a nephew once played football with one of the victims - or perhaps it is just the shared reverberation of having also been a J1 student, once, no matter how long ago.

Irish Consul General Philip Grant talked about how the Irish community in California had come together in "solidarity and support" in the wake of the tragedy.

There was "a sense of shared grief, shared pain".

"It's universal; these are all our families at the moment, these are all our children."

This is all the more accurate here because they truly are our children.

No family has been left untouched by the realisation that if this horribly random and completely unforeseen incident could happen to a carefree group of students in the course of a joyous summer in America, it could happen to anyone, anywhere.

A structural collapse in the salubrious Californian university town of Berkeley - which is regularly rocked by earthquakes and therefore demands even more stringent building regulations - scarcely seems credible.

Fundraising is under way to get grieving students home, social media is throbbing with heartfelt offers of open houses and a bed for the night near the hospitals.

And a grieving nation is poised to assist in any way it can, to provide even a morsel of solace when the broken-hearted families arrive home with the remains of their loved ones, and prepare to say their last goodbyes.

Irish Independent

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