Thursday 20 October 2016

How a memorial to an atrocity 30 years ago brought a chill to a beautiful summer day

Barbara Scully

Published 28/07/2016 | 02:30

A mourner visits the Air India monument. Photo: Getty
A mourner visits the Air India monument. Photo: Getty

Driving out along the Sheep's Head Peninsula on a shimmering, shiny, summer day, the constantly changing views that emerge around each bend in the road make my spirit soar. Happiness, that most fleeting of emotions, settles all around me as I wallow in the seductive feeling that God is in her heaven and all is right with the world.

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My destination is the tiny village of Ahakista; a village whose lyrical name has an almost reggae ring to it. I say it out loud, "Ahakista", giving it a Caribbean lilt, which seems all the more appropriate on such a beautiful day.

The narrow road turns and twists around tiny coves and inlets. I am on the lookout for the Air India Memorial Garden, which I have been told will signal my arrival in the village.

Memorials are a familiar part of my personal landscape, living as I do in Dún Laoghaire, where the local monuments recall tragic sea disasters of centuries ago. The stories of the RMS Leinster, the Rochdale and, in particular, the loss of a courageous lifeboat crew on Christmas Eve, 1895, were ones I grew up with. All of these disasters were due to the ferocity of Mother Nature at her most dangerous, and lives were lost despite desperate efforts to save them.

But the Air India monument recalls something quite different. It stands to remind us of the work of terrorists and of lives that were quite deliberately ended just after 8am on the morning of June 23, 1985, when a bomb exploded on flight AI 182 from Canada to India, via London, downing the aircraft off the coast of west Cork - 329 people were killed on that summer morning 31 years ago.

The Air India disaster marked the first time a Boeing 747 was targeted by terrorists, and the culmination of their evil plot resulted in the mid-air explosion of a passenger jet in Irish airspace.

I find myself unable to pass by and I pull in. The sun is splitting the west Cork stones and glints of silver sparkle on the water of Dunmanus Bay. There is no wind and the only sounds are those of an occasional passing car and the cry of a seagull overhead. A small wooden gate leads me into a narrow, beautifully kept garden, bursting with purple hydrangea, orange crocosmia and scarlet fuchsia. A manicured lawn stretches out towards the shore. There, on a low wall, facing out to the Atlantic Ocean, are inscribed the names of all the passengers and crew on board Air India flight 182. It's arranged alphabetically, and I am struck by how many entire families were wiped out on another summer morning, 30 years ago.

I close my eyes and in my mind I see the once-familiar interior of the 747. Cabin crew busy collecting rubbish and turning up cabin lights as their jumbo jet approaches Ireland, heralding the flight's arrival in Europe. There is a sense of rising expectation as the passengers prepare to land at London Heathrow in under an hour. Most of them were intending to continue onto India.

Of course, I remember the Air India disaster. In 1983 I was working in the travel business in Dublin and the downing of a large passenger airliner over Irish waters was a huge shock. But as I stand confronted by the details of the human cost of that awful event, I realise that in recent years I had forgotten. We say we will never forget, but we do. Perhaps we have to. Otherwise, how could we wallow in the pure exhilaration of a beautiful, warm sunny day?

So memorials are important. They remind us of the random nature of life, of the horror that evil can inflict on what should be just another regular day when ordinary people are brutally murdered in the name of some cause or another. Perhaps in the aftermath of such atrocities these places allow us to regain some control when it feels like we have lost all ability to be safe in the world. They provide us with a tangible counterpoint to evil.

In time, no doubt a fitting monument will be erected on the Promenade des Anglais to those whose lives were so horribly taken on the night of July 14, while they watched a Bastille Day fireworks display.

As I turn to leave the Air India Memorial Garden, I ponder how such a beautiful and remote place as Ahakista has been randomly linked forever with the people of India and Canada by the horror of a bombed airliner. Then I notice the wreaths, placed no doubt on the anniversary of the disaster just over a month ago. The flowers have withered and died, all that remains are colourless, dry garlands and the sun-bleached words of families, loved ones and the governments of Canada and India.

Irish Independent

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