Saturday 22 October 2016

Finding friends in the hardest hours

Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30

People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
People hold candles during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California

It took a tragedy to make an ocean as vast as the Atlantic seem small. The reaching out of Americans, in particular the Irish-American community, and the warmth which enveloped those whose lives were changed forever this week showed how, when it comes to suffering, the world really can be a global village.

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Berkeley almost became an Irish parish as the tricolours and tributes were left to the J1 students whose lives ended on Kittredge Street. They were far from home, but the compassion and comfort to the injured survivors and to the stricken families of the bereaved made the strange familiar.

Mary McAleese put it well some time ago: "The immigrant's heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland."

In the last few days, those bridges became invaluable and the two worlds became one united by grief.

The work done by the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre was immense. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to Celine Kennelly and Fr Aidan McAleenan, who reached out both practically and emotionally in an hour of need.

But there's no surprise really, as the ties between San Francisco and Ireland are famous. Back in 2013 on a visit to the city, the ears of the Taoiseach Enda Kenny pricked up when he heard mention of a name that had a familiar ring.

In a remarkable coincidence, he found himself face to face with a Teresa Moore, whom he hadn't seen since she was a pupil in his class, some 27 years earlier. These are the ties that can make the hardest hours endurable.

As only the Bard could have put it: "How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world."

Consul proves more than just a diplomat

On the aforementioned visit to San Francisco two years ago, Taoiseach Enda Kenny also visited the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre and met with its board of management to discuss immigration and related issues.

At the time, a new Consul General to San Francisco had been announced by the Department of Foreign Affairs to arrive the following month.

Ambassadors and Consuls play an important role in the Irish community wherever they are based, so casual inquiries were made to the travelling party accompanying the Taoiseach about the new diplomat en route to California.

As the then press officer in Iveagh House, Philip Grant was well known to the entourage so he received a ringing endorsement. These days, the focus of the diplomat abroad is often on the development of trade, particularly in a location like San Francisco, so close to the heart of the global technology capital of Silicon Valley.

Little did anyone know at the time that Mr Grant would come to prominence, not for his role in chasing business, but for the old-fashioned diplomatic consular work of helping out Irish citizens abroad when things go wrong.

In an unprecedented tragedy, Mr Grant and his staff have carried the flag for Ireland with distinction this week. He has been the point person on the ground for victims, families and the Government alike. But he has also served as a spokesperson for a nation, capturing the grief of the loss of a young group of our brightest and best.

In a moment of crisis, he and his colleagues were more than just diplomats and deserve to be applauded.

Irish Independent

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