'It's not just the president; the flower of our country's intelligence has died'
THEY were the "flower of Polish intelligence", killed in a plane crash that has left their country without a head of state.
And yesterday hundreds of mourners flocked to St Audoen's Church in Dublin for a remembrance ceremony to honour those who died when their plane crashed near the city of Smolensk in Russia.
They should have been outside enjoying the glorious sunshine.
But instead, members of the Polish community gathered to mourn the worst tragedy in their history since World War Two.
There was no laughing, or casual banter. Instead, many were on the brink of tears as they contemplated the loss of their fellow citizens.
Among the dead were President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria; 15 MPs; and Anna Walentynowicz, a trade union activist at the Gdansk shipyard whose dismissal in 1980 sparked the strike that led to the creation of the Solidarity movement and eventual transition to democracy.
"I woke up yesterday morning to hear the news," Magda Szczerba, from Grudziadz but living in Naas, Co Kildare, said.
"It's very sad, I just couldn't believe it. It's not just the president, it's the flower of Polish intelligence that died. It's very, very hard."
Dawid Karyszak, living in Tallaght, Dublin, said it was a "huge tragedy" for Poland.
"United we stand. It's a huge tragedy for us.
We have beautiful weather but inside we are very sad. Today we stand united," he said.
The presidential party was flying to Russia to mark 70 years since Soviet forces massacred more than 20,000 Polish prisoners-of-war -- mainly drawn from the political, military and cultural elite -- near Katyn.
But their Soviet-era Tupolev 154 crashed in heavy fog, killing all aboard.
"We'll never forget what has happened in this enormously tragic place, a symbolic place for so many Poles," Polish ambassador to Ireland Dr Tadeusz Szumowski told the Irish Independent.
"Seventy years ago it was the place where thousands of officers were killed.
"The president went just to commemorate this event, to meet and talk with the Russians about this horrible crime.
Then you have this very symbolic crash at the very place 70 years after, it's just incredible.
"The only thing we can do is to be together, to pray together, and get strength together."
There were two shrines erected to the dead outside St Audoen's, while inside a memorial was erected for President Kaczynski and all those who died.
Well before the ceremony began at 12.30pm, it was standing room only.
Hundreds were forced to mourn outside, while nine priests remembered the dead.
"We welcome all here to our holy Mass for this very sad moment in the history of Poland.
"Today we all want to pay our respects to all the victims of the plane crash catastrophe," chaplain to the Polish community Fr Jaroslaw Maszkiewicz told the congregation.
"I ask you to remember the distinguished sons of our nation.
"It's a personal tragedy that makes us cry with sorrow.
"It's the worst tragedy in Poland's history since the second world war."
President Mary McAleese attended the ceremony, giving the first reading. The Taoiseach was represented by Community Minister Pat Carey.
A book of condolence will be opened at the Polish Embassy in Ballsbridge today.
A memorial Mass will be held later this week.