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Kindness of strangers shone ray of light into dark clouds of tragedy


A tree with messages on it in the grounds of the church at the funeral of Olivia Burke. Photo: Colin Keegan

A tree with messages on it in the grounds of the church at the funeral of Olivia Burke. Photo: Colin Keegan

A tree with messages on it in the grounds of the church at the funeral of Olivia Burke. Photo: Colin Keegan

The ruby-red leaves of the maple tree were washed pink by the bright sunshine overhead. It stood on a gently sloping patch of grass, close to the pastoral centre adjoining Foxrock church.

The tree hadn't been there a week earlier, before six students - including two from the parish - had died in the Berkeley balcony collapse. On Tuesday June 16, as news of the horrific tragedy shocked the country, the parish committee debated about how best to reach out to its community. It was decided to open the church until midnight for a vigil, while unsure if anyone would show up.

But lots of people did. Some brought musical instruments. And for three hours, songs and prayers echoed through the church. And they kept coming in numbers, night after night. A large noticeboard was placed along a side aisle and soon it was covered in notes of sympathy and support. A maple tree was planted and a basket of yellow ribbons was left for anyone to write upon and tie to its branches. When they ran out, white and green ones were provided.

By last Tuesday, the day of Eimear Walsh's funeral Mass, the tree was in full blossom with sad ribbons, as an army of women passed it en route into the parish centre with trays and trays of home-prepared food to nourish the hundreds of mourners.

From the altar on Wednesday, the parish priest Fr Frank Herron spoke of the surge of support and solidarity which was shown to the bereaved families and friends.

"This week our community in Foxrock has reached out to each other as never before," he said.

It was a wave of kindness which flowed into every neighbourhood marked by the tragedy. Three days after the events in Berkeley, the two grandmothers of one of the dead students, 21-year-old Lorcán Miller, were interviewed by RTÉ's Ray D'Arcy. And Ruth Miller described the outpouring of generosity from both friends and strangers as a sign "the real Ireland is back".

She said: "We are just having this carpet of support. It's just amazing... I think the Celtic Tiger has gone and the real Ireland is back. I can't describe the kindness."

So what sparked this widespread wellspring of kindness? There was, of course, the sheer scale of the tragedy. But then it was also the realisation - as was said repeatedly during the past 10 days - of every parent's worst nightmare. The Taoiseach nailed this dread when he reacted in the Dáil to the news: "When you look at the papers, don't you see the photos of your own children?" he asked, as every parent silently agreed.

It was a statement poignantly underlined by Jim Walsh in his eulogy for his daughter about how he and his wife Patricia felt when they received the news: "Eimear being so far away, and us being so helpless."

Technology such as Skype and Facebook and Instagram has made the world seem so much smaller; but, when disaster struck, San Francisco was still half a world away from loved ones.

Then there was the sheer eloquence of compassion of the bereaved families; how, even in the midst of their own unimaginable pain, they sought to reach out to all the others wounded, physically or emotionally, by the catastrophe. John Schuster, speaking at the funeral of his son Niccolai, had a message for shaken Irish parents: "Let your kids go, do not let this incident deter you. Let your children have freedom, it will give them life experience."

At each funeral, one or both parents painted loving pictures of their lost children. Heartbreaking tokens of lives happily lived were brought to their coffins: a bottle of orange squash and chocolate; hair straighteners; a photo of Olivia Burke and her dog Skipper; a rugby shirt. The sight of so many young people racked with grief was such a sorrowful spectacle. At 21 years of age, for many the golden summer between quitting childhood and acquiring adult responsibilities, you honest-to-God think you'll live forever.

Yet there were lads uncomfortable in suits probably last worn for a graduation, and young women clad in black, glossy hair framing bewildered faces - and many of them making the grim pilgrimage from one funeral to the next. And then there was the promise of those young folk, dashed on a balmy California evening.

A heart of stone would've split and shed salty tears on Thursday as Lorcán Miller's dad Ken read from the postcard his eldest had sent to his three younger siblings days before he died. "As part of my job I have to talk to customers and I always tell them about my amazing brothers and sisters and how much I miss them," he wrote.

But perhaps Fr Herron in Foxrock and Lorcán Miller's grandmother Ruth are on to something. After all, the Celtic Tiger crash was the financial equivalent of a plague - it respected no socioeconomic differences, and the long arm of hardship felt white and blue collars alike. Many previously secure households suddenly had to rely on the State or the kindness of strangers to get by.

Maybe the hackneyed phrase, "We're all in this together", has finally come to mean something when the dark clouds gather.

Irish Independent