A Wider Irish World

Two things – from a bigger number – have struck me about ourselves in the context of the commemorations of the 9/11 terrorist massacre. It deserves no other name. The first makes me sad, and the second is part of why it makes me sad.

The first is the moaning which is going on about America’s response and the supposed consequences of that response – loss of civil liberties, unpopularity in the world, the financial costs of waging war to protect itself (and in reality, us as well) from its enemies of the moment, and so on. I write from an Irish perspective and have to admit that the stage has been reached where a feeling of revulsion arises in me as I turn the page of a newspaper to see yet another analysis of so-called American decline and fall. I move quickly on to the next page.

The second is the awareness of how much of what happened is part of our world. I don’t mean the wider world but I do mean a wider Irish world. The atrocity of 9/11 was undoubtedly a global event, but it was also very much and event closer to home for us than for many other societies. National identity is not a simple thing anymore. It is a very complex thing in the modern world and it is important to come to terms with it. A nation’s diaspora, for some reason perhaps more so for the Irish than for other nations, is part of its identity. Identity is no longer bounded by territory. It is bounded by somenting much more transcendent.

This was brought home to me this morning which I read and was deeply moved by an article in the New York Times which is part of its commemorative series, THE RECKONING: AMERICA AND THE WORLD A DECADE AFTER 9/11,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/us/sept-11-reckoning/queens.html?hp . Something about the community described here, its people and their tragic losses, connected in a way which transcended the ocean between us.

Furthermore, this transcendent identity which the real world has created for us here on this island over two centuries has a kind of liberating effect. It liberates us from the small-minded insularity which sometimes seems to engulf us – and just now more than ever before as we bemoan our loss of an illusory sovereignty.

The connection between this and the sadness induced by the other is precisely because the other seems to heartlessly obliterate the lives and preoccupations of these people. There is a callousness about the analysis they offer of the American response which goes beyond a simple assessment of the means and method of that response and seems to question the very right of Americans to attempt to defend themselves and vindicate their dead and suffering.

Below is the text of the specific article to which the link above should also take you. It is long, but no less moving for that.

Hit Hard by 9/11, a Piece of Queens Struggles to Let Go

The terrorist attacks scythed through generations of firefighters and Wall Street traders in the largely Irish-Catholic neighborhoods on the Rockaway peninsula. Also, the neighborhood’s Muslim bagel man; and the connection between the 9/11 families and wounded American soldiers.

By ANNE BARNARD Published: September 8, 2011

Just off the boardwalk, towheaded children bounced on a blow-up trampoline. Grown-ups bantered and showed off babies. An annual charity event was starting off summer on the Rockaway peninsula, a sliver of Queens jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. In the usual place of honor, between the Budweiser and the barbecue, stood photographs of grinning young men: all childhood friends, all dead.

The roguish blond one brandishing the beer mug — Charles F. X. Heeran— died on Sept. 11, 2001. One of 12 killed from his church alone, he worked at the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, high up in the World Trade Center. The one in shades and flak vest, Michael D. Glover, joined the Marines, spurred by Charlie’s death. In 2006, Lance Corporal Glover was killed by a sniper in Iraq.

Ten years after 9/11, a kind of memory industry hums along in Rockaway.

The peninsula suffered one of the nation’s most concentrated losses when the terrorist attacks scythed through generations of firefighters and Wall Street traders in the largely Irish-Catholic neighborhoods here. Fifty-nine people from Rockaway died; about 70 counting summer and former residents. One enclave, Breezy Point, lost 32 of its 5,000 people. A proportional hit to New York City would have taken 51,000 lives.

So every summer come the memorial events, one after another, a comfort and a duty to many around here, and a growing burden to others. Every bereft family, it seems, has its own golf outing or concert or surfing contest — all for charity.

This is one ripple effect of the attacks that few here want to see fade: People are still responding with personal action, switching careers to risk death fighting wars, or fires, starting organizations that rush, even compete, to help neighbors in need.

Rockaway’s effort to come to grips with the collective trauma of Sept. 11 often seems like a denser version of the nation’s struggle as a whole. As the 10th anniversary approached, families here were weighing how much to keep 9/11 a centerpiece of identity and daily life — and how much to edge mourning aside and move ahead.

The unusual interconnectedness of the grief — the shared loss of multiple relatives, friends and neighbors — made the ambivalence all the more raw.

At the July 1 charity event, Mr. Heeran’s older brother, Sean, stepped to a microphone. His voice broke as he saluted the killing of Osama bin Laden: “Here’s a shout-out to Seal Team 6!”

Then he thanked the crowd for supporting the RIBS Foundation, short for Rockaway Irish Boys, which honors his brother and two friends. Since 2002, it has handed out $200,000 to neighbors facing problems like medical bills and tuition shortfalls.

Sipping a beer nearby was Mike Moran, a firefighter who lost his brother,John, a fire battalion chief, on Sept. 11. His family was pondering a big step. The 10th golf outing for John Moran, held earlier in this same spot, might be the last.

“Ten years is enough,” their mother, Peggy, 80, said. “I don’t expect everyone else to be in mourning with me.”

But that notion had already brought pushback from an old family friend — the Heerans’ father, Bernie, a retired firefighter.

Devoting himself to charity, Bernie Heeran has become the neighborhood’s designated custodian of 9/11 memories, building a prayer garden at the church, raising money for the parish school and a memorial park, and covering the walls of his pub, the Harbor Light, with photographs and mementos of the dead.

To some neighbors, the pub is a comforting shrine; others call it a depressing mausoleum.

Still, most people accept one another’s mixed feelings, said Steve Stathis, who runs Rockaway’s first and largest post-9/11 charity, the Graybeards.

“Ten years is usually the last memorial,” he said at his surf shop. “Should it be the last one? Everyone said we’d never forget. I really don’t know how I feel about that. Is there a time when it’s right to stop?”

He sometimes hears people grumble about Mr. Heeran’s pub.

“But he’s the one who lost a son,” Mr. Stathis said he tells them. “What are you going to say: ‘I think you should redecorate’? There’s only one answer: It’s up to each family. Who are we to say?”

Network of Bereavement

Beach 129th Street in the Belle Harbor section of Rockaway has the storefronts of a small-town Main Street — gas station, deli, barber — and a few clapboard houses. The five Heerans — Sean, the fraternal twinsCharlie and Billy, and two sisters — grew up there, in Rockaway fashion, amid herds of children whose parents were friends and who stayed friends into adulthood.

Children roamed free, “pool hopping” through backyards; parents knew where they had been before they got home. Most went to the parochial school, St. Francis de Sales. Later, teenagers calling themselves Rockaway Irish Boys worked as lifeguards by day and sneaked beers by night in a spot on the beach called the Cove.

“We caused havoc,” Billy Heeran recalls.

Many followed fathers and uncles into the Fire Department; others followed a Catholic-school network to Wall Street. So when hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, they ravaged an extraordinarily interlaced world.

The Heerans, mourning Charlie, 23, found themselves in a nexus of bereavement. His brothers worked in finance — Sean, fatefully, had just left Cantor — and lost dozens of colleagues. Their father, Bernie, lost a dozen firefighter friends.

Bernie Heeran held court on his porch, accepting condolences and soothing firefighters who felt guilty for being alive. Scores of neighborhood men dug rubble all day, then drank at the Harbor Light. Some decided to turn their basketball league, the Graybeards, into a charity organization. Forty people showed up for the first meeting.

Two months after the attacks, a jetliner crashed — almost unbelievably — right into the neighborhood, near the pub. Men exhausted from ground zero ran out to douse flames and collect bodies. One of the five killed on the ground was Charlie Heeran’s close friend Christopher Lawler, 23.

The surreal coincidence brought numerous reporters to Rockaway, along with the first inkling that there was such a thing as too much focus on Sept. 11. Bernie Heeran told his story again and again: how he pushed Charlie to work on Wall Street, where it was “safe”; how in a last phone call he advised him to go to the roof, where, it turned out, there was no escape.

Eventually, Mr. Heeran stopped talking.

Life went on — differently. Already patriotic, the neighborhood became more so. The Heerans’ next-door neighbors were among the first to change their lives. One, Jimmy Brady, then 24, flew home from New Zealand, where he played professional rugby, to join the Fire Department. He recalls feeling he was rushing to defend his home, “like coming back to your country in a war.” His brother quit college to do the same.

Another friend, Michael Glover, postponed law school to join the Marines. He could not have been more steeped in 9/11. His uncle, Peter E. Hayden, a deputy fire chief and friend of the Heerans, initially commanded the north tower rescue.

Mr. Glover, who grew up living with the Haydens, told them he was fighting for Charlie. He was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, wearing his uncle’s cross, made of ground-zero steel.

Billy Heeran remembers hearing the news: “I almost fainted.”

The Heeran brothers had helped start the RIBS Foundation to honor Charlie and the friend killed by the plane in Queens, Mr. Lawler. Now they added Mr. Glover, 28. They bought a weekend house, to get away and enjoy being together. They wrote Internet messages to Charlie on his birthdays, envisioning him in heaven in a Hawaiian shirt.

Each seized his first chance to join the Fire Department. They had taken the qualifying test before the attacks, a Rockaway tradition, never intending to join. But their finance jobs in Lower Manhattan had come to feel eerie.

Their Brooklyn firehouses might seem an odd refuge — a firefighter from Sean’s house died with his brother, a police officer; one of Billy’s colleagues lost his father, a fire chief. Firefighters now train constantly for the next 9/11 — a subway gas attack, for instance. It worries the brothers’ friend Mr. Brady enough that he urges his wife to take the bus.

But Sept. 11 was already woven through the brothers’ lives. It even led to Sean’s marriage. His childhood friend Lynn Allen, after her brother Richie died that day on his first firefighting mission, dropped into a Midtown bar where Sean was moonlighting. They traded tips on peaceful places to pray. (Sean recommended St. Patrick’s.) They married in 2005 and named their first daughter Charley Mae, after her uncle Charlie.

Later, at a bar with firefighters, Billy met Elise Berlau, from Kansas. On their first date, she asked if he knew anyone killed on Sept. 11. When he replied that he lost his twin, he recalls, “There was a silence for like 10 minutes.”

That moment sealed their bond. Ms. Berlau came to understand that marrying Billy was marrying Rockaway, and to some extent, Sept. 11.

During the difficult Septembers, she said, men repair to bars: “Their approach to grieving is just sharing memories. The wives, the girlfriends just kind of step away.”

But, she said as they chased their toddler around their oceanside apartment, “It doesn’t rule my life.

“And,” she added, turning to Billy, “it doesn’t rule yours.”

No Escape at Home

Ten years later, 9/11 is inscribed on the Rockaway landscape. The altered Manhattan skyline shimmers across the bay. Names of the dead can be read on a stained-glass dome in a memorial park; on trees where streets dead-end at the beach; on a new church organ. American flags flutter from porches and streetlights.

People wear signs of grief on their bodies. It is rare to walk down Beach 129th Street without seeing a memorial T-shirt or bracelet or tattoo. Every Tuesday, volunteers tend the new park between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. — roughly the time of the attacks. Every summer, the anniversary windup stirs emotions. This year, they are more intense.

Mike Moran is brash and jocular, known for his taunt at an October 2001 concert, “Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!” But at his family’s event in June, he broke down telling how Sept. 11 persuaded him and his longtime girlfriend to marry.

He is alive because he switched shifts that day; his entire fire truck crew died. In July, he watched the mangled truck towed from storage, as if in a funeral, and installed in the museum at ground zero.

Now the family was contemplating closing another chapter: the annual golf outing that honors Mr. Moran’s brother, John. Attendance is down. And the event is always bittersweet, their sister Ellen said, because it forces family members to publicly confront one another’s grief.

“It’s very easy for me to put the walls up around myself and contain my own pain,” she said, “but very difficult for me to watch my mother and my brother and sister in pain.”

Her mother, Peggy, leaned on Ellen’s arm, eyeing the men talking to her grandson Ryan, who was 7 when his father died. Now 17, he takes military survival courses, hoping to join the Navy Seals. Peggy Moran confided later that she worries he courts danger because he hears too much about “his father the hero.”

“He wasn’t a hero,” she said. “He was just an ordinary person,” doing his job.

Ellen Moran, 56, is often reminded that some wounds go too deep to redeem with charity and patriotism. After her brother died, a close relative, a child, developed severe emotional problems that persist in adulthood. Ms. Moran’s neighbor, who lost a brother, committed suicide.

There is no escape in Rockaway, Ms. Moran said. You bump into 9/11 relatives in the store, you socialize with them; when they marry each other, you are invited. But there is comfort in that, too, she said.

Later, at the RIBS golf outing, Charlie Heeran and his friends were clearly not forgotten. Friends toasted the 3-month-old Michael Glover Tubridy, one of several babies named for the fallen Marine. Most spoke anonymously about their neighborhood aid work, displaying a Rockaway aversion to self-promotion.

“You may not hear much about it,” Sean Heeran told the crowd. “But you know it’s happening — and it’s you.”

Younger men smoking nearby were children on Sept. 11. But it is a defining memory; each Saturday at the beach, they plant an American flag in the sand. One, just back from Iraq, ribbed his friends: “You felt safer when I was over there, right?”

Sitting nearby, Mr. Glover’s uncle, Pete Hayden, retired from the top uniformed job in the post-9/11 Fire Department, said he no longer gave speeches on his experience. “I didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” Mr. Hayden said.

Six days later came a 9/11 tradition that swings the focus from private grief toward public patriotism, Wounded Warrior Weekend. Flag-waving crowds cheered as injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans rode into Rockaway — famous now among many veterans for its hospitality — to stay in families’ homes. Fire trucks, police helicopters and fireboats escorted them, a show of Rockaway’s clout in the uniformed city agencies.

One family held a sign connecting military sacrifices to firefighters’ deaths on 9/11: “Thank you for avenging our 343 fallen brothers.”

‘This’ll Be the Last One’

On Sunday morning, a piece of crumpled steel from Sept. 11 will be unveiled in the memorial park in Belle Harbor. Across the water, a growing construction site glitters by night, slowly filling the space where the towers stood.

Belle Harbor’s priest, Msgr. John Brown, has requested remembrances for a parish history. There has been little response. “The first question I got,” he said, “was, ‘Why?’ ”

In their no-frills way, the Heeran brothers are taking stock.

“I think about what my brother would be doing,” Sean said. “He’d be a multimillionaire on Wall Street. He’d be a father.”

Billy said: “I’m over his death. But not over the fact that he was killed by terrorists.”

Their whole family is going to ground zero on Sunday, for the first time in years. Billy hates seeing other bereaved parents there; Sean and his wife prefer visiting their brothers’ graves. (They had the grim luck of recovering remains.) “I think this’ll be the last one,” Billy said. “I just want Sept. 12 to be a new day.”

Small things still flatten Ellen Moran: catching her mother crying at her rosary; seeing pictures of her brother John’s boys. “I’m caught off guard more often than I would like today, that it’s still such a powerful shock,” she said. “That whole surrealness, it just hits you again — like, did that really happen?”

For renewal she visits the beach, where things never change — big families, rusty beach wagons — or her new grandchild, her first, and thinks, “Finally things are looking up.”

The Morans ultimately decided to stop the annual John Moran golf outing. But Bernie Heeran plans to take over.

 

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