Twenty years on from 9/11, it’s the small moments of bravery and beauty we must remember

John Connell

I was 15 when it happened. Old enough to understand the tragedy of the day, but young enough to not comprehend the ramifications of the event. We were in school, unaware of the world-ending change around us. I think now, 20 years on, the change has never stopped . The images from Kabul these last few weeks from the second American war are a direct result of that day when all things ended and new things began.

September 11 will loom large this weekend. There will be think pieces, reflections, analysis and commentary. The media will replay the event and scrutinise what it has all meant. We will hear the name Al-Qa’ida brought up from the ashes, the spectre of Osama Bin Laden will re-emerge. We will see the towers fall as they have fallen every year for 20 years.

But there are other narratives to this day, untold quiet narratives. Father Mychal Judge, the son of Irish immigrants, who rushed into the buildings before they collapsed, the falling man whose name we still do not know. Tom Canavan, who survived the collapse of the tower and climbed his way out of the rubble.

There are thousands of stories that ended there that day in those towers, and it seems, on this island, that we all knew of someone who had a connection to them. New York is, after all, an Irish city. Perhaps, though, the memory that stays strongest with me happened not long afterwards. I was in the Gaeltacht in Galway, near Costelloe. The events of the year had taken their toll and the war in Afghanistan was under way, with the Taliban ousted for the time being and a new-found sense of freedom entering that ­country.

Revenge or retribution had been achieved by the US and Nato forces and it seemed a sort of new order had been achieved. At first, I hated the Gaeltacht. I was far from home for the first time in my life and, although I had made friends, I had not fully settled into the place. The teachers and minders were a mixture of young and old who showcased the wonder of Co Galway to us. I still remember thinking how small the fields of Connemara were, and that it was an alien landscape to the one I knew in the midlands. There were no trees, and stone walls were everywhere.

After the second week, we made day trips to different places: the Aran islands, lakes and, on one occasion, to climb a mountain. I no longer remember the name of the mountain, but I do recall the day clearly. It was bright and clear and the weather was warm, but not so hot as to cause us concern. We walked in single file up this ridge, looking out to get a view of the countryside below. The guide, one of the teachers from the school, knew this landscape and pointed out different features to us.

After an hour or two, we came to the crest of the mountain and found an altar built into the stone in a small alcove. Thinking now, it could have been the mountain called Mám Éan, but I am no longer sure. In the alcove behind the altar there were hanging prayers, ribbons and forget-me-nots. It was a tapestry of devotion, but there was one thing that was out of place. It was the ID card of a New York firefighter. It was battered and worse for years, but I saw his face, a young face, perhaps the age I am now. A mass card told me everything else I needed to know. He had died on 9/11, and someone had brought this ID badge all the way across the ocean to place at this little prayer rock.

I looked for a while and thought of all the tragedy that had happened that year and all the lives that had been lost. He was an American, but he was also an Irishman. I have never forgotten that rock or that ID card, although I no longer know the man’s name.

Memory is a funny thing. It comes back to us in snatches and waves, it lilts on our minds like the curtain caught in the breeze or the sonorous notes of a good piece of music. When I think of those towers now, 20 years later, I will think of this young man and all he could have achieved in the intervening years.

The towers were so impersonal, the attack itself monstrous, that we can almost forget the individual stories within them.

When I visited New York with my young sister two years ago, her wish was to go to the site of the towers and see what remained and what had changed. She had been born after the events, and so they had only been an inherited global memory.

As we walked around Freedom Tower and went into the bowels of the 9/11 museum, we saw the fabrics of what remained from the day’s events. There were torn girders, huge pieces of debris and names upon names of the dead; indeed, as the tour guide said, there were still people dying as a result of 9/11 due to health-related problems.

But as I walked around that site, as we stopped by the infinity pool outside and imagined what New York must have been like with the towers intact, I thought of that young fireman and his ID card in the mountains of Galway.

It is a memory I keep with me still. It is a fuel that will burn this coming weekend, stronger than all others. We can never forget that day when the world changed. Things have not been the same since then. Wars, terrorism, alienation. We must, I think, try to keep beauty in our minds. It is what the victims would have wanted. It is what we all need now in the wake of a memory 20 years in the making.


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