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Tribute by President Higgins to the First Responders and Volunteers of Berkeley

Tribute by President Higgins to the First Responders and Volunteers of Berkeley

Remarks by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

At a Tribute to the First Responders and Volunteers of Berkeley

Shattuck Hotel, Berkeley, California, U.S.A.

Wednesday, 28th October,  2015

A Dhaoine Uaisle,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Is mór an onóir dom bheith anseo libh inniu.

As President and representative of the people of Ireland, I am truly honoured to stand among you today to pay tribute and give thanks for your extraordinary work and service.

Sabina and I have wanted to undertake this journey ever since those darkest of days last June when we witnessed from afar your invaluable and unwavering support for our young men and women ,and for their families, in that time of such anguish and pain. 

This tragedy has had an enormous effect on the Irish people.  The loss of life and the serious injuries visited on young men and women at the cusp of their adult lives is a tragedy which has moved all of us very deeply.  We know that it has affected you also.  You share this tragedy with us and we join you today in solidarity and thanks for what you have done to help those who have suffered so much as a result.  

I also want to acknowledge the presence here today of Jackie and George, the parents of Ashley Donohoe.

There is a saying in Irish that I have used in a different context. “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”. Literally it means that we all live in each others’ shadows and it refers to our interdependence and the impact of our actions on each other.

While this proverb was coined in less globalized times, it holds its relevance when we consider the tragedy that occurred here in June and in particular your reaction to it. In the blink of an eye, these young, talented and bright students, most of whom were thousands of miles from home, and their families and friends suddenly needed the compassion and intensive support of strangers. You did not fail them. Your actions gave such powerful definition to the term ‘hospitality’.

Some here were the first to respond to their calls, the first to reach their side in the awful aftermath of the balcony collapse. It was for them to tend to the dying and the injured and to carry them to where they needed to be. 

It fell to others to reach out to the families and friends.  To bring the terrible news to them of the tragic event and to call them to Berkeley. As the hours turned into days the local authorities and the community organised and set about providing practical, psychological and spiritual support for the injured and their loved ones.

Your combined efforts brought this community together in its desire to respond, to reach out and to help.  We saw the best of leadership and care from your police and fire departments, which watched over and guided the Community’s response.  A refuge was provided where the friends of those killed and injured could turn for counselling and comfort.  This was also a place where they could be reunited with their families and where they, in turn, could give comfort to the bereaved.

Particular help was required for the families and friends of those whose lives had been lost. Many were arriving in Berkeley distraught, vulnerable and in great need of assistance.  You became the pillars of that support.

We in Ireland were deeply touched as we saw you stand hand in hand with the families as they mourned their loved ones and as you shared in their grief. We are also deeply grateful for the practical assistance that was provided in helping families to arrange for the remains of their loved ones to be brought home.

In the hospitals and medical centres difficult news about serious injuries had to be shared, but lives were saved.  Some tended to the injured, others counselled the families and friends.  No-one spared any effort to help repair what could be fixed. 

The wards were always open to the families, friends and volunteers - those who stood vigil from that first night to the time, three months on, when the last of the injured students was able to make the journey home.  Space was made available so that their friends could stay close and provide vital emotional support.  Individually and together, you showed the true meaning of compassion and care.

I would like also to acknowledge the role of the Irish Consul General Philip Grant and Vice Consul Kevin Byrne, and their team at the Consulate in assisting all those affected by this terrible tragedy.  I know, and appreciate greatly, that the Consulate team were also able to rely upon members of the wider Irish community who volunteered their services to help the young people and their families.

The Irish word ‘meitheal’ is used to describe instances when the community rallies around the individual or family in times of need. It expresses a deeply held solidarity within a generous and close-knit community and has long been associated with the Irish community of the Bay Area. 

I know that it is an expression favoured by Fr. Brendan McBride, Chaplain to the Irish Community of North America and founder of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center of the Bay Area and it is an accolade that, as the response to the tragedy here in Berkeley demonstrated, is richly deserved.

During those most difficult days, Fr Brendan’s spiritual counsel and that of his fellow pastors gave solace and hope to many.  Harnessing the tremendous response by the Irish community would not have been possible without his stewardship and guidance. 

Following the community’s recommendation, I was pleased that Father Brendan has agreed to accept one of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Awards.  It is a tribute to him and through him to all of those who contributed, especially the local volunteers. 

At the month’s mind remembrance service in July, Fr. Brendan spoke of the “energy” that the hundreds of Irish students bring to the communities of the Bay Area every summer, especially here in Berkeley.  He spoke movingly of the six students who lost their lives so tragically and he promised that they will “be a beacon for all who follow them for the succeeding summers”.

The motto of Berkeley is “Fiat Lux” – “Let there be light”.  I see gathered here the custodians of that light and the keepers of that beacon – the police, the firefighters, the medical teams, the volunteers, the people of Berkeley and their neighbours.  You can all be assured that through the humanity and compassion of your actions on 16 June and since then, you have made a most terrible event more bearable. For this you have my deep gratitude and that of the Irish people. Our bonds of friendship are made stronger by shared pain and loss, but they will also join us together in happier times to come in the future.

In a few moments we will depart to the civic plaza, close to where our J1 students held that first vigil for their friends.  Together Mayor Bates and I will each plant a tree, a living symbol of remembrance - two saplings of Arbutus, native both to Ireland and to California and one of our most beautiful trees.

No bit of the natural world is more valuable or more vulnerable than the tree bit”  Seamus Heaney – a poet of Ireland and of Berkeley – has written.  “Nothing is more like ourselves, standing upright, caught between heaven and earth, frail at the extremities yet strong at the central trunk; and nothing is closer to us at the beginning and at the end.”

I invite you to join and stand at our side as you have done on every occasion since the 16th of June, our keepers of the beacon and the light that is the City of Berkeley.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.