9/11 reflections with Pete Mackey: On 9/11, when Ireland mourned

  • In this Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001 file photo, the Statue of Liberty stands in front of a smoldering lower Manhattan at dawn, seen from Jersey City, N.J. AP

Published: 9/13/2021 11:49:36 AM

I remember most clearly the two flags, Ireland’s and America’s, caught in the Irish breeze atop the post at the edge of Powers Woollen Mill, as our landlord and friend, and the shop owner, Frank, approached them to do what he said he must.

Not a half-hour before, we had arrived back home from a downtown visit to Galway, which is six hours ahead of U.S. time. It was mid-afternoon, and we’d been shopping. But sometime between our leaving Galway and arriving home, it happened.

By then, we had lived for a year in a duplex apartment in Kilcolgan, Ireland, and would for another yet as newlyweds starting out our lives together with an adventure. As a dual U.S.-Irish citizen, I had taken a job working for the country’s new science foundation. I was only one of the many millions of Americans that traced their roots back to Ireland.

When the towers came down, in Ireland the stories began emerging hour after hour, day after day of the firefighters and police who had lost their lives in the towers and themselves had emigrated from Ireland or whose parents or grandparents had. That day, the Irish began standing in line at the U.S. embassy outside Dublin to sign the book of condolences. At times, the line was more than 4,000 people long.

That Friday, Ireland shut down — the only country in the world, including America itself, to hold a national day of mourning for 9/11. Across the country, schools and business closed, and all sports and public functions were cancelled. The only things open were basically the churches and bars. We attended the service at the St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church in downtown Galway. Thousands more people than could fit in its massive nave gathered outside to hear the service broadcast on extra speakers; this scene repeated itself across the country.

Our apartment sat across from Frank’s shop, and it was my frequent custom to visit him at the front desk. He was a raconteur, entrepreneur, and friend all in one. At his shop, he talked up the tourists as he sold them wool sweaters and scarves, caps and jackets from the large supply he kept perfectly arranged on the tables stretching out from his post — behind the checkout counter and its cash register.

His shop was a popular destination, well-positioned on the main road out of Galway, which sat 20 minutes northwest. Just past Frank’s shop, you could take the turnoff and keep going southwest toward the famous Cliffs of Moher. Or you could pivot southeast, toward Shannon Airport and Limerick. Or even head toward the highway that took you cross country to Dublin. First, though, tourists liked to grab some groceries and gas at the intersection — and pick up a Powers Woollen Mill special.

But when I walked into chat with Frank that day, he was in no mood for banter. He had something new next to the register, a small black and white TV. As I entered, he glanced over his shoulder, red-faced, and said, “Look what they’ve done to your country.”

What I saw on the screen made no sense — one of the Twin Towers was burning from near its top. I’d grown up in northeast New Jersey, 30 minutes from Manhattan, and knew the sight well. “What is that?” I asked, thinking maybe a small plane had had an accident. But as we watched, another plane flew into the second tower. We gasped and stepped back in shock. A few minutes later, my wife burst in the door. She had listened to our apartment’s answering machine. “Your Mom left a message saying that everyone is OK. What’s she talking about?”

We pointed her toward the little TV, and she began absorbing what we were. My brother and his wife, among other family members, worked in New York City. In fact, some of them commuted on the New Jersey train that stopped beneath the towers. Now she knew what Mom was talking about.

But we weren’t huddled over that TV much longer. Frank was too upset for the America he loved and admired. He excused himself and said he had to go home. He turned off the TV and the shop lights. We followed him outside, and he locked the door. And then he strode alone across the parking lot to the flagpole and lowered those two flags together to half-mast.

Pete Mackey lives in Amherst.

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