The Firefighter-from Boyle to Brooklyn

Ai(by Aine ni Shionnaigh)

Growing up in a small town of less than 2000 in the West of Ireland, my exposure to emergency services was limited.  However, the house I grew up in was located directly across from the local firehouse, or as we called it in Ireland, the fire station.  A few times a week, annearthly siren howled through my house scaring the daylights out of me, especially during the dead of night.  It was in the days before cell phones so the siren would signal the firemen of the town to come to the fire station. Most fires were relatively un-serious: chimney fires or overheated car engines. One fire however stays embedded in my memory, early on Christmas Eve morning, a fire accelerated by Christmas tree lights destroyed the house two doors up from me, our local firemen tried desperately to save the family but the mother and her two young sons tragically lost their lives.

Always a book lover, one of my first books was a flat hard backed book about a fire station; one colorful picture depicted the daily routine of the firemen sliding down the pole from their living quarters overhead.   For years I tried in vain to peek into the darkness of the Boyle fire station to see the pole but was never rewarded with as much as a glimpse. In later years I sadly realized there never was a pole as the fire station was a single storey building and my beloved book was probably based on a firehouse in Brooklyn, New York rather than in Boyle, Co Roscommon.

Ireland was the only foreign country to declare a national day of mourning, following 9/11. I spent much of that day with my class, we organized a local prayer service and I saw another side of my 35 boisterous boys. In the days, weeks and months following the tragedy and horror of 9/11, all of the paintings and drawings hanging on the walls of my classroom in Athlone, Co Westmeath depicted the bravery of the firemen and policemen of NYC.  These FDNY and NYPD officers had very quickly replaced the Superman, Spiderman, and Hollywood heroes of my 5th and 6th grade schoolboys.

In the freezing first days of January 2005, I moved to NYC where the Irish are intricately woven into the very fibers of the place and I quickly realized the extent of the Irish and Irish American extraordinary tradition of rushing to the aid of others in times of distress.  On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I found myself again in close proximity to a fire house, where I often stopped on the way home to silently offer a prayer for their lost members whose fading photographs adorned the windows. I hoped the glimmer from the melted novena candles symbolized some hope in this life for their loved ones left behind and in the next for the ones who were cruelly taken away.

On the fateful day of 9/11, the FDNY lost 341 firefighters and 2 paramedics, there were 75 firehouses in which at least one member was killed. The FDNY also lost its department chief, first deputy commissioner, one of its marshals, one of its chaplains, the beyond saintly Mychal Judge whose parents came from Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim, as well as other administrative or specialty personnel. Shortly after the battalion chief of Battalion 1 witnessed American Airlines flight 11 crash into the North Tower, a multiple alarm incident was radioed. For the first time in over 30 years, all off duty firefighters were recalled. One off duty fire officer that day had swapped two twelve hour shifts with two colleagues so he could drop his mother to the airport for her return flight to Ireland. However on seeing the first tower burning from his rooftop, he immediately headed into Manhattan where he and his colleagues entered burning debris to pull out the trapped and injured. On that fateful day, Sean Cummins lost 87 colleagues, including the two men he swapped shifts with. I was honored to meet Sean recently at the Manhattan Club at the inaugural Irish Echo’s First Responder’s Awards where along with Niall O’Shaughnessy, he received the ‘Teamwork Award’.

The daily sacrifice of  FDNY officers, more appropriately known as ‘The Bravest’ is staggering, never more so than on 9/11 when the waste of lives is still too much to bear. Thirteen years later, the sense of devastation is still palpable amongst the brothers of the FDNY. They along with the survivors of all the people who were lost on that fateful day are forever wounded. On a fateful fall day in 2001, ordinary men were asked to do extraordinary deeds. Some are still with us, some are not and we will never forget those who are not. Ar dheis Dhe go mbeidh a anam dhilis.

* This article has been reproduced by kind permission of Aine ni Shionnaigh formerly Aine Fox, Marian Road, Boyle now domiciled in New York and was first published in the Irish Echo in October of this year.


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