Higgins trip honours New York’s Irish, past and present

President Michael D Higgins adjusted the green, white, and orange ribbons on the wreath and bowed his head.

New York’s 9/11 Memorial was an oasis of calm as the madness of Lower Manhattan seemed to drift away. The presidential delegation fell silent, and all that could be heard was the constant rushing of the waterfalls which flow in to the two footprints left behind by the Twin Towers.

Once the President’s moment of reflection at the so-called Survivor Tree was complete, he shook hands with the police officers standing on either side: Kennedy, Valdes, and Shea.

The pear tree, which miraculously stayed standing during the attacks in 2001, was kept alive in Brooklyn before being returned to the memorial site.

“That tree tells us its own lesson about the indomitable nature of the renewal of life,” President Higgins told the media after a busy morning that launched his first full day of a 25-engagement trip.

“It was very moving for me.”

Slowly perusing the inscribed names of all those who were killed over 10 years ago, he wiped rain drops away from Sean Peter McNulty and lingered for a time by Cork-born Ruth McCourt and her daughter Juliana.

Ironically, the President and his travelling party found themselves at this now sacred spot a year to the day since Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in Pakistan.

Less macabre was the fact that, almost 24 hours previously, the Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center had officially surpassed the Empire State Building as New York’s tallest structure.

Up on the 21st floor, the President met an Irish contingent from the 3,500-strong construction crew employed at the new building, a group of about 20 which included Mark O’Connor from Ballybunion, Co Kerry.

“It was fascinating [meeting them],” said the President. “I really wanted to spend a bit of time with them. They’re very committed to it as a project. They’re not just there providing their own skills.”

The day began at an address loaded with significance, 1 Wall St, the headquarters of America’s oldest bank, Bank of New York Mellon.

That is where Irish Network NYC was hosting its annual gathering of young businesspeople, all of whom were beaming with pride that they had managed to invite such a high-profile keynote speaker.

“It’s a huge honour,” the group’s chairman and Balbriggan native Eric Moore told the Irish Examiner afterwards. “To think this is the President’s first official trip to the States and he chose to come and speak to us... We’re very proud.”

After a tour of the Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park City, not far from the World Trade Center, President Higgins was hosted by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn at City Hall in a nicely informal setting overlooking the open-plan office design favoured by the billionaire media mogul.

The President and his host swapped gifts and spoke about the recent Titanic anniversary in Cobh, which had Mr Bloomberg momentarily confused.

“It was where the Titanic last left land,” said Ms Quinn, who is expected to succeed Bloomberg as mayor and whose grandmother survived that doomed voyage.

“They used to call it Queenstown.”

“And they changed the name? I’m shocked,” remarked the mayor with a wry smile.

Last night, the President delivered the third annual Thomas Flanagan Memorial Lecture at the American-Irish Historical Society, while today will be spent visiting Irish community centres in the Bronx before the President speaks at a promotional event for the Irish film industry at the Lincoln Centre on the Upper West Side.


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