COLMAN CASSIDY *
Fire in the Morning: The story of the Irish and the Twin Towers on September 11. By Niall O’Dowd. Brandon, 236 pp. €14.99
Published in 2002
A particular strength of this book is that it confines itself to the micro-picture. O’Dowd does not attempt to present the reader with naive analysis that pivots on how ashamed Irish-America is at the “ingratitude” of its cousins in Ireland in their responses to the atrocities of September 11th.
His solid re-working of that oeuvre on both sides of the Atlantic last year established he was free of all un-American proclivities. That is a useful enough testimonial for any foreign-born New York resident to possess in this less-than brave new millennium, following President Bush’s signing into law of the USA Patriot Act on October 26th 2001: it defines terrorism inside and outside the US in terms that leave no room at all for nuance. Given the intense xenophobia with which all foreigners are now being scrutinised by official America, whatever their protestations of loyalty and access to Washington – as in O’Dowd’s case – it is as important as in the McCarthy era, to be seen to be onside.
O’Dowd’s gyrations might, as a consequence, induce the intellectually wary, at least, to contemplate their susceptibilities and ignore his current offering. That would be a pity.
Because it is a book for everyone: from the ashes of the Twin Towers he has constructed a vital testimonial to the lives of working people – less heroic than ordinary for the most part. Its pages are filled with a humanity that transcends Armageddon, ignores the follies of class difference and spending power and serves to unite the living with their dead. Proof that this is no overstatement is self-evident: the entire work is greater than the sum of its parts, not an easy construct at the best of times. And besides, it’s well-written.
It’s a story that reduces hatred, despite the ineffable horror, through sense of community and self-discovery and, ironically, relays a strong spiritual dimension even as the Bush administration continues to up the ante daily, as it reviews its definitions of Evil – the Kremlin, just over a decade ago, for example, Saddam Hussein, today.
As the US-based South American writer, Isabel Allende, put it, before September 11th: “Americans have a warrior’s mentality, most of them. That’s how this society was built. The fact that you own a gun and shoot to defend your life is a very American way of thinking.” Allende, the novelist, was shaped inexorably by the convulsions that followed another September 11th – 1973 – the day her Uncle Salvador, the Chilean president, was murdered. The US, through Nixon and Kissinger, played a major role in his summary removal from power. His niece’s first novel, The House of the Spirits, is, inter alia, a powerful evocation of the frailty of democracy.
The gung-ho theme – without in-depth analysis – is not absent in some of O’Dowd’s character sketches. Take the case of John O’Neill, grandson of Irish immigrants, FBI special agent in charge of counter-intelligence – reputedly the only one who ever came close to cracking the Al Qaeda network before September 11th.
Bin Laden had first come to the attention of O’Neill and his colleagues after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre by Arab fundamentalists in which six people were killed. As he rose through the FBI ranks the special agent told everyone who would listen the US was the real target of bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Very few paid attention. Circumstances in the mid-1990s were to indicate that O’Neill’s hypothesis was correct, with Al-Qaeda coming out of the closet from 1996 onwards.
He was continuously a target of FBI infighting and was ultimately passed over for the Bureau’s top job in New York in early 2000. O’Neill left the FBI and took a job as head of security at the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. He started work on September 1st. Of the 3,000 lives lost in the attack on the tower blocks 10 days later, his death would have given considerable satisfaction to bin Laden, O’Dowd speculates, had he been aware of it.
The book’s treatment of less prominent lives is no less readable. There is the down-to-earth saintliness of Fr Mychael Judge, the Franciscan friar and chaplain to the New York Fire Department, who believed in the inclusiveness of all men and women as demonstrated in his peace march, two years ago, from Dundalk to Garvahy Road in Belfast. Fr Judge died of a heart attack on the front line of the Twin Towers alongside his beloved fire fighters, his lungs filled with soot and smoke.
There is also the story of Bruce Reynolds, a black police officer who loved nothing more than to work in the bog with the father of his Donegal wife, while on holiday in Ireland. His own father described his only child as “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. His mother gives a humorous description of their 1965 move from Pittsburg to a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan to better themselves, “prompted by the passage of civil rights laws a year earlier that nudged open the door of opportunity for blacks”. On his first day in the park, little Bruce, was shunned by the white kids whose parents feared a black invasion. His mother wasn’t having it. Next day he brought his little red truck filled with “the most wonderful toys you could ever want”. Bruce’s ‘inclusivity’ was never a problem after that. He perished at the World Trade Centre disaster on September 11th, leaving a widow, Marian, and their two young children.
From the irishtribute.com website O’Dowd reproduces a letter filled with humour and heart-rending pathos from an older sister, Rosaleen Tallon, to her 26 year old brother, Sean, another policeman and former marine, who “could have been the cool clean hero of so many American fables”. Her pride in him transcends the grave: “As reservists you and your fellow marines put in a hard week at work and on the weekends learn how to defend and die for our country.”
The New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book on the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, has no doubts from the outset, just like John O’Neill, about who was responsible. “I would grant to people who came after America hard on the Afghanistan military action the legitimacy of their critique, and I know there is much more that this country has to do,” he tells O’Dowd. “We have to spend billions now helping the people who were in these countries. I will grant no legitimacy to bin Laden or his ilk, however.”
It took the Manhattan Twin Towers disaster to make September 11th a special date in world consciousness. The second anniversary, a year from now, will coincide with the 30th anniversary of Salvador Allende’s killing and the fall of democracy in Chile. That’s worth remembering, too.
* Colman Cassidy is an Irish Times journalist.