It has been a very sad week here in Ireland. Six students, five Irish and one Irish-American, were killed in Berkeley as the balcony they were standing on collapsed. Another seven – all Irish – were seriously injured. It is hard to fully convey the sense of grief and shock that Ireland is experiencing this week. Although the incident was front page news in the US yesterday, the coverage seemed somewhat detached. After all, most of these students were just staying for the summer. Ireland is a small nation – just 4.5 million people. To put the scale of this tragedy into perspective, it would be as if 867 American students were injured or killed in one freak accident. This is further compounded by the fact that Ireland is a very tight-knit society. Everyone knows everyone, so many are related, and people’s roots go very, very deep.
The students were on a program called the J1 Visa Program. Quite honestly, I had never heard of the program before moving to Ireland. It is a program by which Irish students can work in the US for a short-term period. Going to America on your J1 is a rite of passage for many Irish college students. Because Ireland is so small and expensive, students often live with their parents or other family members while attending university. So venturing out on your own to America to work at a summer camp, wait tables at a restaurant, or another form of employment is something that nearly every young person here looks forward to. Over 150,000 Irish individuals have participated in the program in the past 50 years. Many of my Irish peers spent time in America on their J1, and encourage others to do the same.
As this tragedy unfolded, people looked around and thought: That could have been me. That could have been my sibling. My friend. My cousin. My child.
The sense of shared grief is palpable.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam.
(May their souls be on God’s right hand.)