A tribute to the Irish Americans we lost on 9/11


This story first appeared in our sister publication, Irish America magazine, in the December 2001/January 2002 issue.

Quickly, there were demographic trends.

The Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage lost nearly 700 employees, a third of its total. Marsh & McLennan lost 295. Windows on the World restaurant, on top of 1 World Trade Center, lost 75 workers and 93 guests, talking business over bagels and coffee. 

And of course, the firefighters of the FDNY, while helping to evacuate some 25,000 people from the Trade Center, lost 343 of their "brothers."

Americans were the target, and of course other nationals also perished.

The Irish government named more than a dozen of its natives among the dead in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.

Based on family names and individual stories, there are many hundreds of American dead with Irish heritage, including Americans who through parents or grandparents had become Irish citizens. 

The Web site www.IrishTribute.com, set up in reaction to the September 11 attacks, estimated that perhaps one-sixth of the dead were in some way “Irish.”

"September 11, 2001 may well go down as the bloodiest day in the history of the Irish people," the Web site claims. "An estimated 1000 people who were of Irish descent or of Irish birth were lost in the violent events on that day."

On that warm and sunny Tuesday morning, Tommy Foley was closing out the overnight shift at Rescue 3, in The Bronx.

At age 32, Foley was already a 10-year veteran of the FDNY. It was the job he dreamt of since childhood, when he would visit the Harlem firehouse of a family friend, Firefighter Bob Conroy.

"Tommy Boy ? that's what I call him, ever since he's a little kid," Conroy said, still using the present tense. "I can still see Tommy Boy running around the firehouse in Harlem, running around and getting filthy dirty. It's all he ever wanted to do."

At 8:52 a.m., the call came in. Emergency in Lower Manhattan. An airplane or a helicopter or maybe even bombs, tearing through what New Yorkers call the Twin Towers. 

Instead of ending his shift, Tommy reached for his boots. Across the city, the scene was repeated. 

The first airliner hit just as scores of firefighters were either coming off duty or arriving to work, thus maximizing the number rushing downtown. 

Mike Cawley wasn't even on duty that day with his regular outfit the “Elmhurst Eagles” of Ladder 136, but instinctively he raced to the Towers with another unit, Rescue 4.

A 32-year-old bachelor like Foley, Cawley had been what firemen call a “buff” ever since he was a kid, happily covering shifts for firefighters who had families, and racing toward smoke and flame even when he was off-duty.

On a September 11 when he could have stayed away, Cawley of course could be no place else.

Meanwhile, AnnMarie McHugh had been at her desk inside Tower Two since early that morning. When not working for the EuroBrokers firm, the 35-year-old native of Tuam, County Galway, was busy planning her wedding, just a month away. 

Over in Tower One, Mike Armstrong had even less time left before his “big day.” The 34-year-old son of immigrants from County Longford worked for the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage firm alongside the Lynch brothers, Farrell (39) and Sean (36), whose uncle represents the Sligo-Leitrim constituency in the Irish Senate.

Armstrong, a Manhattan native who was so outgoing and gregarious that his many friends long ago nicknamed him “Posse,” was getting married to longtime girlfriend Cathy Nolan on October 6th. 

At Logan Airport, the McCourts waited on standby. Ruth Clifford McCourt, a 44-year-old businesswoman who left her native County Cork as a teenager, was taking four-year-old Juliana on a vacation to Los Angeles. Mother and daughter found seats aboard United Airlines Flight 175.

Shortly after takeoff, of course, Flight 175 was yanked from its flight path by hijackers. As Ruth McCourt's plane hurtled towards Lower Manhattan, it's likely she never knew that her own brother, Ronnie, was attending a business meeting in the very same skyscraper where she and her daughter would meet their fiery end. 

Ronnie Clifford would escape the Trade Center without serious injury, only to learn later that one of the two planes that brought the Towers down contained his sister Ruth and niece Juliana. 

Panic spread like brushfire across the country, and Navy Commander Robert Dolan was among those called to quell the flames. The 40-year-old husband, father and Little League coach often addressed his military colleagues with speeches that quoted everything from Shakespeare to Monty Python; he was equally adept commanding naval fleets that resemble floating steel cities. 

On the morning of September 11, Dolan was in his office on the first floor of the Pentagon's D Ring, among a group hearing reports on that morning's attacks in Lower Manhattan. At 9:43 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 exploded through Dolan's window.