In many ways, the Irish working at the One World Trade Center today can parallel the Irish helping to build New York City over a century ago.
Rebuilding the World Trade Center is a massively symbolic act, a gesture of defiance in the face of al-Qaeda and those who gave us the worst days of our lives on September 11 and in its aftermath.
I am very proud to have a brother and father involved in the reconstruction of what many Americans consider a sacred site.
Out of the ashes of the WTC has come a new series of buildings; bigger, better, a defiant symbol in the sky of American determination to move on from the shattered past and create a brighter future.
Now just over ten years since tragedy struck on September 11th, lower Manhattan is being reshaped as the new World Trade Center rises into the skyline. Among the hundreds of construction workers lending their skills to help raise the several new buildings, many are Irish and of Irish American descent.
I’m proud to say I have two close connections to the construction of the new World Trade Center. My father, John O’Shea, a foreman with Eurotech Construction and member of the Local Carpenters Union 157, and my brother Patrick, a fourth year apprentice with the NYC District Council Carpenters, are both employed down at Tower Four at the site.
My dad, an immigrant to New Jersey from Kenmare in Co Kerry, is nearly as proud as being a Kerryman as he is as being an official American, getting his citizenship here just prior to 9/11.
Going down to Church and Liberty streets for the first time since I was a child, which was prior to the events of 9/11, was truly an experience. Coming up from the subway, Tower 4 rears up demanding your attention, though most of the workers mulling around the streets are understandably unfazed by the magnitude of the new sites.
My dad later says how the sights from the top of the building don’t impress him as much anymore as they’re an everyday occurrence. But, he knows what the buildings mean to millions of Americans.
My father has taken up a new hobby of sharing photos taken from his phone to show the progress of Tower Four from the inside. From the top of the new building, he was able to look down on the moment of silence on 9/11/11, the crowds gathering at Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street and most recently, snap a shot of when the Freedom Tower officially became the tallest building in New York City.
Right now, Tower Four is the second tallest of the buildings under construction at World Trade Center. However, it will ultimately be the shortest of the collection of new buildings once construction is fully complete.
I had my dad gather up a few other Irish and Irish Americans who work down at the site for a photo opportunity. One of the first things I noticed? The green shamrock stickers on their white hard hats.
You could probabaly gather a similar bunch of workers on any city construction site, the Empire State Building, or the Chrysler in its time, and get the same group of familiar Irishmen, determined to help New York rise to the top.
I asked my brother and father later if they found a certain camaraderie. “Everyone knows what happens here on 9/11, and that in itself creates a camaraderie amongst the workers,” my Dad said.
Indeed, walking around the Church and Liberty street intersections right at Zuccotti Park at lunchtime, all of the construction workers - who were easy to spot in neon safety vests and hard hats - milling about were in good spirits, almost like high schoolers during recess.
My dad did note with a bit of a chuckle, however, that “without a doubt ”the Irish do seem to“ be able to get along very well together”.
Right now, Tower Four is just short of its finishing height. My father explained how next month on June 15th will be the ‘Topping Out’ party for the building. Tower Four is far from complete, but the “Topping Out” recognizes when the final steel beam will be lifted into place on the building, probably bearing the signatures and decorations from some of the workers on hand.
On June 15th, just under ten and a half years since 9/11, Tower Four is expected to hit 1,270 feet, consisting of 65 floors above ground and 4 below. Tower Four is substantially complete, but still has a long way to go, with the interior construction having yet to begin. It will be at least another year and a half to two years before the building is ready for occupation.
With the new Trade Center swiftly growing, and Zuccotti Park of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ fame sharing practically the same space, the area around Church and Liberty streets has become a must-see for tourists. Winding through the pedestrians, it isn’t uncommon to accidentally walk right into a photo shot, or into a street vendor selling 9/11 ‘Never Forget’ memorabilia.
It was no surprise to see that the group my father had gathered for the photo were all good friends. Many of them hailed from Kerry, though there were about four from Derry and a few who, though born in the States, had parents from different counties.
I asked Patrick, my younger brother at only 22 years old, if he had found a lot of younger Irish or Irish Americans working on the site. In times like these where it seems an entire generation of Irish is flocking to the States and elsewhere for work, I thought maybe a few would have found their way to the WTC construction site where it’s apparent that there’s work to be had.
However, Patrick said not really, that more of the Irish who were involved have been in the business for a long time. Having J1 visa students working at the site is really unheard of, as getting into the union in the first place is a task in of itself.
“The problem with that,” explained my father, “is that they have to be members of a Union to work here [at the site]. This is a 100 percent Union site.”
“Most of the guys are older, considering I’m so young in the business,” said Patrick about the age of the Irish population of construction workers.
My Dad said the families home in Ireland are “very much so, very much so” proud of those who have gone on to work now at the new World Trade Center.
A work still very much in progress, the Irish and Irish Americans are working again to leave their mark on New York City by rebuilding the once tragically shattered skyline of New York City.
It is a wonderful feeling to know my family and our Irish community is so involved.
Originally published May 2012.