PRESIDENT Mary McAleese and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen led a string of tributes to the memory of the three young doctors, all friends and one a former Riverdance star, who are missing feared dead in the Air France trans-Atlantic disaster.
McAleese said, “My thoughts and prayers, and the thoughts of everyone, are with the Irish families and the families of everyone on board at this very difficult time.”
Cowen said, “The government is deeply concerned and wants to express its solidarity with families who are anxiously waiting for news of loved ones. Our primary concern is for the families during this difficult time. The government is offering support to the families as they wait news of their loved ones.”
An unnamed Irishman was also reported to be on the passenger list but was thought not to have boarded the flight. Aer Lingus said two of its Dublin-based employees were on board, but their nationalities were not disclosed.
The three recently qualified Irish doctors feared dead were among the 228 people who were on the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday.
Aisling Butler, from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, Jane Deasy from Rathgar, Co. Dublin, and Eithne Walls from Ballygowan, Co. Down, were aged between 26 and 29. They graduated together from medical school at Trinity College Dublin in 2007 and registered with the Medical Council last year. They were returning from a holiday in Brazil.
Butler’s father, John, said he believed his daughter was dead. “It is just about trying to live now,” he added. “I have to live for my wife and my only other daughter.”
He said Aisling celebrated her 26th birthday just over two weeks ago and was doing an internship in Tallaght Hospital in Dublin. She was due to transfer to St. James’ Hospital in the city next month.
Walls, who worked in Dublin’s Eye and Ear Hospital, was a member of the world-famous Riverdance troupe and performed on Broadway before beginning six years of medical studies at Trinity College.
While a medical student, she continued dancing as part of Riverdance’s “flying squad,” performing in China, Qatar, Germany and France, and participating as a full-time cast member in Riverdance’s 2004 summer run at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.
She spent 20 years of her life as an Irish dancer, and won several medals in Ireland and the U.S. for her talents. Her parents, Raymond and Mary, paid tribute to their daughter in a statement issued on behalf of the family, including her sisters Kathryn, Raymond and Gerard.
“It is with the heaviest and saddest of hearts that the Walls family confirm the loss of their dearest daughter and sister, Eithne, an extraordinary person who brought light to the lives of everyone she touched,” the statement read.
“She was beautiful in every way, especially of spirit. She had a passion for life that permeated, enlivened and enriched those around her.
“We feel privileged to have shared her too short life, and the countless memories of her will stay with us forever.” The statement added, “Eithne, we will miss your easy smile. We will miss your loving embrace. We will miss your happy hello. We will miss your dancing feet. We will miss your silliness, your wit and your hugs. We will always hold you in our hearts and you are never truly gone.”
The family spoke of Walls’ hopes for the future. “She had many hopes for her life, and was looking forward to the exciting journey to fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming an eye surgeon,” the statement said.
“At university she made many life-long friends with whom she shared the trials and tribulations of university life and on this last holiday we know she was delighted to have been reunited with so many of them. Her friends will, we hope, remember their special time together with fondness and joy, despite its tragic end. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of her dearest friends Jane and Aisling who are suffering this same inconsolable loss. Many people have known Eithne through Irish dancing, a passion she had continued throughout her studies and into her professional life. We have been overwhelmed by the messages of support from so many family and friends in our community and throughout the world.”
Julian Erskine, executive producer of Riverdance, described Walls as a long-standing member of the dance troupe who was well-known and liked by the cast. “They're all devastated. She was a very popular and talented member of the troupe,” he said.
While part of the Riverdance on Broadway troupe, Walls, 28, lived in Astoria, Queens with a number of other dancers in the show.
Eithne was someone who once you had met her you would never forget her. I never saw her without a smile on her face and she just seemed to be always happy and enjoying life,” said Erskine. “However that constantly smiling face did not mean that she was simply skimming through life, far from it. Anyone who traveled with Eithne will remember the medical books always on the go and her constant attention to her studies. It is hard to believe that such a bright light could be quenched so early and while burning so brilliantly.”
The producers of Riverdance are planning on hosting a memorial service in Walls’ honor at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in the coming weeks. The Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr. John Hegarty, said university staff and students were “stunned” at the news that three of its graduates were on board the ill-fated Air France plane.
“The college, and in particular the staff and students of the School of Medicine, extend their deepest sympathies to the Butler, Deasy and Walls families at this most difficult time. The loss of such young, vibrant and promising women at the outset of their careers in medicine and in such tragic circumstances has stunned the college from which they so recently graduated. Our thoughts are with the families and their classmates,” Hegarty said.
The Airbus vanished over the Atlantic while on a flight to Paris from Brazil. Pieces of wreckage were located on Tuesday by Brazilian air force planes 400 miles northeast of Fernando do Noronha, island but officials said it could not immediately be confirmed that the wreckage was from the missing aircraft. The accident is the biggest disaster in the history of French civil aviation.