With the sound of bagpipes in the air, Irish President Michael Higgins and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates planted two saplings in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park on Wednesday.
The young arbutus trees, a genus that is native to both California and Ireland, symbolize Berkeley’s bond with the surrounding Irish community, Bates said, after six students — five of whom were Irish natives — died when a balcony collapsed in a Berkeley apartment in June. Higgins visited Berkeley to remember the victims and pay homage to the first responders and volunteers who assisted in the days that followed.
“We in Ireland were deeply touched as we saw you stand hand in hand with families as they mourned their loved ones and as you shared in their grief,” Higgins said in his speech.
At a private reception earlier in the day at Hotel Shattuck Plaza, first responders, medical staff and volunteers involved in the June 16 incident — including the Irish Consulate and the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, which organized aid with the Berkeley community — gathered beneath the Crystal Ballroom’s hanging chandeliers. As they waited for the president, uniformed police officers and firefighters lined up, creating a pathway for him.
The room, alive with Irish and American accents, fell silent as Higgins entered. He greeted each officer and firefighter one by one, exchanging brief words and a handshake.
Many Irish citizens in the Bay Area volunteered to help in the aftermath of the incident. According to Rev. Brendan McBride, president of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center of the Bay Area, 300 people signed up after he sent word to the local Irish community the morning after the collapse.
“We were doing everything we could,” said Eoghan Keane, an Irish citizen and San Francisco resident, who came to Berkeley looking to help. “That’s the whole sense of the Irish community here — you just sort of help each other out.”
First responders — such as Colin Arnold, an apparatus operator for Berkeley Fire Department — said they experienced a night they would never forget.
“It was pretty traumatic for everyone on scene,” Arnold said. “A lot of us feel overwhelmed by the idea of being recognized when we just happened by chance to be the ones who were there. Anybody else that showed up that night would have done the same thing just as well.”
As part of the healing process after the tragedy, the joint planting of arbutus trees by Higgins and Bates preserved the memory of the victims and promised a reinforced relationship between the people of Berkeley and the Irish community.
“Our bonds of friendship are made stronger by shared pain and loss, but they will also join us together in happier times to come in the future,” Higgins said.