A place unlike any other, bonded in grief in the wake of unimaginable atrocity
Irish community pays tribute to the victims of deadly concert bombing
By Adam Shaw
Manchester – “one of the most Irish cities in the world outside of Ireland” – came together last week after it suffered a devastating terrorist attack.
A total of 22 people lost their lives while more than one hundred were injured when a bomb exploded at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May.
The Irish community stood side by side with others from across the city and showed their support for those who were tragically caught up in the bombing. And leading Irish politicians offered their deepest condolences, while Ambassador Dan Mulhall paid a visit to the city which he said had produced an “overwhelming” response.
The people of Manchester are quite a resilient bunch. We’ve seen on the news over the past few days that, whatever is thrown at them, they can rise above it.
Mancunians will argue – often if just for show – that they have the best sportspeople, the best musicians and the best nightlife. Others might feel differently but, sometimes, it’s hard to dispute.
One thing was clear, however, in the wake of a deadly attack on the city which saw 22 people lose their lives: the people of Manchester would not be beaten.
“There has been a tremendous outpouring of grief, solidarity and support for everyone affected by the week’s tragic events,” said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council.
“We have been touched by messages of goodwill from people of all ages, races, religions and from all around the world.
“There is no more defiant message that we can send to terrorists than carrying on with our everyday lives.
“We will not let those who want to sow fear and division win. This is Manchester and we do things differently here.”
Members of the Irish community play a vital role in the multicultural make-up of the city. They have been settling there since the 1800s and it is estimated that as many as one in three Mancs have some sort of Irish heritage. A number of its most famous sons and daughters have green blood, and the St Patrick’s Day parade is one of the biggest in the world.
As much as anyone, the Irish in Manchester were deeply affected by the awful events last week. It is likely that they will have known some of the victims from that night and many will have attended the poignant vigil in Albert Square a day later.
Brian Kennedy, who has roots in Co. Mayo and runs Manchester’s Irish World Heritage Centre, explained how everyone has banded together in the face of tragedy.
“The reaction from everyone has been excellent. The city and all the communities have pulled together and are helping each other out,” he said. “You could see at the vigil what it meant to people and how they wanted to go out there and show their support.”
As news of the bombing emerged, Brian and his team were quick to make the Irish Centre available to anyone who needed it.
Members of the press were allowed to set-up shop there and it acted as a makeshift bus terminal as local transport struggled to get in and out of the city centre.
“We opened up for anybody who wanted to use it for whatever reason,” Brian explained. “Even if people just wanted a bit of respite or wanted a tea or coffee or just a sit down and a chat.”
Once the chaos of Monday night had subsided, people were back out on the streets in a show of defiance. Emlyn Lewis, originally from Cavan, donned his Super Mario costume, picked up his keyboard and took to performing right in the heart of the city.
Social media users were quick to point out that this small act – one which was ridiculous and meaningful in equal measure – was an embodiment of what Manchester is all about.
“Weirdly Manchester that,” wrote Nooruddean Choudry, accompanied by a video of Emlyn playing.
“People bringing police cups of tea, guy on Market St. playing a keyboard dressed as Mario. Best city in the world Manchester is,” added Elliot Grayson.
The sense of community was what stood out to those looking from the outside in. An orthodox rabbi was pictured handing out free hot drinks to members of the emergency services. Sikhs in traditional dress stood, heads first bowed as a mark of respect then held high as a show of pride, with placards proclaiming their love for Manchester.
A Muslim woman at the vigil was seen clutching a single rose and a sign quoting the Quran which said: “Whoever kills an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
As poet Mike Duff wrote in 2004 for his winning entry to the competition ‘A Poem for Manchester’: “I don’t care if you’re black, Chinese, white or tan; don’t care if you’re old, gay, a woman or man; you can sit down next to me; if you’re Mancunian.”
This outlook should be admired, of course, but despite the excellent response from the city and its people, certain negativity will undoubtedly rear its ugly head. Brian spoke of the wonderful contribution from the Muslim community to Manchester and how they were among the heroic first responders after last week’s attack.
“I live next door to a consultant surgeon and a GP and they’re both from Lahore in Pakistan,” he explained. “They rushed out to the hospital as soon as they heard the news because they wanted to do all they could to help.
“And that’s all they want to do. The Muslim community in Manchester is absolutely brilliant. They’re lovely, lovely people.”
He fears, however, that this attitude is far from universal. And he has fair reasoning, as a Manchester Irishman who can vividly remember the 1996 bombing on the Arndale Centre.
“I can clearly recall the bombing in 96,” he said. “I remember exactly where I was stood at the time. We heard the explosion and saw the teacups vibrating and just assumed it was some sort of earthquake.
“There was a backlash. People at first couldn’t understand why someone had attacked Manchester. But there was chaos; it was very destructive.
‘Just like in 96, Manchester will not be defeated’
“And because it was the IRA you had silly campaigns in some of the papers like ‘don’t buy Kerrygold butter’ and ‘don’t buy Irish products’.
“The company that did the rest of the demolition was McGuinness and Co and they also came in for a bit of stick from the press. But by and large, people just got on with things.
“There were a few what I call ‘hotheads’ directing abuse at the centre. They were bawling down the phone telling us what they were going to do and how the Irish in Manchester better look out.”
The threats, in the end, amounted to nothing and the Irish Centre was heavily supported by other community groups. A helicopter paid close attention to it in the weeks that followed the attack and all the city’s councillors paid a visit in solidarity. Less than a year later, Brian noted, the Irish community was getting ready to hold its annual St Patrick’s Day parade.
“The police were very concerned about it because it’s a large parade right in the city centre,” he said. “We had extra security and no-one really knew how things were going to go. Thankfully, it went okay and it was a gloriously sunny day.
“And all the crowds came out to cheer it on. I couldn’t say people had completely forgotten what had happened – how could they – but they wanted to show their support for the Irish community.”
Brian believes that the shadow which has emerged following the bombing at the Manchester Arena will take some time to clear. But he’s proud of his city and the way its people have shown that, just because you are a Muslim, it does not automatically make you a terrorist – much in the same way that, 20 years ago, being Irish didn’t make you a member of the IRA.
There will be debates long into the future about how atrocities such as the one last Monday can be avoided. The reaction, however, has been nothing short of exemplary.
These people of Manchester – whatever their heritage – have been the shining light after the city experienced one of its darkest hours. They realise that some people want to drive them apart in the most destructive manner possible. But, just as back in 1996, there is no chance of them ever achieving that.