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It was 1985, the year that Cork was celebrating its 800th birthday. It was a Sunday and it was raining. As The Irish Press newspaper was on strike I was relishing staying in and catching up on housework. So, despite the noise of what I knew was an inordinate number of ‘planes and helicopters overhead, rather than rush to the ‘phone to call the local police station and the ambulance desk at the Cork University Hospital, I stayed at the housework.
It was a day that changed the lives of thousands of people, and in a way, it changed mine too. The night before, Air India flight 182 from Vancouver had left Montreal, bound for Delhi. The next morning, it reached the south west coast of Ireland, on course for a stopover in London. One hundred and twenty miles away, in Shannon Airport Traffic Control, the plane registered as a little diamond on a radar screen. As many were sleeping at 31,000ft, probably no one on board would have seen the sun struggling to shine on beautiful Dunmanus Bay, but at 13 minutes past eight the diamond disappeared, and the shadow of death fell on 329 people, 280 Canadians, mainly of Indian descent, 27 Britons and 22 Indians, as a bomb exploded and the plane plunged into the sea. And so began a story which spanned continents, made the world hold its breath in horror and sadness.
Cork’s Major Accident and Emergency Plan went into force immediately and operated perfectly. For days, weeks, months afterwards, the city forsook its birthday celebrations and focused on the tragedy in their midst. People went out of their way to try to soothe, even in the tiniest way, the engulfing suffering. A huge team of medics, hospital staff, emergency personnel and the Defence Forces and police worked for weeks with the bereaved who came to Cork to identify and claim their loved ones. One hundred and thirty one bodies were recovered from the sea with dignity and respect and every single one was identified. Local people opened their hearts and homes to the bereaved, taxi drivers refused fares from the airport to the hospital where the operation was centred. People sent flowers to beautify the temporary morgue, children picked bouquets in their gardens and brought them to the hospital themselves. At a Mass for the victims in the CUH chapel, as a nurse sang “Be not Afraid” a jet droned overhead.
There were hundreds of press people in Cork, and we all worked ceaselessly on the awful story, yet a story full of beauty, dignity, love and even, it seemed, divine inspiration. Within a year, a plot of land on the coast had been bought by the local council at Ahakista, a coastal location picked by the relatives as the closest to the crash at sea and work began on making of a magnificent, spiritually uplifting memorial. A short path from the road, there is a crescent of 14 bronze plaques, with two stone seats in front. In the centre, facing out to sea, is a sundial, its ‘gnomon’ or ‘hand’ cut with a precisely calculated nodus to cast a shadow over a given line at eight thirteen on the morning of June 23rd for as long as the Irish coastline exists.
Every year at Ahakista there is a memorial anniversary gathering, prayers, speeches, flowers, incense, petals strewn on the sea, and afterwards, a gorgeous breakfast with whiskey and cake and sandwiches and apple pie and tea at a long table on the roadside. It is a beautiful, loving ceremony entwined and enshrined in the big hearts of the people of West Cork, of the Canadian and Indian dignitaries who attend, of the bereaved relatives of the victims, and in the local van and lorry drivers who exchange waves with the party from their cabs as they pass on their morning rounds.
The memorial is by the Cork sculptor Ken Thompson, whose inspiration was the Wheel of Life, the great sundials of India and the importance of water in the Indian mourning tradition. The inscription on the sundial is “Time flies, suns rise and shadows fall. Let it pass by. Love reigns forever over all” The inscription on the memorial slab, in Hindi, English and French reads “Remember those who died, Air India, June 23 1985.