September 11, 2001. I was living in Galway – my Junior year of college. Classes hadn’t started so I was touring Salthill, just outside of Galway, with some of my flatmates.

We stepped into Claude’s Casino, which isn’t the casino Americans are accustomed to in Vegas; it’s more penny slots and games. There was a talk radio show on the loud-speaker and the host was talking about the Twin Towers bombing. Without a visual, I assumed the talk show was referencing the 1993 incident and making comparison to the conflict in Northern Ireland, which is often a topic of discussion on Irish radio.

Just down the street was a Kitty O’Sheas. I grew up dancing the jig to Irish Rovers music in the Chicago Kitty O’Sheas, so I convinced my friends to go into this chain with me.

In we walk to a big screen of the first Tower burning. Blatantly American, all eyes were on us. And we were breathless. The rest of the afternoon is a blur, as we watched the second plane hit, the Towers crumble, and the graphic horrors in between.

I was the one to alert my mom. My dad was working on a contract in Saudi Arabia at the time so I was anxious to know he was OK. Lucky for us, he was safe, and still managed to visit me before returning stateside. I had one friend in NYC at the time; it took awhile for her to get connectivity to update everyone, but thankfully, she was also safe.

That day naturally shaped the rest of my study abroad experience.

  • There were several students studying that semester that were directly impacted and went home immediately.
  • The Uni gathered all the American students together to share safety recommendations, travel tips, counseling resources, and what we should expect the rest of our time there. Tension and uncertainty filled the room.
  • I encountered more Irish who lost friends or family than I knew in any of the areas directly impacted.
  • I spent a weekend in Wiesbaden, when our military started flying relief packages out of our bases in Germany. The noise of the planes was relentless all night long.
  • The entire country shut down for a national day of mourning. We attended a service at the Cathedral and had no idea that “shut down” meant everything was closed. We should have stocked our fridges better that weekend.
  • I didn’t hesitate to fly within Europe, but boarding my return flight to Chicago in December, I was on high alert.
  • Reading the international papers provided a much broader and deeper perspective of how America was viewed – views I would have never understood or read living stateside.

Most importantly, my national pride swelled. The reports of the heroic acts, the brave souls who continued search and rescue missions, the families that lost a loved one is such a devastating way continue to inspire me year-after-year.

Fifteen years later, sadly, we are more divided and at war with ourselves. The news cycle of daily shootings in our schools, military bases, in our homes and on our streets pull us farther apart. I hope more of us can reflect on the unity 9/11 brought our nation and find it within ourselves to set aside our differences and come together – especially in this election year.

Otherwise, the terrorists win.