President honours Irishmen who died in New Zealand earthquake
Michael D Higgins praises John Joseph O’Connor and Owen McKenna and their families
President Higgins arrived in New Zealand on Tuesday and met the recently-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the day before she was officially sworn in. Photograph: Robert Kitchin Pool/Getty Images
President Michael D Higgins met the widows of two Irishmen killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, on the second stop of his extended state visit to New Zealand.
President Higgins arrived in New Zealand on Tuesday and met the recently-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the day before she was officially sworn in.
He also formally announced the new embassies that both countries are planning to open soon, and asked for New Zealand to support Ireland’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
On Thursday President Higgins laid a wreath honouring the two Irishmen as well as the other 183 people who died in the 2011 earthquake.
John Joseph O’Connor, 40, died in the Pyne Gould building collapse, along with 18 others. One year earlier O’Connor and his wife Sarah, who was pregnant at the time of the earthquake, arrived in New Zealand from Ireland with their son Dan.
Irish-born Owen McKenna, a trauma nurse, died when his car was crushed under falling debris as he was on his way to buy groceries. His wife, Sarah Lothian, and children Grace and Tadhg, were visiting family in another part of the country at the time.
Many more Irish people suffered trauma, or lost their home as a result of the earthquake. The Irish Government approved an emergency loan to provide immediate relief to the Irish community.
McKenna was a keen gaelic football player and had been involved with the Christchurch McKenna’s Gaelic Athletic Association club which was renamed to honour his memory.
His widow Sarah Lothian said, “We talked to our family today in Ireland and told them we were meeting him [President Higgins] and nanny nearly fell off the phone.
“It’s lovely for the children. It’s an honour to be asked to come and meet him. It’s a lovely gesture, respectful and we really appreciate it.”
Lothian found out about Mckenna’s death through her sister-in-law, a police woman, who said an unidentified person had died in the car registered to McKenna. However it took two or three weeks for his death to be officially confirmed.
“It was terrible,” she said. “It was really hard on the family in Ireland waiting to come and take him home.”
The family go back to Ireland, where McKenna is buried, every three years and take comfort in the memorial wall where his name is engraved.
“It’s a place for everyone, not just the 185. It’s for the rescuers, the people that lost homes and businesses.”
Lothian, a New Zealander, tries to continue the Irish connection with her children: “It was really important to him and it’s really important to Grace.”
On Thursday night President Higgins attended a community event held in his honour in Christchurch, a city where some 1,590 Irish-born people live – more than half arriving since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.
He praised the resilience and innovation of the city’s Irish diaspora.
“More than half of the people who are Irish-born and living in this region have come in response to the recent earthquake,” he said.
“It’s a great privilege to be able to pay tribute to their work along with others in the task of reconstruction.”
Before attending the community event, President Higgins toured the central business district of the city, where many buildings collapsed in the earthquake.
The tour included a visit to Quake City, a memorial museum that helps guests understand the impact of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011.
There President Higgins met Kate Barron, who worked in the Pyne Gould building (where O’Connor died).
Barron, who was trapped under her desk after the earthquake, had both her legs amputated in hospital, where she spent the next 10 months.
Ten of her workmates were killed.
“It was nice to meet the President because so many countries were affected,” she said.
At the evening’s event, President Higgins said that seeing the iconic Christ Church Cathedral reduced to devastation reminded him of the power of nature.
“I’ve often thought about the continual renewal of buildings and of life,” he said. “I remember writing once: ‘everything in the end is on the way to being a ruin but it is also on the way to becoming something new’.”
* This article was edited on October 27th