11 Sept 2021
COUNTRY star Lee Matthews was performing in his home town this weekend but yesterday he allowed his mind to return to a very different performance 19 years ago – at Ground Zero.
As a 13-year-old and already a rising star in the Irish music scene, he found himself getting ready to sing in a poignant memorial to the near 3,000 people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks.
It was 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attack and beside him was the deep scar on the face of Manhattan where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood little more than 12 months earlier.
The Castlederg singer played his part in an emotionally charged tribute to the victims singing Sting’s Fields of Gold. It was a remarkable journey for a Co. Tyrone schoolboy who found himself with a deep connection to the city of New York and the tragedy that shook it to the core. “It was surreal,” the now 33-year-old told the Sunday World yesterday – 19 years to the day he stood at Ground Zero.
Like most people, he can remember the day two airliners brought down the iconic buildings. “I remember coming home from school and watching it on the TV.
“I didn’t understand what was happening or why, but even then I knew the world had changed for ever.”
Lee had been singing in the local country scene since he was seven years old, so at the tender age of 13 he was already something of a veteran. Wicklow-based promoter Alan Kerry was the key to his epic journey. He was organising a fundraising concert in Killiney, Co. Dublin, in support of the New York Fire Department.
The teenager joined the bill alongside the likes of Dubliners legend Ronnie Drew, with members of the NYFD in the audience. “Alan had relatives in the NYFD and wanted to do what he could. There was a lot of fundraising in the States to support firefighter families who had lost loved ones,” explained Lee. The New Yorkers were so impressed they asked Lee if he would perform at another fundraiser – this time in the Big Apple on the first anniversary.
They were at Dublin Airport when his manager got a call from the late Gerry Ryan, who was broadcasting his RTE Radio show live from Ground Zero, and he asked if Lee would sing on the programme as Gerry read out the names of those taken.
“It was my first visit to New York, but even then I knew the place had changed. It wasn’t itself – there was an atmosphere,” Lee said yesterday.
“When you see New York on the movies or on TV you expect to hear taxis honking their horns and the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps. There was none of that. It was eerie – too quiet.”
He stood on the perimeter of Ground Zero as Gerry read out the names, while he sang Fields of Gold.
“I was happy and honoured to be there to help the guys out.” The guys were the men of Ladder 22, which is based close to the scene of the attacks. “They could not have been more welcoming. They treated us so well and generously. I stayed with one of them and their family they just took me into their home.
“The guys took me to Ladder 22 and showed me the gear and helmets they wore on the day they went into the towers, their helmets had melted.” He said they didn’t regard themselves as brave or heroes, they were just doing their job. Lee was later to record a song he wrote with his mum, they pressed 1,000 copies and sent them to Ladder 22 so they could sell them to raise more funds for the families. “It’s amazing to think I become a part of it all, a very small part but to have had that connection is surreal.”
Memories now are tinged with more sadness as a number of the firefighters he met have since passed away because of health issues created by breathing in the dust and glass from the collapsing towers. The wife of the firefighter he stayed with has also passed away, as has Gerry Ryan.
For Lee the intervening years have been a bewildering musical journey from being part of a boyband, recording with rap legend Snoop Dogg, before returning to his first love country music. “The world changed that day, but it was a privilege to be invited to help the city remember the victims.”