Saturday 23 September 2017

The Pope's visit: Our biggest ever mass movement

Times were hard in the Ireland of September 1979: the economy was a mess and the Troubles cast a long shadow. But for three magical days, the Papal visit lifted the country. Damian Corless looks back

The crowds in the Phoenix Park during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979
The crowds in the Phoenix Park during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979
Pope John Paul II arriving in Ireland during his visit in 1979.
Pope John Paul II arriving in Phoenix Park during his visit in 1979.
Pope John Paul II in Galway
Seminarians reaching out to touch Pope John Paul II in Maynooth College in 1979.
Pope John Paul II arrives in Dublin.

Damien Corless

Thirty-five years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness of Saturday, September 29, 1979, the biggest mass movement ever seen in Ireland began with the low murmur of the first arrivals on the approaches to the Phoenix Park. Scattered voices broke the night, engines hummed and car doors slammed. Only official vehicles were allowed inside the tight Garda cordon mounted at the two canals in preparation for the Papal visit of John Paul II.

Shoes slapped on the dank Autumn pavements as sleepy officials - the thousands of parish stewards, the 1,200 volunteer medics, the caterers tasked with laying on a feast fit for a Pope - trundled through west Cabra to take up their stations.

Some 120 jobless people from Ballyfermot had been unexpectedly plucked from the dole queue and given placements as AnCO (now FÁS) trainees a week before the Mass. They'd spent that week "drilling, sawing, driving dumpers and working in stores". Dublin's milkmen had decided to give themselves the morning off, delivering double pint bottles the day before.

Parishoners across the capital had been urged to assemble at their churches at 6.45am, where their priests would lead them in hymns and prayers, and then in orderly procession to the Park. There, a specially designated corral awaited to separate each flock of parishioners from the next.

With over a million people expected at the Phoenix Park, the faithful had been advised that "only invalids and the aged" would be provided with seats. So the nation had gone on a spending spree buying fold-up chairs.

As the crowds approached the Park, they carried their chairs by hand, dangling from their shoulders, strapped to their backs, wheeled on trollies.

By 9am the corrals were packed. Thousands had been delivered by 700 CIE buses working a shuttle service from 5am. Women, who markedly outnumbered men, swapped chat, sandwiches and hot tea from vacuum flasks. Children milled about, ignoring instructions not to run and play.

The hawkers were assembled in impressive force. "See the Pope for a pound!" hollered those flogging cardboard periscopes. "Get your Papal chairs," yelled others, demanding prices beyond extortion. Some traders' stalls were stacked with Mars Bars and Coke cans. Others specialised in Papal memorabilia. The Pope's face smiled out from cheap medallions, mirrors, broches, album sleeves, posters, mugs, tea-towels and racks of other tack.

As the mass got underway slightly behind schedule, Dublin travel agent Jan Kaminski was a bag of nerves. He was to welcome the Pope to Ireland, watched by over a million mass-goers, with a brief greeting in Polish.

When the visit was announced, newspapers numbered Ireland's Polish community at "almost one hundred". With the visit confirmed, Kaminski quickly founded the Irish-Polish Society and the number claiming Polish roots jumped to 400. The Society commissioned three gifts for the Pontiff, to be presented at the Nunciature following the Mass. Other gifts included a canoe in Papal colours from the Irish Canoe Union, and a cash collection from the "cigarette allowances" of Mountjoy prisoners.

Waiting in the wings of the vast Phoenix Park stage, Kaminski's moment finally arrived. On cue, he strode purposefully towards the Pope on the altar. Too purposefully for the twitchy security spooks. He recalled: "As I approached the Pope, they jumped on me. They clearly thought I was an assassin. I have press photos showing me in their grasp, gasping with shock."

Those seconds of panic apart, it was a great day to be one of Ireland's 400 Poles, or one of the 20,000 settled in Britain who'd arrived over for the event. John Paul joked: "I always thought I had to go through Krakow to get to my home town, but now I realise I had to come to Dublin."

While the Pope said Mass, a cavilcade of cars carrying many of the young people of Ireland slipped out of Dublin. Taking advantage of the empty roads, the motorcade, which stretched 12 miles in length, set off in the direction of Galway where the Pope would hold a special youth mass the following day.

Meanwhile, the flat mood in the southern capital, which felt snubbed by its exclusion from the tour schedule, was spelled out in the headline "Cork Feels Left Out Of Papal Joy." the Irish Press reported: "To judge by its appearance last evening, Cork is a city that feels left out in the cold. It has no flowers, no new bunting, and along the whole length of Patrick street hardly a dozen flags are flying."

Dublin city centre was a ghost-town, with no shops open, no public transport running, no litter collected from the filthy streets, and virtually no people. The biggest gathering spotted in Dublin's city centre during the mass was a group of five people at a Grafton Street ice cream parlour.

It was a weekend of record-breaking statistics. Some 1.5m people attended the Phoenix Park mass, marshalled by 7,000 of the State's 10,000 gardai.

The gardai were aided by 1,200 first-aid volunteers, mainly treating "sprains, wasp stings and drunks".

The State freed 76 low-risk prisoners on an amnesty to honour the Pope.

Radio na Gaeltachta got Government permission to transmit passages spoken by the Pope in English.

Beneath the Phoenix Park altar the Pope and his entourage enjoyed the most lavish lunch ever laid on by the State. Catered by the now defunct Royal Hibernian Hotel, the menu featured salmon, oysters, crayfish, lobster, beef, lamb, ox-tongue, salads and desserts.

It was in Galway where John Paul uttered the most memorable line of his visit when he declared: "Young people of Ireland, I love you." There, in Noah's Ark style, he greeted a cross-section of Irish society who presented themselves two-by-two.

Times were grim in Ireland in 1979.

The economy was a mess, characterised by galloping inflation.

A winter of discontent loomed in which new Taoiseach CJ Haughey would chide: "We are living way beyond our means."

The fear-factor of the Troubles kept business and tourists away, and the prohibitive cost of air travel intensified Ireland's isolation.

But for three days, the Pope's affirmative presence swathed the land with an almost hysterical feelgood factor, however fleeting.

Irish Independent

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