Sunday 25 September 2016

Flashback 1985: First commercial flight from Knock

Ireland West

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Mons James Horan proudly holds aloft a carrier bag with the name of his airport on it as he walked across the tarmac to his plane for the inaugural flight/pilgrimage to Rome from Knock Airport.
Mons James Horan proudly holds aloft a carrier bag with the name of his airport on it as he walked across the tarmac to his plane for the inaugural flight/pilgrimage to Rome from Knock Airport.

This weekend 30 years ago, Monsignor James Horan made his dreams a reality as the first commercial flight departed from Knock Airport.

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They all said he was mad. That building an airport on a "foggy, boggy site" up a Mayo mountain couldn't be done. But 30 years ago tomorrow, Monsignor James Horan saw his dream of linking Knock by air with Europe and beyond come true when the first commercial flights departed from the new Connaught Regional Airport.

Monsignor Horan was parish priest at Knock and had already sprung to prominence with his invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit the shrine. The Pope came in October 1979 and the vast crowds prompted Horan to begin campaigning for an airport to bring pilgrims to his 15,000-seat basilica, as well as providing an economic boost to the beleaguered west.

Fine Gael TD Jim Mitchell was the one that came up with the "foggy, boggy site" line, but there were many more critics. However, Horan convinced the Taoiseach, Castlebar-native Charles Haughey, who approved the £10m funding, and work began at Barnacuige, near Charlestown. Fianna Fáil's defeat in the November 1982 general election saw the funds cut and Horan was forced to stage a Jumbo Raffle and travel to the US and Australia to raise the £4m necessary to complete the work.

"We have no money but we hope to get it next week or after," said Monsignor Horan. "I'm not sure if we have enough but we'll take a chance. I'm an old man in a hurry."

One sure sign that the project had captured the public imagination came with the release in 1983 of Christy Moore's Knock Song.

"From Fatima to Bethlehem, from Lourdes to Kiltimagh, There's never been a miracle like the airport up in Knock" went the chorus, as the song detailed the various efforts of Monsignor Horan to raise the funds.

But, in a stinging tail, Moore anticipated the row which later engulfed Shannon over its use by foreign military forces: "All sorts of planes could land there, of that there's little doubt. Handy for the George Bush to knock Gadaffi out… Did Nato donate, me boys, did Nato donate the dough." On October 25, 1985, Frank McGrath junior was there to capture the scene for readers of the Irish Independent, photographing several priests as they departed for a pilgrimage to the Vatican, as well as Mayo couple Sheila Griffin and John Waldron who were heading to Rome to be married.

There was no government representation at the opening, but three Fianna Fáil frontbenchers were there to take the plaudits.

The fundraising tour took its toll on Monsignor Horan, who died less than a year later while on pilgrimage to Lourdes. His remains were flown home to Mayo, where he made history once again as the first funeral to fly into the airport for which he had fought so hard.

The airport was later renamed Horan International in honour of its founder, but is now known as Ireland West Airport Knock. It is the fourth busiest airport in the state, used by more than 700,000 passengers last year.

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