'He said he saw a great future for South Africa'
FOR many years, the arrival of the great and good at Dublin Airport has been recorded through the lens of the airport's official photographer, Robert Allen, but there is one encounter that stands out above all others for Robert – the day he met Nelson Mandela.
It was 1990 and Mandela was in Dublin to receive the freedom of the city, just months after winning freedom in his homeland after 27 years in prison.
When news broke of the the great man's passing last Thursday night, Robert Allen's memory was instantly transported to that day, 23 years ago, when he found himself alone with the soon-to-be president of South Africa.
'It was the day he was going back after receiving the freedom of the city. It was a low-key event and Gerry Collins, the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time was there and Winnie Mandela.
'There was some problem with his (Mandela) plane and there was a delay and I was there alone with him in the VIP suite. He beckoned me over and I sat down beside him and we chatted away.'
While members of Mandela's entourage, 'buzzed around' the two began to chat and for Robert, who was a long time admirer of the South African icon and a supporter of the Dunnes Stores, anti-apartheid strikers, it was a moment he will never forget.
'I would have been a great supporter of the Dunnes Stores workers and I knew Mary Manning. We just chatted away for about 15 minutes. He told me a little bit about his struggles in prison and he asked about me and my family.
'I remember he said that he saw a great future for South Africa and that he had dreams for it that he hoped would work out,' Robert remembered fondly.
'It was the outstanding assignment of my career to photograph Nelson Mandela – it was tremendous to meet him. It was very sad to hear the news last week. I suppose it was inevitable and we knew it was coming but it was still shocking,' the photographer said.
On leaving Dublin Airport that day, Nelson Mandela signed the visitor's book with a heart-felt message of thanks to the Irish people for their support in the struggle to end apartheid.
The message read: 'To the Republic of Ireland, The unswerving support the people of South Africa have received from the Government and the people of Ireland has been a source of tremendous strength and has brought victory within sight. Compliments and best wishes.'