'It touches my heart' - Pope Francis on returning to Ireland as he arrives in Dublin Airport
POPE Francis has said he is delighted to return to Ireland, having spent three months in Dublin almost 30 years ago to study English.
Speaking this morning, the pontiff also said he was looking forward to the World Meeting of Families, with the Dublin event the second time he has attended the special ceremony.
The pontiff landed at Dublin Airport on board Alitalia flight AZ4000 from Rome, shortly after 10.25am.
Speaking in Italian to Irish and world journalists travelling with him on the flight, Pope Francis said he was very happy to visit Ireland again - but for the first time as Pope.
"For me it is the second meeting of families. I was in attendance at the Philadelphia meeting," he said.
"I like to be with families.
"Secondly, and it touches my heart, I am returning to Ireland for the first time in almost 28 years," he added.
"I stayed for almost three months in Ireland when I was studying English (in 1980)."
"For me, it was a very good memory."
He said he has special memories of his time in Ireland and is delighted to return.
Pope Francis was speaking moments before his Airbus aircraft touched down at Dublin Airport.
In keeping with tradition, Pope Francis walked through the aircraft to personally greet journalists he had never met before.
The Pope does not take questions at this point in his Irish visit, holding a special press conference on his flight back to Rome on Sunday night.
He blessed a number of special items offered and listened to personal requests for prayers and intentions.
In one case, he congratulated BBC reporter, Martin Bashir, on the news he was going to be a grandfather.
Mr Bashir learned just moments before he was due to board the plane in Rome today that his Hong Kong based daughter was expecting.
"I got a message telling me I was going to be a grandfather," Mr Bashir told independent.ie
Pope Francis was formally greeted at Dublin Airport by the Tanaiste Simon Coveney before being escorted to Aras an Uachtarain for a formal meeting with President Michael D Higgins.
He will then attend a special State reception at Dublin Castle before visiting St Mary's ProCathedral and the Capuchin Day Centre.
The address by Pope Francis at the World Meeting Of Families rally in Croke Park tonight will be the highlight of the week long festival.
Independent.ie journalist Ralph Riegel is travelling with Pope Francis as part of our comprehensive coverage across the weekend of the historic visit to Ireland.
Before the pontiff's arrival, a massive security operation was underway in the west apron area of Dublin Airport.
Large number of media photographers and reporters were escorted into small wooden buildings in the area which is off-limits for members of the public.
Feilim McLaughlin, chief of protocol at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo ascended the stairway and entered the jet to greet Pope Francis.
Pope Francis later descended the steps onto Irish soil as a strong breeze blew, and was greeted by a long line of dignitaries and also Jessica Coveney (7), daughter of the Tanaiste and his wife Ruth, who presented him with flowers.
I've very happy to be here," the pontiff said as he received the bouquet.
Jessica and her sisters Annalise (5) and Beth (9) stood beside their parents Ruth and Simon, Minister for Foriegn Affairs and Trade, on the red carpet at the bottom of the steps.
The girls took turns to welcome the pope to Ireland in Irish, English, and Spanish.
The pope's respond was "gentle and kind," said their father afterwards.
To encourage the girls not to be nervous on the night before the pope's arrival, their father promised them a kitten, he revealed.
The children received gifts of rosary beads from the Holy Father.
The pope was also visibility delighted to be greeted by Nenagh schoolgirl Jane Boland (11) who presented him with vestments she had designed herself. She was the winner of a nationwide competition to design a vestment for the Pope.
She said afterwards: "He was really nice."
She treasured the gift of rosary beads from the Pope and said the beads will always be "very special" to her.
The entire welcoming ceremony took around 20 minutes. A small Skoda car was driven up to the end of the red carpet. The pope exchanged a few brief words with the dignatories and church leaders before being driven away to Aras an Uactharian in a convoy of cars flanked by 14 garda motorcycles.
The Irish church leaders present to warmly welcome him to Dublin were Cardinal Sean Brady, Archbishop Emeritus of Armagh, the Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and Michael Jackson, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary, and Archbishop of Cashel and Emily Kieran O'Reilly.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to welcome Francis during his whistle-stop tour of the capital city and Co Mayo over the weekend.
The Pontiff will witness a country that has undergone seismic social changes in the four decades since the last papal visit in 1979, when John Paul II was lauded by a nation shaped by its relationship with an all-powerful Catholic Church.
While the Pope will receive a warm reception from the thousands of pilgrims who have travelled to be part of the occasion, he will also be met by protesters angry at how the church dealt with multiple clerical sex abuse scandals that have damaged trust in the religious institution and seriously weakened its influence on Irish society.
Francis will meet a number of abuse victims in a private meeting amid expectation he will use his public utterances elsewhere to confront the emotive issue.
Earlier this week, the Pope wrote a 2,000-word letter to Catholics in which he condemned the crime of sexual abuse by priests and subsequent cover-ups.
The Pope demanded accountability in response to fresh revelations in Pennsylvania in the United States of decades of misconduct by clerics.
Francis is ostensibly in Ireland to attend the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) - a major global church event focused on promoting family values.
However, he will also fulfil a number of other engagements, including meetings with President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
With Ireland in the midst of a high-profile homelessness problem, the Pope will also meet a number of impacted families at a centre run by a religious order.
Around 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of Dublin city centre on Saturday afternoon as the Pope passes through in his famous Pope Mobile.
In the evening he will join 80,000 pilgrims at a musical festival in the landmark Croke Park Gaelic Athletic Association stadium.
On Sunday the Pope will fly west to Co Mayo where he will follow in the footsteps of John Paul II and take part in a religious service at a Holy shrine in Knock.
He will then return to Dublin for the closing centrepiece of the WMOF event - an outdoor Mass in front of an expected congregation of half a million people.