Tailbacks of 8km and a sheet of rain greet early-morning pilgrims at Knock ahead of Papal visit
A 'once in a lifetime' opportunity for Papal performers at Knock
A chorus of bells will ring out this morning to signal the beginning of the gathering that will see 45,000 pilgrims welcome Pope Francis to the village of Knock in Co Mayo.
All the churches in the family of six dioceses that make up the ecclesiastical province of Tuam were invited to ring their bells at the same time at 8.25am at the start of the event.
The heavens opened in Knock this morning as pilgrims travelled - with reports of lengthy traffic tailbacks.
A thick sheet of rain blanketed the Co Mayo town in the early hours of this morning. People had been advised to travel early, and the shrine opened to the public at 5am. But there are reports of tailbacks of up to 8km this morning.
A spokesman for AA Roadwatch said: "Very heavy on the Ballyhaunis/Kiltimagh Rd (R323) into Kiltimagh, with a queue stretching about 8km. Very slow also on the N17 northbound, with a 4.5km tailback, approaching the road closure outside Claremorris. It’s also heavy approaching the N17 on the N60 Ballyhaunis/Claremorris Rd in both directions."
The Pope will arrive in a cavalcade at Knock Shrine at 9.45am direct from Ireland West Airport, which will be shown on large screens via a large feed at the shrine. He will get into the Popemobile and will travel through the shrine grounds, giving those gathered the opportunity to see him.
He will arrive at the apparition chapel in the Popemobile, where Archbishop Michael Neary will introduce Pope Francis to the rector of Knock Shrine, Fr Richard Gibbons. He will then enter the chapel as bells ring three times to call the assembly to a period of silent prayer.
Pope Francis will receive a taper from two children from Knock parish, John Curry (5) and Catherine Murray (8), and he will then light a candle which will be in a display centred on the hewn-out stump of a tree that fell in the Shrine grounds last winter.
The chair that he will sit on in the chapel this morning was made especially for the event, and is an artistic representation of a family chair.
Pope Francis is expected to present rosary beads to the shrine, and angelus bells will signal the end of the period of silent prayer. The much-anticipated address that Pope Francis will give at 10.25am at a lectern will be delivered in Italian, while a translation will be provided for the assembly on the big screens, and he will also lead prayers, before his departure again for Dublin.
Designated car parks opened at 3am today and the shrine opened at 5am, and among those who were preparing for the influx of visitors into the town was Michael Morley (43) at the Old Ground restaurant and coffee shop just across the road from the famous basilica.
Excitement is building at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo as crowds begin to arrive ahead of the Pope's visit to the West of Ireland later this morning.
Anne Foley was one of the early-birds who travelled this morning to witness the historic visit. She was accompanied by her ten-year-old daughter Regan.
"My mother and I watched the last Pope's visit on the television together when I was five. I remember asking her why we weren't there, but she didn't like to travel outside of Tipperary! So I said the next time a Pope came I'd go to see him," explained Anne, originally from Thurles.
"Here I am with Regan now 39 years on!" she added.
Anne and Regan drove from Ballintubber, Co Mayo this morning, leaving their house at 4:45am.
The turn out of pilgrims has been slow and steady so far this morning, all very well-equipped for the rainy weather, with a sea of colourful ponchos and umbrellas forming around the pilgrimage site.
There was a huge demand for tickets to see the Pope, with some people still looking. Mr Morley revealed he had a call at 7am yesterday from someone home from the States. Tickets for the shrine had been booked out in just four hours of being made available in June.
Visitors have been soaking up the atmosphere in the village, which has been adorned with Papal flags and bunting. Majella Geraghty (52) from Ballinruane, Galway and her sister Nuala Fitzpatrick (51) from Craughwell in Galway were in Knock for the Papal visit in 1979 and were looking forward to today's event.
"It's a bit of nostalgia really in one way," Ms Geraghty said.
Music was set to play a significant part in the proceedings today and among those attending rehesarsals yesterday for the choir were Maynooth students Shane McLoughlin (19) from Mullingar and Diarmuid O'Brien from Castletown Geoghan, Co Westmeath. "It's a great opportunity. You will never get to do something like this again," said Mr McLoughlin.
"It's once in a lifetime," agreed Mr O'Brien.
Jim Byrne (55) from Wigan in the UK said that he was delighted to get tickets to attend the event. His family roots in the area stretch back to the apparition at the shrine in 1879.
"We have been here for two weeks, but we came specially for the visit," he said.
His wife Barbara Byrne (53) said: "I am looking forward to seeing the Pope in this tiny village which we come to every year and it's usually so quiet. The difference this week has been unbelievable to what we usually see. I have been coming over for 30 years," she said.
The final touches were being put in place at the shrine yesterday for the much anticipated visit, but in reality a huge amount of work has gone over the last few months to making the preparations a reality.
Local people spoke of their pride at the extent of the work that went into getting ready for such a high-profile visit, with the eyes of the world on the village - at least for a while this morning.
People had been advised to get to the shrine by 7.30am at the latest today and to allow themselves time to get there, given the large volume of people expected.
Aer Lingus operated specially chartered flights for the visit of Pope Francis to the West of Ireland today. "El 1979" was scheduled to bring him to Knock, and "El 2018" was scheduled to bring him back to Dublin, under the command of captains Eamonn Kearns and Conor O'Dywer.
The papal delegation had travelled to Ireland yesterday morning on the Italian national airline Alitalia, in line with custom. Pope Francis will depart from Dublin to Ciampino in Rome tonight at 6.45pm, under the command of captains Steve Kelly and Shane Kearney.
Altogether, some 16 cabin crew serviced the three flights led by Joan O'Neill and Jackie Bailey, both of whom joined the airline in 1979, the year Aer Lingus carried Pope John Paul II. Among the produce served on board for the airline's three flights were Toons bridge mozzarella, Kish Fish smoked salmon and Fingal farmed carrots, potatoes and herbs.
Both the papal flag and the Irish tricolour were flown from the cockpit for both pushback and landing in both Dublin and Knock airports.
After the Pope departs from Knock this morning, the gathering will continue with a Mass, where the chief celebrant will be Fr Gibbons, before the event is expected to conclude at 12.30pm with a short "safe home" message from the hosts.