Monday 20 May 2019

The road to the Phoenix Park... by Toyota Corolla

Pope John Paul II committed the ­unforgiveable sin of leaving Cork out of his itinerary in 1979 but Frank Coughlan was undaunted and in need of a way to impress his new girlfriend

En masse for Mass: Pope John Paul II waves to the crowds during his visit in 1979
En masse for Mass: Pope John Paul II waves to the crowds during his visit in 1979
Frank, with his girlfriend, who were among the hoards

I thought my devout mother would be pleased when I told her that I was going to drive overnight to see the Pope in Dublin.

Sure, in fact, that the news of her religiously lax son undertaking this sacred pilgrimage to the Phoenix Park would be greeted with a generous splashing of Lourdes water and a God speed.

But she was decidedly indifferent.

John Paul II, infallible though he may have been, had committed a mortal sin in her eyes. He had left Cork off his Ireland Tour 79.

Frank, with his girlfriend, who were among the hoards
Frank, with his girlfriend, who were among the hoards

"He's going to Galway," she sniffed. "Galway? Sure, it's only a town."

She wasn't the only one. The Irish Press reported that "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."

A schism was not expected but there were rumblings. Rome fell out with Constantinople over less.

I was undeterred, however. Not because of any newly discovered religious fervour or because I had been swept away by the rock star appeal of JPII, but because I needed desperately to impress my new girlfriend.

It had been made clear to me over a Harp and a glass of Guinness 'n' blackcurrant that if I couldn't find the time to bring her, somebody else might. The threat was left hanging there.

So the great adventure began.

It would be my first time driving to Dublin and my Toyota Corolla got the full service. That is air in the remoulds and a splash of Fairy for the windscreen wash. I even added a few cassettes to my glove compartment library. 10CC if memory serves.

White, gorgeous and with a spoiler that didn't seem to do much, my first car cut a bit of a dash. Souped up and noisy, it was only when she had to actually go anywhere quickly that her limitations were exposed. A minor consideration around town but a bit of a liability on the open road.

The girlfriend, a student nurse in the South Infirmary, managed to get the Friday night off so we set off in the early hours.

She brought a sleeping bag which she immediately wrapped herself in while I listened to Bowie's Pin Ups and concentrated on the cat's eyes on the long and winding road to the greatest show on earth.

The last time so many Irish people had gathered in anything like these numbers was when John McCormack warbled at the Eucharistic Congress in 1932. The next time would be to welcome home Jack's Army from Italia 90.

Make of that trajectory what you will. But there is one common thread at least: we really love to canonise our heroes.

I was expecting a sort of dystopian chaos at worst or good-natured disorganisation at best.

Part of that would involve queueing in a long thread of stalled pre-dawn traffic somewhere on the edge of nowhere, festering in exhaust fumes and wondering if we would ever get there.

But it was seamless. Out of the morning dew emerged armies of volunteers, stewards and gardaí (7,000 of them), all good Samaritans directing and nudging us on to God's path.

There were no wrong turns or false dawns. Then we were there. Parked. Somewhere official. It was, we agreed, a miracle. Somehow and someway, 1.5 million people had converged on the Phoenix Park at roughly the same time and nobody died, lost their way or their religion.

The losing our religion bit would come later.

The day itself was a bit of a sprawl. Hungry and tired, we ate our picnic, lovingly prepared by my mother, during what appeared to be the offertory. The Papal Mass was unfolding so far away it was hard to tell.

It was not a day of intimacy or reflection. This instead was a spectacle on a grand scale and nobody around us was getting particularly holy about it. It was more rock 'n' roll than save your soul.

It did change my life though. The girlfriend? Dear Reader, I married her. Well, it was the only decent thing to do. We had, after all, spent the night together.

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News