Tuesday 20 March 2018

On the day the Pope flew in, we were looking for an excuse to party

In 2018, Pope Francis will touch down in an Ireland transformed from the one which ­greeted John Paul II in 1979. As a raucous teenage rocker, Damian Corless acted as a papal steward at the Phoenix Park mass and recalls the day when a million came to pray

Mass gathering: Pope John Paul II in the Phoenix Park
Mass gathering: Pope John Paul II in the Phoenix Park
Pope John Paul II arriving at Dublin Airport in 1979
Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary during a special youth mass in Galway during the Pontiff's visit
Mayo praise: The Pope in Knock
Damian Corless
October 1 1979: the Irish Independent report of Pope John Paul II 's address to young people

In the pre-dawn blackness of Saturday, September 29, 1979, the biggest mass movement ever seen in Ireland began with the low murmur of the first arrivals on the approaches to the Phoenix Park. Scattered voices broke the night, engines hummed and car doors slammed. Only official vehicles were allowed inside the tight Garda cordon mounted at the two canals in preparation for the visit of John Paul II.

I was a teenage papal steward for that red letter day, tasked with helping shepherd a flock of Ballymun parishioners at the end of their five-mile walk to the heart of the park where a giant papal cross and broad, high altar awaited the arrival of a million souls.

Shoes slapped noisily on the dank autumn pavements as sleepy officials - the thousands of parish stewards like myself, the army of volunteer medics, the caterers tasked with laying on a feast fit for a Pope - took up their stations. I was one of the advance scouts for our parishioners, who would set out at daybreak. The closer we got to the gates of the park, the greater the swell of bodies. With helicopters whirring overhead, ferrying VIPs to and from the park, it was as if the recent Spielberg spectacular Close Encounters Of The Third Kind was being played out for real.

Parishioners across the capital had been urged to assemble at their churches around 6.30am, where their priests would lead them in hymns and prayers, and then in orderly procession to the park. There, a specially designated corral awaited to separate each parish flock from the next.

Pope John Paul II arriving at Dublin Airport in 1979
Pope John Paul II arriving at Dublin Airport in 1979

Despite being members of a raucous post-punk band, myself and Bart, the singer, answered the call for papal stewards without apology. Ireland was in a state of rapid transformation and all the national identities that appeared fixed for so long were now up for grabs, so there seemed nothing contradictory about swapping my regulation leather jacket and drainpipes for a yellow and white papal sash draped over my brown-flared suit for all occasions (suits, carpets and curtains came in two colours: brown and orangey-brown). The fact that the hottest young band in the land, U2, were openly and zealously Christian didn't dent their street cred.

Young Irish Catholics for a decade had been lapsing at a rate of knots, but generally not in favour of godlessness or open hostility to the Mother Church. Instead, many were shopping around for new beliefs and it was a boom time for maharishis, swamis and a host of eastern and Christian offshoots. The Catholic Church's attempt to win back the youth, the wussy folk mass championed by the 'Mod Priest', Fr Michael Cleary, only hastened the rate of lapse amongst the discerning.

A great many young people flocking to the papal masses that weekend were lapsed or lapsing, but that was beside the point on a lonely island starved of excuses to party. There were precious few reasons to be cheerful. The only dynamic strand of the economy was inflation, which started galloping with the 1973 oil crisis and hadn't stopped since. Ireland's isolation had been greatly deepened by the Troubles, which, in a single day just weeks earlier, claimed Lord Mountbatten and two teenage boat-hands, plus 18 ambushed British troops.

Watery daylight had broken by the time our band of Ballymun pilgrims arrived into the park. With over a million people expected, the faithful had been advised that "only invalids and the aged" would be provided with seats. So the nation had gone on a spending spree buying fold-up chairs. As the crowds poured into the park, they carried their chairs by hand, dangling from their shoulders, strapped to their backs, wheeled on trolleys.

Armed with maps of the sprawling mass site, myself, Bart and the other stewards marshalled our flock into Corral No 18, which resembled a large sheep pen. It was fairly packed by around 9am, after which the residents settled in for the long wait for the Pope's helicopter to cross the treeline.

Besides providing loo directions, we were instructed to keep the swarms of circling hawkers from infiltrating the place of prayer in the manner of the scriptural money-changers in the temple. Fat chance. Soft drinks, Mars Bars and ice-creams flew across the fences at unholy prices. Cries of "See the Pope for £1!" filled the air and when the Pontiff eventually did appear on the giant mass stage, a serried sea of cardboard periscopes shot up in unison and just about everyone who'd paid a hefty £1 found their view entirely blocked by the forest of £1 periscopes in the way.

Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary during a special youth mass in Galway during the Pontiff's visit
Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary during a special youth mass in Galway during the Pontiff's visit

By 9am, almost one million souls thronged the Phoenix Park, portioned out in their neat corrals. Many thousands had been delivered by 700 CIE buses working a shuttle service from 5am. Women, who markedly outnumbered men, swapped chat, sandwiches and hot tea from vacuum flasks. Children milled about, ignoring instructions not to run and play.

As the morning wore on, the sense of climax became more and more palpable, gradually building not just from this day, but from the preceding dozen dizzy weeks. Since the official announcement in July, the entire nation had mobilised in a collective frenzy of proto Celtic Tigerish activity. To confirm the sense of occasion, some 20,000 exotic Poles had flooded in to join the monster party in honour of their countryman.

As the Mass got under way, slightly behind schedule, Polish-born Dublin travel agent Jan Kaminski was a bag of nerves. He was to welcome the Pope to Ireland, watched by over a million mass-goers, with a brief greeting in Polish. When the visit was announced, newspapers numbered Ireland's Polish community at "almost 100". With the visit confirmed, Kaminski quickly founded the Irish-Polish Society and the number claiming Polish roots jumped to 400. The society commissioned three gifts for the Pontiff to be presented following the mass. Other gifts included a canoe in papal colours from the Irish Canoe Union and a cash collection from the "cigarette allowances" of Mountjoy prisoners.

Waiting in the wings of the vast Phoenix Park stage, Kaminski's moment finally arrived. On cue, he strode purposefully towards the Pope on the altar. Too purposefully for the twitchy security spooks. "As I approached the Pope, they jumped on me," he later recalled. "They clearly thought I was an assassin. I have press photos showing me in their grasp, gasping with shock."

While the Pope said mass, a cavalcade of cars carrying many of the young people of Ireland slipped out of Dublin. Taking advantage of the empty roads, the motorcade, which stretched 12 miles in length, set off in the direction of Galway where the Pope would hold a special youth mass the following day, supported by Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary.

Meanwhile, the flat mood in the southern capital, which felt snubbed by its exclusion from the tour schedule, was spelled out in the headline: "Cork feels left out of papal joy." The Irish Press reported: "To judge by its appearance last evening, 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."

Mayo praise: The Pope in Knock
Mayo praise: The Pope in Knock

Dublin's city centre was a ghost-town, with no shops open, no public transport running, no litter collected from the filthy streets and virtually no people. The biggest gathering spotted in Dublin's city centre during the mass was a group of five people at a Grafton Street ice-cream parlour. It was a weekend of record-breaking statistics. There were claims that 1.5 million people attended the Phoenix Park mass They were marshalled by 7,000 of the State's 10,000 gardai, aided by 1,200 first aid volunteers, mainly treating "sprains, wasp stings and drunks". The State freed 76 low-risk prisoners on an amnesty to honour the Pope. Raidió na Gaeltachta got government permission to transmit passages spoken by John Paul in English.

As the crowds dispersed, the Pope and his entourage enjoyed the most lavish lunch ever laid on by the State in a hall beneath the giant altar. Catered by the Royal Hibernian Hotel, the menu featured salmon, oysters, crayfish, lobster, beef, lamb, ox-tongue, salads and desserts.

It was in Galway that John Paul uttered the most memorable line of his visit when he declared: "Young people of Ireland, I love you." There in Galway, he greeted a cross section of Irish society who presented themselves two-by-two in the style of Noah's Ark. Even four decades ago, these figures represented an idealised, vanishing pastoral Ireland that even a Papal visit would never restore. They included "a national school teacher with cap and gown", "a lame person with stick or crutches", "a carpenter's apprentice in dungarees", "an itinerant", "a deaf person" and "a farmer and a dog".

For all the Church's powers of persuasion, the coming generation knew there was no going back. Lapsed and lapsing they may have been, but most were still 'cultural' Catholics and for three days they lived in the moment as the Pope's affirmative presence swathed the land with an almost hysterical feel-good factor, however fleeting.

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