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What was it that moved a nation?


Crowds gather for Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland

Crowds gather for Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland

Crowds gather for Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland

In the days when teaching was done through rote and punition, schoolboys like me learned to write Irish essays to a formula. A classic opening was "D'éirigh mé go moch ar maidin...'' as the account of an event should always begin with an excited early riser looking forward to a trip to the creamery or the mart (most of our teachers, clerical or otherwise, were country lads).

But on September 29, 1979, those of us who were covering the visit of Pope John Paul, and in my case the Pontiff's first Mass on Irish soil, certainly were up "go moch" - in fact up with the lark, in the dark, and heading for the park. At the time, I was reporter for the Irish Press group. Religious correspondents, I was sure, would have a moment in the sun unrivalled since 1968 and the heady days of Humanae Vitae.

The descent on the Phoenix Park was planned with what passes among journalists for military precision. We piled into the company's cars (which frequently smelled of the previous night's chips) and we even had some two-way radios which were probably illegal for, in those days, you could have your collar felt for possessing a wireless transmitting apparatus without a licence. And, of course, this was a very long time indeed before mobile phones.

It occurred to me when we arrived that we could have borrowed a couple of boy scouts to do semaphore for us; the park was crowded with them. But then who'd have noticed a set of flags waving in a place festooned with flags, predominantly the Pope's yellow and white.

And while with no smartphones and there could be no selfies, each of us walked around with a large sickly green accreditation badge with our pictures on it, issued by the Catholic Press Office. Our names and media organisations were handwritten, probably by a scribe filling a rush order. We carried them slung around our necks on a yellow cord.

Sunrise was at 7.23 that morning but we were well on the way long before that. We were not alone. There was a tide of people in the still-dark streets, whole families laden with food, drink, raincoats, umbrellas, babies, the tottering infirm, and of course the folding seats that became known as Papal Chairs and survived for many years after. Some people still have them. Some people may actually revere them now John Paul is a saint. The supplier of these chairs is unknown to me, but whoever it was probably went off and bought an island like the guy in the current Lotto ad.

Of all the reporters who spilled like chips out of the chip-smelling press cars, my job was seen as the easiest. I was writing "colour" which, as far as news reporters were concerned, meant wandering about in some kind of dream, not actually bothering to gather facts, and rambling back at some stage to produce something emotive, observational and almost entirely without real substance as far as they were concerned. "A written piece" as one of the group's news editors was fond of describing such essays.

I did wander about, up and around the base of the Papal Cross, past the signs saying 'Priests Vesting' and 'Ciboria'. It was difficult not to be impressed by the thought and the work that had gone into the site, by its symmetry, its scale and its aesthetic simplicity. It was a windy morning and, flanking the giant cross above the raised Mass pavilion, tall banners snapped and strained at their moorings, tinkling like a marina on a gusty day.

But where the ground sloped away towards the Liffey and the city, something even more impressive and entirely strange was happening. The corrals as they were called (a name not universally appreciated) were filling up. There were still empty spaces but the apparently endless tide of people we had seen in the streets was coming in on the full, flowing into the places allotted to them, settling themselves down on the papal chairs, passing out food. Until, in the end, observable individual actions disappeared in the mass of the enormous crowd. Somewhere among them, the wife I had married just two months before was there with friends and their papal chairs and their lunches.

And then a little before 10am, came the warm-up act. The Air Lingus 747 St Patrick carrying the Pope drifted almost lazily across the sky towards Dublin Airport with Air Corps Fouga jets flying a cruciform escort. The multitude below became a field of yellow and white, tiny flags waving like the first flowers of spring on an autumn morning.

The dignitaries - no corrals for them - were filling the best seats. But these were simple affairs too: newly-made, backless wooden benches. Prominent in the full uniform of a Knight of St Gregory, was the birdlike Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan who had become something of a figure of fun for his having declared there was no sex in Ireland before television. Clearly the award, bestowed upon him by John Paul the year before, wasn't for this piece of nonsense, and surely not for his alarming speech in the Dáil in 1943 which, by any standards, was grossly anti-Semitic.

There were white-robed priests in vast numbers sitting on these benches too. Hundreds of earthenware bowls (those ciboria) which would be used for distributing Communion were ranged on tables before them. And there were bishops in nodding mitres. I'd never seen so many religious in one place at the same time, and I never will again.

An explosion of sound. Pope John Paul appeared, his burly four-square figure not that of an ascetic. The first deep-voiced heavily accented words rolled out over the vast crowd. Tides of emotion and adulation seemed to surge and break against the raised platform. I was no more than a hundred feet from the altar and wondering how to get a handle on this, how to describe or explain what was taking place. I had, after all, stopped going to Mass when I was schoolboy. The strictures of the Catholic Church, so burdensome to many, had played little part in my adult life or the life of my friends. I felt I didn't belong, but yet I did, because it was impossible to escape the history of it all, or evade the familiarity and power of the liturgy.

What was it that moved the more than one million people to march out before dawn to see this man? Pure religious fervour? That was too easy an explanation.

Back in our old office on Burgh Quay, I sat at one of the battered typewriters and clattered out a phrase from the Gospel of St Matthew that had come into my head as I walked from the press centre in Dublin Castle. "What went ye out to see? A reed shaken in the wind? A man clothed in soft garments?'' And took it from there.

All those centuries of oppression, suppression, imagining and hope. Wine from the Royal Pope. The epochal plantations of the Tudors. The 600 young Papal soldiers butchered at Smerwick by Walter Raleigh after they'd surrendered. The Pope's man, Archbishop Rinuccini, leading the Confederation of Kilkenny in which armed and determined Irish Catholics declared themselves Hiberni Unanimes. Defeat and defeat again. Dungeon, fire and sword. The Penal Laws, the hunted priests, all the grim baggage that assisted the rise of a comfortable, autocratic clergy after Catholic Emancipation.

A new aristocracy arose, often as harsh as the foreigner in its desire to control and constrain the lives of the people. Many embraced it. But many, by the 1970s, were sensitive and resentful of this assumption of power long before the clerical sexual abuse scandals emerged in the 1990s, along with all the other dark institutional secrets born in the foetid atmosphere of a confessional state.

But in 1979, the Pope's visit was about celebrating more comfortable aspects of history: endurance, indomitability, fidelity and survival. The same emotions must have run through the huge crowds celebrating the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 when the new state erupted in Catholic fervour for the visit of the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri.

That was then. And 1979 was then. The Papal visit came towards the end of a decade of murder and mayhem, much of it sectarian, on this island. Because of it, the Pope, was unable to visit the North. But on that day, in Dublin as the Popemobile threaded its way through the adulatory crowds in their corrals, John Paul must have thought the Republic was all sewn up.

Indo Review