Sunday 18 August 2019

A 'foggy, boggy' airport that warrants its Western wings

Monsignor James Horan on the runway at Knock Airport in 1986
Monsignor James Horan on the runway at Knock Airport in 1986
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

I was on the first scheduled flight from Dublin to Knock Airport on May 30, 1986 - but because of dense fog we landed in Shannon and were then brought by bus on a torturous route through Clare, Galway and eventually Mayo, arriving after the airport had been officially opened by Charles J. Haughey, then leader of the opposition.

The prediction by the then transport minister, Fine Gael's Jim Mitchell, that the airport was sited "high on a foggy, boggy hill" and distant from any town of significant size seemed so true that day...but it was only the beginning.

The State Papers for 1986 have just been released and looking back at the airport that lumbered into existence 30 years ago near Charlestown it is difficult to get a sense of the battles - political, social and financial - that were fought over that long strip of tarmac in what many Dubliners regarded as "the middle of nowhere".

The airport seemed to define people, for it was Charlie Haughey and Fianna Fáil - bad. Against it was Garrett FitzGerald and the coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour - good. In the middle ground were the majority, sceptical about such a massive project in a remote part of Ireland and nonplussed at the massive financial costs involved, most of which were borne by the taxpayer.

But some people were aware of the gritty determination of Monsignor James Horan, parish priest of Knock. Band managers, whose acts were booked to perform at various fundraising functions at Knock for years before the airport was ever heard of, knew that unless you were very wily in dealing with this country priest he would end up with most of the takings. He wasn't popular in the entertainment business, but he was respected.

"Now everyone is happy and the miracle it's complete/Father Horan's had his auld runway - and its 18,000 feet," sang Christy Moore, reflecting the controversy that surrounded this extraordinary venture.

Ireland in 1980, when it was first mooted, was a different country. Unemployment was endemic; the only road of any significance was a 'dual carriageway' between Dublin and Naas. It cost a small fortune to fly to London with Aer Lingus or British Airways, which maintained a monopoly on the routes out of Dublin.

It was one of the reasons Fr Horan wanted his airport - he wanted ordinary Irish emigrants to be able to come back to their home towns in the west for a holiday, or be brought back in coffins after their death, to be buried in their native soil. But he didn't want just any old airport, he wanted an international airport.

Born in Partree, Co Mayo in 1912 the Monsignor became parish priest of the small village of Knock in 1987, which he transformed, to cash in religiously and financially, on the reported apparition of the Virgin Mary near the village in 1879. Getting Pope John Paul to Knock during his Irish visit was the start of "something big" and would enhance the 'pilgrimage traffic' and make an airport viable.

What was called Connaught Regional Airport got funding from the Fianna Fáil government of Mr Haughey and millions of taxpayer's money was poured into the venture. But with the political upheavals of 1981, Mr FitzGerald became Taoiseach and the funding tap was turned off in dramatic fashion.

"An effective local airport could have been constructed closer to Castlebar for about £3m at that time," wrote Barry Desmond, a minister in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in his memoirs. "Local fawning politicians, particularly from Fianna Fáil, were terrified about crossing him (Horan). I was not impressed.

"At least £6m of exchequer monies were wasted. I was, of course, lashed by Charlie and his Mayo cohorts."

Monsignor Horan would later send a postcard to Mr Desmond as the airport was completed saying: 'Barry - I prayed for you at Knock.'

When the government funding ended, the Monsignor took on the task of raising the balance himself. There were hair-raising stories of car racing on the long strip of tarmac and legend has it that at least one American plane filled with GIs on its way to the Iraq war landed on the strip when it ran out of fuel - and it was sent on its way with the Irish authorities none the wiser.

That day in May, 1986 we had a grand lunch in the parochial house with Mr Haughey as the guest of honour.

It was a cause of huge celebration, even if nobody knew how travellers landing at the airstrip and its small shed-like terminal building, would be able to get to Knock or any other town in the west of Ireland, as there was little or no public transport at the time.

The Monsignor died three months after the official opening while on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The airport was renamed in his honour, it later became Knock International Airport and 10 years ago it was renamed Ireland West Airport, Knock.

As with most successful enterprises timing was perfect. Ryanair was launched some months later and the era of cheap air travel became a reality.

Scheduled flights to various airports, pilgrimage travel and later sun and skiing holidays became part of its schedule.

Last year, 665,558 passengers passed through Knock airport going to London and other British destinations, with holiday flights to Lanzarote and Faro making up the international component of its itinerary.

It employs 115 people and has a wage bill of over €4m. But it also receives government grants of about €18m a year.

The taxpayer is still largely footing the bill for one of the most controversial public projects since the Ardnacrusha dam.

But the west of Ireland got an international airport - and more to the point, they've held on to it.

The strip of tarmac on a 'foggy, boggy hill' has linked the green fields of the west of Ireland with the streets of London.

And for some of its detractors, Ralph McTells' words might be appropriate: 'I'll show you something to make you change your mind.'

Irish Independent

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